This is entry number 210, first published on 31 January 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today's entry reports on the Localism Bill Committee's four evidence-gathering sessions.

On Tuesday and Thursday last week, the Localism Bill Committee of the House of Commons asked a lot of questions (286) of a number of witnesses (45) about the Bill. The Hansard reports of the four (morning and afternoon) sessions can be found here: session 1 session 2 session 3 session 4, but here are some of the themes that emerged.

Purpose of the Bill

Those representing voluntary groups and parish councils were most in favour of the Bill, two professors were most against it, saying it should be called the Centralism Bill and would achieve the exact opposite of what it set out to do. Neil McInroy of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies made several insightful comments including that the Bill may well be sufficiently radical as to have unintended consequences.

The figure of 142, or sometimes 127, reserved powers for the government was oft quoted. Greg Clark said in response that the powers would be examined one by one during the committee stage, and that in fact some were to allow further flexibility, such as to relax restrictions on the general power of competence, and to waive the requirement for a referendum when council taxes needed to be raised in an emergency.

Another issue that was raised more than once was the tension between the powers being given to local government in the Bill and the powers being given to bodies outside local government such as community groups, or as it was sometimes put, representative democracy versus participative democracy. One professor suggested that local authorities should be given a duty to develop community empowerment and involvement, rather than the Bill giving powers to 'any old group'.

Neighbourhood planning

There was concern that the power to create neighbourhood plans was being given to potentially very small groups - only three people needing to live in the local area. Witnesses were concerned that these would not be accountable, and would not have to declare interests. One witness was worried that neighbourhood areas might overlap and conflict with each other.

There was confusion as to the relationshoip between neighbourhood planning and local authority plans - whether the former could go against the latter - some witnesses saying that they could not (which would seem to defeat the concept of localism), and others being not so sure.

Business organisations wanted businesses to be able to consitute neighbourhood forums and do their own neighbourhood planning, so that they could get on with developing business parks, for example.

General power of competence

The general power for local authorities to do anything that individuals normally do attracted a lot of comment. Most of it was that the power was still too restricted. Some said that the criminal law should be the only thing stopping councils doing anything at all, and that the government should not need to keep checks on the power. The British Chambers of Commerce were concerned that the power could crowd out private enterprise.

Infrastructure planning

Business groups were worried about uncertainty introduced by changes to the Planning Act regime that they were only just getting used to.

Liz Peace of the British Property Federation thought that the three month limit for ministerial decisions should not be able to be extended, to give more certainty to the business community.

Duty to co-operate and the abolition of regional strategies

There was a considerable party political battle about what policies would produce more house building, without much resolution. None of the witnesses was prepared to say explicitly that they supported keeping regional strategies, but some did seem to imply that was their view. The housebuilders said that the change to localism could delay house-building by a year or two, and take six or seven years to get back to pre-recession levels.

There was a lot of debate on the duty in the Bill for local (and eventually other) authorities to co-operate on sustainable development. This was felt by most to be an inadequate substitute for strategic planning. As the eloquent Hugh Ellis of the Town and Country Planning Association put it, abolishing regional strategies did not get rid of issues at a strategic level, such as climate change and housing.

One suggestion that gained some currency is that Local Enterprise Partnerships, the ad hoc bodies not mentioned in the Bill but set up to replace regional development agencies, should be charged with the policing of the duty to co-operate.

EU fines

The ability for the government to pass fines imposed by the European Court of Justice down to local authorities was resisted. It was thought that someone should arbitrate on who was to blame and in what proportion, and apportion the fine accordingly.

Community right to challenge

This is where a community group can challenge the provision of a service by or on behalf of a local authority and kick off a procurement exercise. Some witnesses noted that if a community group launches a challenge, it may well not win the subsequent procurement exercise, which will have to be open (although the procurement need not be 100% decided on cost, but in Hackney they had been warned off only accepting bids that offered a 'London living wage'). Others were concerned about whether there would be any control over the size of the service that was challenged.

One witness suggestd that this should be extended to central government services as well.

List of assets of community value

Also known inaccurately as the 'community right to buy', this is where land can be put on a list kept by a local authority of assets of community value, which delays sale of the land until a community group has time to say it is interested in bidding.

This attracted a fair amount of criticism (and fundamental objection from the Country Landowners' Association), on the grounds that it would be used as an anti-development tool, and that it affected people's rights to deal in their own property as they wished. On the other hand, one witness suggested that local authorities should develop policies against the change of use of land on the list.

Adrian Penfold of British Land and his eponymous review of non-planning permissions said that this right could be a 'tank trap' that could thwart development at the last minute. He thought there should be restrictions on when it could be exercised, and not be an additional post-planning permission hurdle.

Duty of pre-application consultation

The concept of statutory consultation before an application is made is extended from major infrastructure projects by the Bill, although the scope of the extension is not yet known. There was concern that the threshold would be too low, and companies would be having to consult on 'hanging baskets'. There was also concern about the area across which consultation would be necessary for larger projects.

Local referendums

Sir Simon Milton, one of Boris Johnson's deputies, said that to hold a referendum that did not already coincide with an election in London would cost about £11m, 15% of the Greateer London Authority's annual budget. In other words, local referendums were rather expensive to hold.

Community infrastructure levy

There was some concern from the business community that this would be set too high and discourage development.

Mayoral development corporations

Sir Simon also said that the power to create mayoral development corporations in London was really only in relation to the Olympic Park, but that the power had been made general to avoid the Bill becoming hybrid (a technical issue about Bills that I know far too much about that would allow outside bodies to object to it as for the Crossrail Bill).

Things not in the Bill

All those on the development side did not wish there to be an ability to challenge the grant of planning permission (the so-called third party right of appeal), which is indeed not in the BIll. Some environmental groups thought it should, however, in limited circumstances such as when the approval went against the local plan.

Planning Minister Greg Clark said that the right had not been introduced since it would be the community appealing against the policies in the plan it had developed, although that does not answer the environmental groups' point.

Another matter not in the Bill that was called for was a presumption in favour of sustainable development, although I suspect there were different interpretations of what this would mean. Minister Bob Neill said that was best left to policy and guidance rather than statute. Apparently the forthcoming national planning policy framework will say more.

The business community wanted to keep a uniform business rate across the country and did not want to see local authorities being able to set their own levels.

Analogy of the day: making a planning application was like hitting a golf ball - it was only a small moment of the whole process that went before it of stance, swing, etc.

The committee will start its line-by-line examination of the Bill tomorrow. Not that many amendments have been tabled, but at least there is more than one.