Power to the people

Have you ever felt like screaming ‘it isn’t fair’ when – regardless of the whole neighbourhood being up in arms – the Government runs roughshod over local peoples’ wishes and carry out its own wishes regardless?

Well, although it doesn’t have a sexy title, the Sustainable Communities Bill could help bring about a major change in the way we are governed so that in future local people can more often say, “hang on, you don’t have the power to do that.”

The Bill has been presented to Parliament as Private Members’ Bill (fronted by Nick Hurd, a Conservative, though the Liberal Democrats too are backing it). These types of Bill are hard to get through. In particular, they need a good turnout of MPs to support them on a Friday morning – but that’s a time when many MPs from outside London have already travelled back to their constituencies for a busy and long weekend of meetings and events in their constituency. But on one Friday last month, enough members from all parties came together to try and get it through to the next stages.

There is an overwhelming feeling, whatever the political persuasion of an area, that we are all fighting this dreadful fight against centralist steamrollering of local wishes. The Bill puts forward a proposed mechanism whereby local people can put forward their wishes and so long as it is within reason, the Secretary of State should approve the plan. It’s more complicated than that – but a simplified summary is as follows.

This Bill is primarily about sustainable communities – including making sure our little parades of shops and local village high streets survive. For example – high rents from the big multiple chains could threaten our local shops, driving out our individual shops. Perhaps we locally would want to put particular controls on development in Highgate Village or Archway Road. We might want to say we didn’t want any more estate agents (there are seventeen already) – and that new estate agents wishing to come to the area could only replace existing ones. Or perhaps we locally would want to put particular criteria on development in Muswell Hill to protect its special character. Or over in Wood Green we might want to ensure that new developments which would put too much strain on local public services don’t get the go ahead.

Well, this Bill might allow us to make that local decision. During the debate MPs told of parts of their constituencies where 80% of the homes were second homes – making for virtual ghost towns. Well – of course – there is an argument too that when those homes are filled in the holidays they bring economic benefits – but this Bill would allow local people to argue out which is the best way forward themselves.

Of course, there are lots of other areas where we may well feel that the national Government should keep its nose out and let local people be in charge of the decision making instead. Planning is a classic of the case. So many local residents are only too used to objecting to a planning application, the Planning Committee of the local Authority refusing the application – and then the Government’s Inspector overturns the decision. It doesn’t just make for bad decisions – it also makes for a bad democracy, because you can always vote out of office a council which makes bad planning decisions, but the Planning Inspectors are beyond the reach of the ballot box.

So part of the Bill is about sorting out what can be decided locally and what must remain a central function. It’s a start to giving power back to the people – and having got through its first legislative stage, the Bill now travels on to the Committee Stage in Parliament, hurrah!

Watch short film: My colleague Julia Goldsworthy has been leading campaigner in the Liberal Democrats on this issue and you can watch her talking about it on Google Video.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007