Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, gave evidence this week to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee. A thoroughly depressing session it was too.
A range of subjects was covered. But the deliberations had a certain rhythm. “Would the Secretary of State agree that the answer to the problem of x is more public spending/more regulation/another layer of Government?” “Absolutely,” the Secretary of State would reply. Clive Betts, the Labour MP for Sheffield South East and the Committee’s Chairman, presided with a bewildered grin. He couldn’t believe his luck. The Labour Party had been trounced at the last General Election. The country is no longer shackled by the EU. Yet Government policy is more socialist than ever. All that was left for Betts to do was occasionally murmur: “Thank you for that reassurance, Secretary of State.” Or: “That’s helpful, Secretary of State.”
One issue that cropped up was where the revenue from Business Rates should go. The approach had been to move towards Business Rates “retention”. This would mean that a local authority keeps the money it raises. This would give it a motive to encourage economic growth. Poorer areas would have an incentive to become centres of enterprise. For instance, by selling surplus municipal land and buildings to enable development. Or making planning and licensing process quicker, simpler, and less onerous, and thus less of a barrier to new firms. Then, with the extra revenue from Business Rates there would be an incentive to spend it effectively, in a way that would attract more entrepreneurs – improving the roads and smartening up the environment. A clear illustration of levelling up.
Gove seemed keen to shelve all that. (“It is important that we ca’ canny.”) The focus was more on redistribution of wealth, a zero sum game. Not on wealth creation. The successful will be punished with money taken from them. The poor areas will remain supplicants. The council bureaucrats will be secure in their six figure salaries – on the strict understanding that the communities they are responsible for remain poor. Gove calls this way of treating Business Rates revenue “redistributing money to those who need it most.” Another way of describing it would be levelling down. Levelling up would mean pressing ahead with Business Rates retention and also dealing with some of the other perverse council funding arrangements which penalise towns with ambition.
But tarry a while. The session was not entirely devoted to dirigiste gushing. Relief from the gloom came in the form of a query from Matt Vickers, the Conservative MP for Stockton South:
“What is your view on the role of street votes in any future planning Bill?”
“I love the idea.”
Very welcome. So often localism is defined as giving power to local authorities. But a far better application is taking power from local authorities and passing it down to local communities.
Create Streets proposed that allowing mansard roofs would be a reasonable issue for street votes. There could be certain safeguards – that a clear majority is required, that conditions on design and materials must be met to ensure that the beauty of the street is enhanced rather than diminished. But the increase in the housing supply could be significant – whether easing overcrowding for families or allowing landlords to rent out an extra room. Another point is that adapting, extending or converting an existing building has a much lower carbon footprint than building something new. So it is an eco-friendly means to provide more housing.
So why have the local authorities not got on with it? A lot of them have passed motions declaring a “climate emergency.” Yet I do not know of a single one that has eased planning restrictions in ways that would provide a practical benefit.
Why do councils feel they must wait to be forced to do it? They could allow a street vote and then issue a permitted development order honouring the result.
The timidity is a shame. But Gove could always give them a nudge in advance of the legislation. A pilot scheme could be announced. Some funding to help local authorities with promotion and legal technicalties. Then when the legislation is brought in, the benefit of such experience could allow for better drafting.