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Localism - so last year? Matthew Warburton - 08/11/2012

new_build_300The Growth and Infrastructure Bill is the kind of measure that many hoped had become extinct when the Coalition government declared its commitment to localism.


In the bad old days of Blair the government often threatened to take over or transfer failing council functions, although in practice these threats were rarely carried out.

Council performance improved across the board, although just why remains controversial. Ministers of the time tend to argue that things would not have improved if government had not waved a big stick, but this does not prove that a threat to take over services was the right stick to wave.

In the case of the construction sites allegedly stalled because of incompetent or intransigent council planners, it is not even clear there is a problem. And even less clear that the Bill proposes the right answer.

The Government has claimed that there are 1400 stalled sites involving 75,000 homes, which may be true although it has been reluctant to publish details.

But there is no evidence to show that all or any of these sites are stalled because of unreasonable s106 agreements or that the councils involved have been slow or unwilling to renegotiate them. In fact 41 per cent of planning authorities, according to the Government, have already negotiated reduced affordable homes targets on their sites.

Critics of the Bill have argued that it will be counterproductive if builders decide to wait until it becomes law in the hope of getting a better deal from the Planning Inspectorate than the council. Where these hopes are unrealistic - as they may easily be - the legislation would have achieved nothing but to delay development.

There has been much debate on the impact on housing supply, with the National Housing Federation claiming that abolition of section 106 requirements would cost 35,000 new affordable homes. The Government's rejoinder has been to point out that no affordable homes will be built unless schemes go ahead.

But a few commentators have offered a different perspective. They point out that, in current market conditions, developers often find it hard to attract buyers for homes they have built for sale and are only too happy to offer them to a housing association, usually at a better price than if they had been built as a section 106 obligation.

The housing association can claim grant from the HCA for the purchase. On this scenario, we could end up with the same number of affordable homes we first thought of, but the developer would simply pocket more money for providing them.

Part of the case for localism is that intervention by central government is a very blunt instrument which rarely has the impact intended. This Bill looks like a clear illustration of that point. Last year (and the year before) this government claimed to be all about localism. Does fashion need to change so fast?

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