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Promises, promises! Can localism work?

Friday 17 December 2010

Our rural affairs commentator John Sheard, pondering the prospects for success for this week's milestone Localism Bill, hopes it will succeed but fears there are troubles ahead in the countryside

WHEN I became a cub reporter back in the days when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, it was explained to me with some severity that it was essential I maintained absolute neutrality when it came to local politics. It was forbidden, for instance, for me to join a political party.

Those days have long gone, of course, especially on the BBC - accused yet again this week of Left Wing bias in reporting the student riots - but these days I am a member of two rugby clubs, three angling associations and , the pinnacle of my career in public office, Hon. Sec. of my allotment association.

Eric Pickles

And it is from those dizzy heights that I viewed this week's revolutionary Localism Bill presented by Yorkshire born and bred Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who had already years ago achieved the near impossible by leading a Conservative administration on Bradford City Council.

For in my high office, I once tried to get a grant of a couple of hundred pounds to make a small car park by those allotments. We had the land, there was a simple access, and our members would do any work voluntarily. All we needed was a few bob to buy a lorry load of gravel or cinders for some semi hard standing.

To my delight, the district council offered the required cash - this was just before the present financial crisis - but there were conditions. I had to seek approval from two departments of the district council, another at the North Yorkshire County Council, and - because the allotments stand by the Leeds-Liverpool Canal - a fourth from Inland Waterways.

In other words, weeks or perhaps months of negations with four separate bureaucrats, all for a couple of hundred quid to improve property already owned by the council. One wonders how much this would have cost in time and salaries for the pen-pushers in charge of such momentous deliberations. No wonder that it can take 20 years to get a new bypass built (or not built, as happened in North Yorkshire under New Labour).

I had neither the time nor the patience nor had any of my gardening colleagues and the plan collapsed. So we still have to barrow fertiliser, fencing materials and heavy tools 100-plus yards down the muddy towpath - and the majority of our members are pensioners. Now whether or not this was a deliberate sabotage by the bureaucrats with little better to do, or just the crushing dead weight of public sector inertia I do not know. But in its own tiny way was an opposite microcosm of what hearty Mr Pickles is trying to do.

He wants local councils and local volunteers to work together to improve their environment and welfare services. But, cynic that I am, I cannot help but fear that local councils, and their well paid officials, will do all they can to stop their power ebbing away to the proletariat - us, the people who pay their wages.

Those councils are already bracing themselves for severe funding cuts from Westminster and, horror of horrors, they will not be able to make up the difference by hoisting local taxes: the new bill would give the voters the right to veto excessive rises.

The only way that those councils will be able to cut their spending is by cutting their own costs. This will mean hiring fewer people, not replacing retirees and even compulsory redundancies. Even more unthinkable (for them), they will have to reveal the salaries of their chief executives, many of whom earn more than the Prime Minister.

Empire building is part of the public sector psyche which is why, during 12 years of New Labour rule, a massive 900,000 more civil servants were added to the nation's payroll - one of the major reasons for the nation's close brush with bankruptcy two years ago. These people will not give up their power easily

In areas like North Yorkshire, which has two national parks - the Dales and the North York Moors - planning has always been a red-hot issue, a regular source of conflict between planners and local residents. The localism drive could do much to ease those planning restrictions - but will the planners give up their almost dictatorial powers without a fight?

I doubt it and so do others. The President of the Country Landowners and Business Association (CLA), North Yorkshire landowner CLA President William Worsley issued a statement saying:

"We welcome the Government's desire for change to a planning system that is not currently fit for purpose. However, the changes must be the right ones to provide for sustainable economic development in rural areas. The Government must ensure a workable system which allows for a fairer, transparent, cost-effective and balanced approach to planning decisions."

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) described the present planning system as "broken, bureaucratic and boring" but admits that some development is necessary. It insists, however, that local people must be given a more open say in any planning matters and planning permission should only be granted if it is in the interest of the public rather than the developers.

All these ideas ring true with most country folk, who are also much more likely to take up voluntary work than their townsfolk cousins. But the real test will be how the embedded bureaucrats in local councils - right down to the lowest parish level - surrender some of their rights and privileges to their local taxpayers. Only time will tell but it could be a rough ride.

Feedback received on this subject:

Totally agree.

Pickles optimism on the capabilities and professionalism of local councils is in my experience rather misplaced.

He needs to give teeth to legislation to hold local officials to account, otherwise the incompetence and tardiness level of local councils over the last 12 years will be maintained.


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