Localism update

Previously, Eric “Rubber Knickers” Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government has got a lot of press claiming to be handing power to local people when in reality taking away local people’s defences against harmful commercial interests who want to pave the fields with sprawl and ruin town centres.

But Greg Clark, the minister for decentralisation, planning policy and cities, has finally made a suggestion that is not entirely awful: transport policy independence for the English core cities. Devolution of transport policy has been a great success, driving innovation and progress in a way that central government has been unable or unwilling to do. In Scotland, the Beeching Axe is being rolled back. In London, the Congestion Charge has paid for massive public transport and public realm improvements, including innovations from Oyster to the Overground. In Wales, legislation for cycle network standards is on the agenda for the current assembly term.

Giving the core cities — Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester (which already has TfGM), Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield — transport policy powers equivalent to the Mayor and TfL (though hopefully correcting the mistakes in the London model before applying it) could, under the right local leaders, drive further innovation. Bristol and Newcastle might choose to show the country how to design streets in which people can cycle. The Yorkshire/Lancashire cities might club together to improve their intercity rail.

But it all depends on the money. A few of the core cities already have trams or metros, but only because the cities could persuade central government to pay. Others got nothing — Bristol is left desperately scrabbling around for the pennies to pay for a barely-better-than-nothing Bus Rapid Transit system because ministers won’t give it a tram.

Devolution of urban transport policy could be an excellent move, but only if Pickles and Clark make sure that the cities get the money, the powers, and the continuing central government support that they would need if they are to make real progress. Otherwise it’s just the devolution of blame for the current mess — the shirking of responsibility. Letting cities develop policies doesn’t make up for having none of your own.

How localism works: councils lose power to reject sprawl and congestion

A draft of the National Planning Policy Framework has been leaked.  This is the document that Eric Pickles’s department, Community and Local Government, has been preparing to replace some of the previous government’s policies, rules, and guidelines on development and planning.  It’s supposedly prompted by the Treasury’s belief that economic growth can and should be encouraged by making private development easier, and by the belief that the last government was overly controlling of what councils could do, and that the current rules interfere with decisions that should be made locally.

It’s difficult to tell exactly how important the document is, because, not having any real expertise in the way that government does this stuff, I don’t know how much (if any) of it will be law and how much will be a suggestion, or even a mere statement of the government’s position on things.  Large swathes of it were too dull to read properly, telling local authorities that they need to do obvious things like make sure they’re not going to suddenly run out of waste disposal capacity.

But from a quick scroll through, it doesn’t seem any less controlling of councils than the previous government.  It’s just that, where the previous government told councils that they should reject applications for harmful developments, the new document tells councils that they should not reject applications for harmful developments.  Previously, local people had some amount of power: their representatives had an arsenal of reasons say ‘no’ to developments which would have negative consequences for their community, like the sprawling out-of-town barn retail that kill town centres and make people dependent on cars for shopping and employment.  They could tell developers: that’s not an appropriate location, and that’s not an appropriate style.  They could tell developers: not unless you do something to mitigate the effects on the community, or to prevent specific negative consequences.  As far as I can tell, this document is taking away that arsenal of grounds-for-rejection and instead grants developers “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”.  Whatever “sustainable” is.

Delightfully, the document comes with tracked changes.  We don’t know who’s changes are tracked — it could be Communities, Treasury, Transport, a random party advisor, a copy-editor… — and “sustainable” has frequently simply been deleted, presumably on the grounds that it’s pretty much meaningless in this document.  Dozens of clauses touch on what it means to be “sustainable”, but they tend to be neither necessary or sufficient, and they don’t add up to a definition.  Are LAs supposed to be able to classify proposed developments as “non-sustainable” based on this document, and what do they do with those proposals?

As far as I can see, the tracked changes on page 23, “Transport”, are the fun part of the document.  There is plenty of lip service to “sustainable modes”, but only “where reasonable”.  And again, there should be encouragement to reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions — where practical.  It doesn’t say who gets to decide what’s reasonable and practical.

An objective to reduce the need to travel at all is deleted, though local authorities are still encouraged to plan developments in areas where the need to travel will be reduced.

Brilliantly, the phrase “the private car will continue to form an important mode in order to maintain communities” is tracked as having been deleted from the objectives.  I wonder who didn’t want it included?  I wonder who did?

To support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and congestion, local authorities should plan for development to give priority to pedestrians and “cycle movements”, to be served by public transport, to “create safe and secure layouts which minimise conflicts between traffic and cyclists or pedestrians”, and to have electric vehicle charging points.  All very nice, but it’s not clear what this will translate to in reality.  Local authorities are asked to include these things in their “plan”, but what does it mean for real private developments?  Indeed, what does it even mean to “give priority” to pedestrians and “cycle movements”?  We’ve had a couple of decades of this kind of vague pro-cycling lip-service and anybody who has ever tried to cycle in this country knows what the result looks like.  Planners and builders have a very special ability to turn even the best of intentions into utter bollocks.

At least owners of electric vehicles can look forward to charging points.  If they’re anything like the planning for “cycle movements” they’ll be a single standard 240v socket hidden somewhere around the back near the bins, to which it’s not actually physically possible to get an electric vehicle.  Chances are, it won’t be wired up to anything.

Local authorities will be able to set some amount of “local standards” for residential and non-residential development, though again, I can’t really work out what those will mean in practice.  LAs are told to take into account existing local car ownership rates when doing this.  Fair enough, but why aren’t they also told to take into account the elasticity of modal share in the local area?

Finally, LAs are told to bear in mind that there is “an overall need to reduce the use of high-emission vehicles.”  The term “high-emission vehicles” has been inserted in place of the deleted phrase “the car where practical.”

I imagine there are equally interestingly useless guidelines in the “housing” and “green belt” sections, but I couldn’t bring myself to read any more of it.

If this is “localism”, localism apparently means a redistribution of power: not from central government to councils, but from public interest to corporate interest.