Last week we started work on the Localism Bill. This legislation underwrites the government approach. More matters should be settled locally, by the Borough Council or by groups of people concerned about local matters. National government and MPs will interfere less with all the local services, from education and social services to planning and transport.
The Bill gives Councils for the first time a general power of competence. This means that in future a Council can do anything its electors and Councillors wish, as long as it legal. Today, Councils may only do those things that local government legislation lays down. In the short term given the tightness of public money I would advise against Councils going out and finding new things to do, but it is an added freedom. It also invites local people to offer to run local services for the Council, or to take over public facilities locally.
The Bill sweeps away regional planning as promised, and completes the new settlement for planning. Major issues like national highways, new railway lines, and large projects like power stations will be settled by Ministers answerable to MPs. The rest will be settled by Councils, who will set out in their local plans where homes and other buildings can go. There will still be a right of appeal to national Inspectors if you are turned down, but the appeal will be settled not in relation to some regional or government strategy, but based on the local plan. In Wokingham’s case the Council has signed up to a plan which allows more than 12,000 extra homes over the years ahead, including 2000 outside the Council’s four chosen areas for larger developments. This will mean Inspectors will tend to allow new housing applications outside any reserved areas of greenbelt or other special designation. If the Council wished to prevent building outside the chosen development areas, it should make that clear in a revised local plan. It is good news that Councils will now have more discretion over how much building and where it should go, as Councillors can be more in touch with local opinion than remote regional planners and Inspectors.
Constituents often write to me about local planning applications , school catchment areas and other matters that the Council settles for us. I am always happy to hear from constituents, and like to know local feelings. However, in the new age of localism the important thing is to lobby the Council where they have the sole power to make the decision. As MP I have no power to override the Council on a planning or housing or school matter. There is not even a formal procedure for an MP to make special representations and for them to have to be taken into account as opposed to anyone else’s representations.
There can be, of course, the need for both levels of government to work together. I am very happy to support the Council on appeal where it has turned down an application and faces a challenge to that decision, where the decision was legally made and reflected the terms of the Council’s own local plan. I am always willing to clarify or lobby Ministers where a Ministerial decision is an important part of a local matter. I am still trying to get an answer from Ministers over the future of Arborfield Garrison, which remains a crucial decision for Wokingham’s future plans. I am also seeking clarification of how a new Free School would work, given the interest in this to the west of the Borough and the Council’s wish that it should not use the old Ryeish school buildings.