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Nadhim Zahawi MP: Localism can work, but only if we give it the space to do so

Zahawi NadhimNadhim Zahawi is the Member of Parliament for Stratford-upon-Avon.  Follow Nadhim on Twitter.

The last week was by any account a heavy news agenda, further details on Jimmy Saville, the threat to Ash Trees and Hurricane Sandy were contrasted with the more positive news of positive growth figures.  

With the news agenda so full, it's perhaps no surprise that a decision by the Secretary of State into a planning appeal in Stratford Upon Avon gained little attention. Yet it's a decision that has national significance and one that will see 800 houses and a new road built on land adjacent to Anne Hathaway's cottage. For those that don't know Anne Hathaway's cottage is the property where Shakespeare courted his wife and that now holds his famous "second best bed" and is a central part of the Shakespeare story, which is of course in turn an integral part of this country's heritage and cultural legacy to the world. 

The background to this is important. In 1998 the West Midlands regional planning guidance was published which required Stratford District Council's locally developed plan to be reviewed and updated. In 2005 this plan went through a public review where a Planning Inspector told the Council that even though they had chosen not to include it, the site in Shottery had to be used for future housing development. Despite their reservations the Labour Government's centralised approach to planning at the time meant that Councillors had no choice but to place this sensitive area in the Local Plan and mark it for eventual development.

Fast forward to 2010 and the coalition came to power pledging to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and restore people's faith in local control. Unsurprisingly, Councillors in Conservative controlled Stratford embraced these localism powers and began drawing up a new local plan, one that included locally determined housing numbers and removed the sensitive Shottery site from the picture. Of course, abolishing Regional Spatial Strategies turned out to be a little tougher than expected and, after the Secretary of State's decision was overturned in court, the Localism Bill was used to finally abolish them.

Except that isn't quite true. The Localism Bill stopped further work from occurring on Regional Spatial strategies but EU directive 2001/42/EC meant that Parliament was unable to legislate for their abolition. Instead it could only legislate for the Secretary of State to be able to "by order revoke the whole or any part of a regional strategy". The EU directive meant that each individual RSS had to be subject to an up to date environmental impact assessment before they could be abolished. Unbelievably, it turns out that, thanks to the European Union, Parliament is unable to legislate to abolish them directly.

To date these assessments have been published for only four RSSs, the West Midlands RSS is not among them. Why's this important? Because on Thursday the Secretary of State made a planning appeal decision that was based mainly on the fact that the site in question was included in the Council's local plan. A local plan remember that was drawn up because of the Regional Spatial Strategy, and of course we're talking about a Regional Spatial Strategy that has yet to be revoked so still has planning weight. 

That's the policy background for how this travesty of a decision has happened, but at the heart of this is what we really mean when we talk about Localism. 

I would be the first to agree that Stratford doesn't have a core strategy in place and that it needs to resolve that as soon as possible to ensure they're not open to bad decisions made as a result of out of date policy.

What they do have though is a direction of travel; a clear plan for what they, as the locally elected members want to achieve and to an extent where they do and do not want to see it. All of this is in a draft document that sets out the Council's locally determined target for 8,000 new homes and has already been through a consultation process, in fact Officers expect it to be ready for examination next month. On top of this Stratford town itself has developed a very sophisticated neighbourhood planning process that has involved significant consultation and expects to deliver a draft by the end of the year. This is not a Council that is fighting for no new homes, it recognises the need for growth, but just wants it in the right place.

Yet this is not enough for the mighty Civil Servant tasked with making recommendations for the Secretary of State to sign-off. He declared in the report that accompanied a decision made last week that "With submission not until November it [the core strategy] remains at an early stage" and "I consider that relatively little weight can be attached to the emerging Core Strategy and the neighbourhood plan at this stage." That locally developed plan, let alone the opposition from residents and councillors effectively meant nothing.

For more than 3 years the Conservative Party has championed Localism as returning power from the centre. I have stood in village hall after village hall and proudly proclaimed that decisions will no longer be taken by a faceless bureaucrat in Whitehall with no accountability to local people. My constituents have heard me say again and again that the closer a decision maker is to those the decision affects the better the decision will be. The fact that they can stop a Councillor or their local MP in the supermarket or on the street means that we're likely to really stop and think before we make a decision. 

Yet this decision in Shottery is exactly the kind we've been rallying against. It's a decision taken by a Civil Servant at the centre, who will never have to live with the consequences, that has been rubber stamped by a Minister who has never even visited the area. In short it's a decision that drives a coach and horses through the Localism agenda.

I know I'm not the only Member of Parliament to have been let down by Localism in action. Across the country many councils are trying to do the right thing yet finding that the decisions they take are being reversed. But if we truly believe in Localism then we have to trust our Councillors to make the right decisions and accept that sometimes these may not be the ones Whitehall wishes them to make. That's the nature of devolving power down, that's what we signed up to when we put Localism front and centre.

I'm a big believer in the idea that human beings are quick learners. If one area makes decisions that are very beneficial then other areas will quickly level up and make the same kinds of decisions. The challenge for government is to trust that rather than reaching for the levers of control at the first sign of something that doesn't quite chime with the grand plan.


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