Will Norwich benefit from localism bill?
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The implications of the Localism Bill are huge - it will apparently give community groups the chance to run services such as schools and libraries, make council spending more transparent and revamp the planning system to give local people more control over developments.
That’s according to communities secretary Eric Pickles, who says the bill, which had its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday, will shift power from central government into the hands of individuals, communities and councils around England.
Much of the focus has fallen on what it means in terms of planning, with the government keen to hail the bill as putting planning power in the hands of local communities.
Under the terms of the bill, local communities can propose development which will go to a referendum and, if 50pc vote in favour, permission will be granted, so long as certain minimum requirements are met.
But critics have questioned whether that will lead to more development – or whether it will constrict it – as people most affected by a development, and therefore more likely to take time to vote on it, are most likely to say no.
And the Campaign to Protect Rural England has said the bill is a missed opportunity for a new community right to appeal – which could be a useful “check” against companies which return with application after application until their plans get through – as Tesco did in Unthank Road, despite local opposition.
Ian Shepherd, from the Norfolk branch of the CPRE, said: “The Localism Bill is a bit of a mixed bag. Against a backdrop of a very top-heavy and complicated planning system, you might think getting away from that would be a good thing. But I have been around long enough to realise that there is a danger from going from what we have got and out the other side without recognising that there are some parts of the system which do work. It might be a much simpler system, but it might be too loose. You might end up with a lot more say from communities on the smaller decisions, but you might also get major decisions being taken because the bigger boys are promising community benefits.”
The bill also introduces “neighbourhood plans”, which will see parish councils come together to decide where new shops, offices or homes should go and what green spaces to protect – which is then voted on by local people in local referendums.
Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland District Council, which has already received interest from a number of parish councils interested in piloting neighbourhood plans, said: “There are things in the Localism Bill which are to be welcomed. Getting rid of the top down housing targets is a good thing, but because they are keeping the need for a five-year land supply, it means that nobody can walk away from development.
“It will make developers work more closely with the community and with councils and them engaging at an earlier stage is to be welcomed.”
But Alan Waters, cabinet member for resources, performance and shared services at City Hall, said that if you scratch beneath the surface of the bill it is less about people power and more about giving Whitehall more control. He said: “In terms of community groups of neighbourhood involvement and getting them to run services, what seems a superficially easy process would actually be very complicated, drawn-out and expensive process.
“The big winners could be big private companies who want to take on those services.”
He said there were also ‘Henry VIII clauses’ in the bill, which he said would allow Eric Pickles to grant himself new powers without need for debate, such as the power to decide what authority’s council tax should be.
Mr Waters said: “I think that is taking power away from local communities. Whatever it says about people power, what the bill is really about is breaking up and weakening local councils.”
One part of the bill which, on the face of it, might make a big difference in Norwich is that pubs can be nominated and put on a ‘local assets’ list under a new community ‘right to buy’ measure.
That means local communities can join forces to come up with plans and raise money to retain pubs threatened with closure or sale.
But in the cold light of day, is that really going to happen? As Norwich and Norfolk CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), has pointed out, people might be strongly opposed to their local pub vanishing, but it doesn’t mean they will have the know-how or the commitment to run it themselves.
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