Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Localism Bill – Second Reading

Yesterday’s Second Reading debate in the Commons was profoundly unenlightening, although I suppose one should not be surprised.

One of the best contributions to the debate was from Nick Raynsford, who pointed out that the drafting of the Bill, with its countless clauses and schedules, is very unhelpful to the government’s hope of winning support for it. The Bill’s drafting, he said, is overwhelmingly by way of amendment to other legislation, and with the absence of detailed provision in many of its clauses, which, we are told, will be supplemented by regulations, so that it makes it difficult to have a full feel for what exactly the Government intends. One can understand their aspirations, but what will be the detailed implications? That is far from clear, and inevitably lots of suspicions abound that, while their intentions may be good, the outcomes will not be.

Whether we are talking about how neighbourhood plans will be shaped, he continued, or how the new insecure tenancies that the Government are imposing on social housing will operate, we do not know the full implications because no provisions have been published, so of course we do not know what the details will be. That suggests a Bill put together in a hurry, without adequate consultation or proper consideration of some of its provisions. If ever a measure cried out for pre-legislative scrutiny, this is it, he said. It is a tragedy that it is being rushed through without proper consideration of its detailed implications and of how the Government's localist intentions will work in practice.

The lack of certainty over the Government's plans and over the effect of the Bill is obvious throughout, Raynsford said. On the theme of localism itself, the Government have put an emphasis on neighbourhoods. That might imply a commitment to neighbourhood decision making, or to devolution to a local authority or, in London, to the Mayor, but what happens if those bodies come into conflict? What happens if the Mayor pursues an objective with which the borough council or the local neighbourhood does not agree? There is the added problem that in areas without parish councils the neighbourhood forum that may come into existence under the Bill will not have a recognised form of democratic accountability. Who will prevail when there is a conflict between the various bodies?

Raynsford said that some provisions in the Bill are slightly bonkers, but others are seriously damaging. The housing and planning provisions will destabilise the planning and housing process at a time when, above all, we need confidence and certainty to get the new homes that we need. The housing market was badly hit by the recession and recovered strongly in early 2010, but the Government's maladroit and unlawful interference in the planning system has undermined that confidence. The market is now tottering along on the bottom, there is no confidence, and millions of people know that the prospects of getting a decent home at a price within their means are terribly short. The Bill's ill-considered and untested changes to the planning regime will make an already bad situation worse.

As one Labour member put it later in the debate, it seems almost an exaggeration to call the Localism Bill a Bill. It is really 400 pages of the Secretary of State's incoherent streams of consciousness, largely unconnected and all focused on different parts of local government legislation. In so much as it is a Bill, it is a sham.

A number of members understandably expressed concerns about the effect the Bill will have on house building. Even a Conservative member, Peter Aldous (Waveney), expressed some misgivings about the Bill. For neighbourhood planning to be successful, he said, there is a need for capacity building in neighbourhoods and for communities to have access to advice, training and funding. With that in mind, the ending of Planning Aid this March appears short-sighted, he observed, and asked if consideration could be given either to reviewing that decision or to putting new arrangements in place. He also felt that it is important to ensure that all communities are able to participate, not just a few, so he called for further information on how neighbourhood planning will be promoted in those deprived areas where it is needed most.

In summing up the debate for the opposition, Barbara Keeley pointed out that although the Bill aims to allow communities a say on developments in their area through the planning system, those measures are particularly poorly thought through. She drew attention to the views of the RTPI, which has observed that work is needed on the Bill "to remove those barriers in its drafting that deaden its effectiveness and hinder the ability of Government to achieve its own objectives" and that "the lack of a coherent strategic planning system combined with the complexity of the neighbourhood planning system" that the Bill proposes will "hinder...economic recovery...addressing climate change and enhancing the environment".

It comes as no surprise, of course, that the Bill received a Second Reading by 332 votes to 228.

As previously predicted, the Committee Stage of the Bill will be dealt with in a Public Bill Committee. A timetable (‘guillotine’) motion was passed which requires the Committee Stage to be terminated on Thursday 10 March. Any clauses not reached by that time simply won’t get discussed.

[Update (21 Jan): The Commons Committee Stage will start on Tuedsay 25 January.]


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