‘Localisation’ is an expensive path to greater political corruption
The last time the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas played a part in national debate was in the 17th century, when — recent studies suggest — locals carved a rude chalk parody of Oliver Cromwell into a hillside. It failed to unsettle Cromwell, but the village may yet be the nemesis of another Oliver: Oliver Letwin, architect of the government’s pet policy of localism.
Cerne Abbas is one of 17 communities selected by the Department for Communities and Local Government to prepare a ‘neighbourhood plan’. This, theoretically, is the opposite of Labour’s top-down approach in which government planners in Whitehall or faceless and unelected ‘regional assemblies’ decided how land should be developed. The idea is that the community sits down and decides how many homes it wants built, how many should be affordable, and where they should go. So long as the plan is approved by 51 per cent of voters in a local referendum and does not break national and local planning policy, the local council would be obliged to follow it in making planning decisions.
All this stems from the philosophy of Letwin, who besides being Cabinet Office minister is the local MP. Trust Nimbys to take decisions, goes the theory, and they will turn out not to be Nimbys at all: they will welcome development so long as they feel in control. Allow more decisions to be made locally and you won’t need the legions of remote quangos through which Labour governed the country: local government means less government.
But does anyone really think a majority of residents in a typical Home Counties village will vote for a social housing estate in their backyard? Some neighbourhood plans will support development, but these are more likely to be in suburbia where residents have spotted a chance to flog off their long gardens for blocks of flats — the ‘garden-grabbing’ that the government once sought to prevent.
As for the ‘less government’ part of the theory, neighbourhood plans would in fact appear to constitute an extra and extremely expensive tier of government. In common with the 16 other communities in the pilot scheme, Cerne Abbas has been given £20,000 to employ the lawyers and planning consultants which the ministry believes will be necessary to produce a legally watertight plan. That is for a village of 250 households whose parish council currently spends £12,000 a year. For the pilot scheme, central government is stumping up the cash, but if neighbourhood plans becomes a nationwide policy, communities will pay for their own. It is all very nice getting together in the village hall to draw some lines on a map, but would you pay nearly £100 in extra council tax for the privilege?
That localism carries a hefty price tag seems not to have occurred to the policy’s architects. Parish and town councils do not cost a great deal now, but that is because they have few powers and responsibilities, and rarely hold elections. For a parish of 100 households, an election can add £20 per household to council tax. If every village or every neighbourhood had to police its own planning regime, organise its own bin collections and resurface its own roads, then without economies of scale the costs would inevitably rise.
But cost isn’t the only objection. By delegating planning powers to too local a level the government risks creating a huge machine for corruption. The planning system can raise the value of agricultural land from £5,000 an acre to £1 million an acre or more at the stroke of a pen. Jim Speechley, former Conservative leader of Lincolnshire County Council, was caught out in 2004 trying to redraw the line of a bypass so that a four-acre field he owned would become development land, rising in value from £17,000 to £375,000. If planning decisions were to be made at parish or neighbourhood level we would end up with an entire countryside of South Ridings — councillors, like those in the recent BBC drama, who stand for election merely to line their own pockets with the proceeds of their decisions.
To make matters worse, the government has plans to abolish the Standards Board for England, the body set up by Labour to police the activities of councillors. While the government also wants to make it a criminal offence for councillors to fail to disclose personal interests when making planning decisions, this will be little defence against corruption — in many villages it would be impossible to find genuinely disinterested people because virtually everyone knows everyone else.
Localism is one of those political ideas which sounds vaguely virtuous, especially to an opposition party with a large number of councillors. But given the expense it will create and the corruption that it will encourage it is easy to wonder whether we are no better governed at arm’s length by anonymous officials in remote offices.