Localism Bill fails vital green test

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Local democracy and action to tackle climate change will be undermined, not boosted, by the Government's much-heralded overhaul of the planning system, published on Monday December 13, 2010 so Friends of the Earth has warned.

The environmental campaigning charity has been urging the Government to create a fairer, greener planning system capable of protecting wildlife and delivering the substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions the UK is legally obliged to meet. But Friends of the Earth says localism will only thrive if the proposals unveiled today are significantly improved, including:

• Clearer guidance to councils to give the green light to developments that cut carbon emissions, like greener transport and renewable energy schemes.

• A tougher 'presumption against' developments that cause environmental damage

• Boosting public participation in decision making. Under the proposals local communities wanting to shape development in their area will have to fund the writing of neighbourhood plans - which sets out the type of developments that communities want - which could create an unfair planning system. Those that can't afford to draw up a plan will be at risk of unchecked development in their area.

Friends of the Earth's planning campaigner Anna Watson said: “If localism is to thrive more must be done to allow people to participate fairly in the planning process – these Government plans could create a postcode lottery, two-tier planning system, where cash-strapped communities struggle to make their voices heard.

“And these proposed planning reforms are far too flimsy to ensure the UK builds the strong, low-carbon and wildlife-rich future that the Government has promised.

“If Ministers are serious about being the greenest government ever they must ensure local councils favour developments that help slash UK emissions and create new green jobs - and strongly encourage them to reject schemes that damage our environment.

“This is the third major shake-up of planning in a decade and the Government still hasn't got it right - this Bill must be radically amended to boost localism and make planning a key part of a greener Britain.”

The one great objection that I can see with this new bill is that it will make objections of local people against, say, wind turbines and other such developments, including not just (large) wind farms but small scale operations, even for home use, on flimsy grounds much easier and they will succeed. There does not seem to be much of an appeals process against any such objections.

While putting the power into the hands of the people is all a great idea, theoretically, democracy is, basically, mob rule and can be misused and in this instant, I am convinced, it will be misused.

Planning reform in England is a prominent part of the Government's bill and Friends of the Earth, the environmental campaigning charity, has set out three tests for the planning shake-up:

• Responsible development: all development must actively contribute to reducing carbon emissions and restoring nature in England;

• Economic recovery: development must support a clean, green route out of recession by creating a new low carbon economy and business opportunities;

• People power: all people must have a meaningful say in decisions both about their local area and about developments which shape England's entire future.

But, as said already, “people power” can also be very much misused and no longer will the anti-campaigns require large sums of money to fight the planning applications of wind farms and such in the courts. A simple objection would appear to be enough, as long as there are enough people supporting this, to block things.

This can and will be a great stumbling block, as far as I see it, to the development of renewable energy projects and other such like in most localities and it does require an urgent rethink on the side of the government.

© 2010