As the fog lifts from the priorities of the last few weeks, commenters are beginning to talk about the Localism Bill, introduced by Eric Pickles and Vince Cable last December and meant to become law later in the year. It’s based on a hotch-potch of buzzwords and unquantifiable aspirational-speak. The govt’s guide to the bill speaks of the burden of bureaucracy, empowering communities, increasing local control of public finance, diversifying the supply of public services, opening up government to public scrutiny, and strengthening accountability to local people.
Simon Jenkins dealt with the changes to planning laws in the Guardian last week. He calls Pickles and Cable “mere purveyors of building plots to the capitalist classes” in response to surrendering the planning procedure, meant to safeguard the long-term use of land, to the altar of national economic policy and business. Spot any local empowerment there? Maybe if you’re one of the ‘locals’ on the business forums that will guide development strategies you will, but everyone else will feel emphatically not empowered.
Then there’s the Community Infrastructure Levy, which is meant to replace the planning obligations system , by which developers contribute funding for infrastructure, claimed to be often slow and unpredictable, and based on ad hoc negotiations conducted in private. It’s unfair, the reasoning goes, that residential developers have to contribute to infrastructure far more often than developers of offices. The bill proposes that the already-introduced Levy, which sets a standard charge to be paid by developers, be altered to reduce the ability of the independent examiner to tell councils what to do, and “make it more localist”. But the ultimate payer of the Levy won’t be the developers at all. It is freely stated in the Impact Assesssment that those selling land for development will have to reduce their price to pay for the Levy, as developers aren’t ‘price-makers’, and so, by implication, are unable to alter their own prices and remain competitive. It’s another gift to property developers at the expense of someone else. In addition there will be an obligation for councils to use funds locally where the building takes place. So they will be unable to use funds raised from building work in one part of a council area, to pay for infrastructure in another. If you don’t live near a building site don’t expect potholes filled or leaky pipes replaced.
The bill also allows for the eviction of social tenants after two years tenancy, supposedly under exceptional circumstances without defining what those circumstances are. Indeed, social landlords are allowed to do the defining of such circumstances themselves. The ending of lifetime tenancies is supposed to be about allowing for changes of circumstances, for growing families trapped in cramped conditions while older ones rattle around properties now too big for them. Is it so bad for older people to have a spare room? They come in handy when the grandkids come to stay. The policy ignores the fact that social tenants want to live in a home, not a temporarily rented safety net. A home they can make their own without fearing they’ll lose it in a couple of years through no fault of their own. It isn’t only those first-time buyers everyone worries about so much who want some security. What of the Right to Buy anyway? A social tenant has a right to buy their house but not to live in it if they choose not to? The policy has always been a nonsense but it’s starting to tie itself in knots.
Proposals to allow councils to keep business rates generated locally, rather than have them go into a central pot for later allocation to councils, will be an obvious problem for councils in poorer areas which are less attractive to businesses. Rich councils will be able to use surplus to charge new businesses coming to their area nothing to attract them in, resulting in a skewed unfair market and more inequality. Businesses should be encouraged to do the opposite and go to areas which need an economic boost. In addition, poor areas will see personal council tax rise with the opposite true in areas with lots of businesses paying the highest rates, that is in the richest central areas of our capital in particular.
“Voluntary and Community Sector bodies” will have a right to be able to bid to run a public service under this bill. Choice in public service provision in other words. Who knows which bodies will end up having that right? It seems to have less to do with the Big Society and more with economic and political dogma, the introduction of markets into all areas of life, and the reduction of public sector employment.
Possibly the most weasel-worded proposal involves what is introduced as the Community Right to Buy. Communities will be given the time to explore the more viable business models unavailable to the private and public sectors and save valued local amenities from going to the wall. What this means however, is that the government is simultaneously intending to remove funding from valued community assets while expecting local people to take the strain. Make no mistake, the “more viable business models” are doing things without financial reward. There are only so many people around who can volunteer to give their time unpaid to run a vital full-time service.
This isn’t about empowering local communities or utilising the efficiencies of the market, it’s about slashing public services. Reducing the burden of bureaucracy has the added benefit of allowing the construction industry to run roughshod over the objections of everyone else and give their profits a boost. Increasing local control of public finances is likely to plunge the most needy areas of the country into greater financial peril. This horrible, cynical bill deserves to disappear without trace.