For an unsettling preview of where the localism agenda may be heading, take a look at our piece on the battle of Walthamstow Stadium. It’s a familiar story of an ambitious developer expertly jumping through all the regulatory hoops to overhaul a popular local landmark.
On paper the plan looked a neat one: acute housing shortages would be eased and community facilities delivered along with a timely boost to the local economy - everyone’s a winner. But throw in a ferocious backlash from sometimes unrealistic local protesters, vociferously backed by cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith, and paralysis and frustration were the almost inevitable result. The drama looks destined to be resolved by m’learned friends.
Housebuilders and developers may well roll their eyes at the prospect of this kind of row being magnified by the incomprehensible inanities of the Localism Bill. And it would be difficult to blame them: they’ve been hampered by red tape for years and now they fear being strangled by it.
But this is no longer about the letter of the law; it’s about the spirit behind it. Without regional housing targets, developers of all shapes and sizes are going to have to get better at engaging communities if they want to win over the silent, mostly reasonable, majority. Even if this approach has been part of their strategies for years, developers will need to do a better job at selling what they’re doing. This means greater transparency and accountability.
Localism is claimed to be about better understanding what local areas really need, rather than about what is most lucrative, or most expedient. The burden will be on developers not only to ensure that they have consulted widely but that they have secured the maximum local response - and council bosses will be charged with ensuring that that consultation actually means something.
But as can be seen in Walthamstow, local people do not often speak with a single voice, and decision makers will also need facts and expert advice - which could be a problem after the coalition’s over-hasty erasure of those quangos which developers and local authorities have relied on for information and guidance.
This issue is not confined to housing or regional development targets; it’s reflects the intricacies of procurement across all sectors. Take health, as a prime example. Thousands of GPs - the vast majority devoid of procurement expertise - are to be in charge of strategies to design, build and upgrade local health facilities in their areas (as well as make them both cost and operationally efficient).
So what happens to the expertise acquired under a generation of NHS facilities delivered under PFI and Procure 21? Is it all to be swept aside for new mixed investment models? What about the quality benchmarking, standardisation and output from that R&D investment? Or the passing on of intellectual capital? Most critically, what structures are to be put in place to guide and inform a new generation of clients? It is local empowerment at its worst, and, in the case of health, at the expense of centrally coordinated primary care trusts and strategic health authorities.
If spats such as that in Walthamstow are to be avoided or managed better and localism explained so that ordinary people can understand it, then the government needs to simplify and clarify its policy and provide some realism and guidance to the debate. In short, to practice what it is preaching.