The Localism Bill has begun its passage through Parliament. It is intended to implement the Government’s decentralisation policies, with the aim of passing more power to local communities. The provisions contained in the Bill will make major reforms to local government, social housing and the planning system, although much of the detail remains to be dealt with in regulations.

Regional Strategies

The Bill abolishes Regional Strategies, leaving it to each local planning authority to decide its own priorities. However, the Bill also imposes a new duty on local planning authorities to co-operate with each other in preparing local development documents, thereby retaining at least an element of coordination. It remains to be seen whether the new duty will be enough to prevent difficulties caused by the conflicting policies of different authorities.

Neighbourhood Planning

At the heart of the Government’s localism policy is a radical new system of planning in relation to local areas to be designated as “neighbourhood areas”.

The Bill gives rights to parish councils or, in areas without parish councils, new bodies to be known as neighbourhood forums to ask the local planning authority to make a “neighbourhood development plan”, which will set out policies for the development and use of land in a neighbourhood area, and “neighbourhood development orders”, which will grant planning permission for certain development in a particular neighbourhood area. An order may relate to a particular site or to the whole or part of the neighbourhood area. An independent examiner will decide whether a proposed plan or order should be put to a referendum and if the vote is in favour then the plan or order must be made, unless it would be incompatible with an EU obligation or a right under the European Convention on Human Rights.

One type of neighbourhood development order will be a “community right to build order”, which will permit specific development by a community organisation.

It is intended that the cost of the system will be paid for by imposing a charge on the development authorised, which will be payable when the development commences. It is unlikely, though, that the full cost could be recovered in that way.

There will also be a new obligation to consult local communities before submitting a planning application for certain developments. This is likely to apply only to large developments involving more than 200 residential units or 10,000 square metres of new floorspace.

These new rights certainly deliver local democracy, but they also carry the seeds of a “nimby charter” which may frustrate development.

Community Infrastructure Levy

The Community Infrastructure Levy is to be retained but with some modifications. Click here for our detailed update on the Levy as introduced in April (http:// www.dechert.com/library/FRE-03-10-SA-Community_ Infrastructure_Levy.pdf). The Bill gives local authorities greater control over the rates set, provides for regulations to require funds raised by the Levy to be passed to local bodies to be spent on infrastructure, and clarifies that the Levy may be spent on the ongoing costs of infrastructure as well as initial costs. These changes appear to be tinkering with the detail rather than radical reform of the Levy, but we will know more when the regulations are available.

Stronger Enforcement Powers

The Bill closes some loopholes by allowing local planning authorities to decline to determine a planning application for development which is subject to an enforcement notice, allowing enforcement action outside the four year time limit where illegal development has been deliberately concealed, increasing financial penalties for certain planning offences and increasing powers to deal with graffiti and fly-posting.

Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects

The previous Government introduced a separate system of development consent for major infrastructure projects in an attempt to streamline the process. The Bill retains the main structure of the system but introduces a number of significant modifications. The Infrastructure Planning Commission is to be abolished, responsibility for approval of national policy statements will lie with Parliament and applications for consent will be decided by ministers.

General Power of Competence

The Bill makes a major change to the powers of local authorities. It will introduce a general power of competence—a local authority will have power to do anything that individuals generally may do. That includes doing things for a commercial purpose and whether or not for the benefit of the authority or the residents of its area. However, the general power will be subject to any specific statutory limitations, whether imposed before or after the Bill is passed, although the Secretary of State is to have a wide power to amend or repeal a statutory provision which restricts the general power. Where the authority acts for a commercial purpose it is required to do so through a company.

Assets of Community Value

The Bill includes a right for “community interest groups” to bid to buy “assets of community value” when they are to be disposed of. Local authorities will be required to compile a list of assets of community value and to consider “community nominations” for inclusion on the list. A proposed disposal of a listed asset with vacant possession will have to be notified to the local authority and may not go ahead for a specified period, to give community groups the opportunity to bid. Much of the detail of this right remains to be prescribed by regulations, including, in particular, the definition of “community value”, the length of the period during which it will not be possible to dispose of the asset and arrangements for compensation. The effect of the right on property owners cannot be fully assessed until those details are known. However, from what appears in the Bill, it seems that inclusion of property on the list will introduce significant delay into a proposed disposal and could therefore have serious consequences for property owners.

Referendums

The Bill provides for a local referendum to be held on any issue if a petition is submitted by at least five per cent of local electors. The result will not be binding but the authority must take account of it in its decision making.

Predetermination

In a provision which may reduce the scope for challenging planning decisions, the Bill states that a member of an authority will not be taken to have a closed mind on an issue just because he has previously done something that indicated his view on a matter relevant to the decision.

Application Fees

Separately, the Government has published proposals to allow local planning authorities to set planning application fees and to charge for a greater range of planning services. This is likely to result in higher fees. It is anticipated that the changes will be implemented in April with a transitional period until October.

Conclusion

The Localism Bill is a major piece of legislation. This short article can do no more than highlight some of its most significant provisions. The aims of the Bill are bold and ambitious; whether they will be achieved is far from certain.