A ministerial reply – Are there limits to localism?


The minister replies – but does his answer match his department’s actions?

Some of you may recall a blogpost warning what happens when ministers don’t answer questions at conferences. The nature of Q&A sessions at conferences is very similar to that in Parliament – you don’t get to follow up, which means that ministers can give absolutely ridiculous responses (or simply say “I won’t answer his question“) and move on – unless someone else chooses to drop their long-awaited question & follow it up for you. How often does that happen?

The minister at this conference concerned – Andrew Stunell – was dropped from the Government in place of Don Foster (both Lib Dem MPs) by the time the Department for Communities and Local Government got round to passing a submission up to private office. Interestingly, it wasn’t my question that seems to have got ministers caught up – rather it was one from one of their own, former Lib Dem councillor Mike Galloway. Mike asked Mr Stunell if there were any limits to localism. Mr Stunell successfully dodged that question which is why I chose to follow it up on this blog. Mr Foster’s response is below.

“I do not believe there are limits to localism”

…writes the Minister. Really? This sounded like a nice sound-bite that hadn’t been thought through. Being at an academic conference when I received that letter, I had a word with a couple of the professors of politics there to see what they thought – and they too were surprised. I asked my local MP Dr Julian Huppert to get Mr Foster to clarify his remarks – the response being that he stood by them. (Declaration of interest, Dr Huppert bought Puffles a beer last night at Michelle Brook’s birthday drinks).

Are there limits to localism?

How about the first clause of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill that Ministers have just introduced to Parliament?

“Option to make planning application directly to Secretary of State”

It’s due to receive its second reading in the Commons in a few days time. (Will any Labour MPs pick up on this point?)

For those of you not familiar with the planning system in England, when you want to make a planning application you normally go to your local council that has the competency for planning and building control. Very rarely will another institution be empowered with planning powers – normally in the case of very large infrastructure projects, such as the redevelopment of the Olympics Park. Or, if you wanted to be cynical about it, where central government does not trust local government to deliver the necessary planning consents to allow redevelopment, so the former uses an Act of Parliament to override local councils to set up a quango with planning powers. Historians of the redevelopment of the London Docklands may see this as one such example.

Is having limits to localism a bad thing?

Not necessarily. It might be bad for some people – especially if it’s your house that’s being knocked down to make way for a new piece of infrastructure. This is one of the reasons why the High-Speed-2 (HS2) line is so controversial. People understandably don’t want to be forced out of their homes. But sometimes the state may choose to take a decision to override local concerns for the greater national good. This might be where it is building new transport routes, power stations (renewable or otherwise), housing developments etc. Proponents for HS2 would argue that this piece of infrastructure falls within that definition of sacrificing local concerns for the national good. Another example could be the linking up of Oxford to Cambridge by road or rail. I can’t imagine that people living next to any proposed routes would be too happy having a new motorway next door – not least because of the noise. But for those that might benefit – myself included, the idea of linking the two academic power-houses is a compelling one.

What should the Minister have written?

Personally I think he should have acknowledged some of the limitations of localism – especially within the context of regionally or nationally important infrastructure. Simply because the line on all things pro-localism starts unravelling when decisions such as this one in Shakespeare country (or anything planning-related where developers continue to appeal to planning inspectors) are inevitably made.

Thus we have the tension between two policy areas. One is about trying to devolve as much power as possible to as local a level as possible, and another is about trying to get the construction industry & the economy going again. What do you do when the two collide? One thing politicians of all parties need to be honest about is that the tension exists and there will be times when the two policies collide. Whatever decision is taken, someone is going to be unhappy with it.

As it is, opponents (political or otherwise) to any schemes that are seen to be steam-rollered through by central government can claim that such a scheme shows the limits of localism – especially where such a scheme throws up significant local opposition.



One thought on “A ministerial reply – Are there limits to localism?

  1. The problem with local government in the UK and proposals to increase local autonomy is that, unlike most other European countries, the powers of local government are not enshrined in a constitution. Article 28 of the German constitution, for example, entrenches the powers os Lander and municipalities http://goo.gl/CmKRf. The problems with “limits to localism” is that they are negotiated politically outwith clear consitutional parameters. This leaves real local government in the UK at the mercy of political whim at the centre.

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