For politicians it is extremely difficult to be against localism. It is the motherhood and apple pie of modern politics – everyone wants the nice, warm feeling that comes with decentralising, empowering, democratic localism for local people.
But there is a problem with this inspiring vision of the Big Society that has manifested itself in the government's appallingly retrograde Localism Bill. I know what an apple pie looks like, I know what motherhood is – but what is localism, what is local?
There is an old playground gag beloved of children who have just learned how to write out their address: they start with their house number and street name, then their town, county, and country, and then they keep going "Europe, the northern hemisphere, Planet Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, the Universe".
It's not a particularly funny joke, but it is informative. Even children understand that local is a relative term. The UK is local, Europe is local, in some respects the planet is local.
Pickles insists he wants to "hand power to the people" and force decisions on the issues that will impact local communities into the remit of those communities. But the impact of a planning decision is not neatly confined to the people living within a five-mile radius of a project.
Making it easier for local communities to block plans for new housing developments does not only impact the local area, it impacts housing prices in an entire region and disenfranchises tens of thousands of people across the country struggling to get on the housing ladder.
You can argue, and the government has, that the person who has to look at the wind farm or waste-to-energy plant is the key stakeholder in the planning process and should be entitled to contribute to the decision. But the individuals and businesses that will use the resulting electricity are stakeholders too, as are the people, many of them not yet born, who will benefit from any reduction in concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases. When it comes to renewable energy projects, the Maldives and Bangladesh are local too.
So the Localism Bill is flawed in principle. But that is nothing compared to how flawed it is in practice. In fact, as Ecotricity founder Dale Vince observes, in its current form it is "a potential nightmare for getting anything actually built in Britain".
When it comes to decisions on the largest projects, the bill will scrap the independent Infrastructure Planning Commission and hand the decision back to ministers. The government has said this is more democratic, but it has not even attempted to answer the charge that it repoliticises the planning process. It is a recipe for ministers to wave through any projects they support – nuclear, carbon capture and storage – and block projects opposed by fractious backbenchers and the Daily Mail, such as wind farms.
And large projects get off lightly. Smaller projects of all shades could be subjected to local referendums that would take up to 18 months to organise and stage, while Neighbourhood Forums consisting of as few as three people with no obligation to be genuinely representative of an area (or even live in it – you can sit on a forum if you would like to live in an area apparently) will be able to shape planning decisions.
This all sounds wonderful and democratic in principle, but in practice it tilts the playing field hugely against new developments of any form. Voter turnout is historically low at general elections and is likely to be lower still for planning referendums, particularly if those opposed to new developments bombard people with two or three votes a year as they are bound to do. Getting 50 per cent approval for any new project will be a huge ask. Meanwhile, direct involvement in local democracy through Neighbourhood Forums will inevitably be dominated by those who feel strongly about an issue and/or have the time to take part. Given that opposition and anger is almost invariably a stronger emotion than support for something that is yet to be built, expect the process to be hijacked by nimby campaigners and tilted in favour of blocking new developments.
The renewable energy industry is trying to put a brave face on the legislative train wreck that is heading its way, pointing out that the changes will force developers to improve their engagement with communities and come up with innovative new financing mechanisms that allow them to share more of the financial benefits with local people. All this is true and it remains the case that wind farms, solar parks, and biomass plants will still be built, particularly in areas such as Scotland where councils and communities tend to better understand the economic benefits renewable energy projects can bring.
But it does not conceal the fact the bill will make it significantly harder for entirely beneficial and legitimate projects to gain planning approval, particularly in the south of the country where much of the new infrastructure is required. Meanwhile, even those that do gain approval will have to wait years for referendums to be completed and decisions to be reached. If you were an investor you would be forgiven for looking elsewhere for projects to back.
You can see why industry insiders are increasingly convinced that Conservative ministers are playing politics with the bill, allowing the Lib Dem-led Department of Energy and Climate Change to pursue its largely progressive energy policies, while Pickles and co row furiously in the opposite direction, delivering a bill that will delight Tory backbenchers by throwing up huge new barriers in the path of wind farm developers.
The entire planning section of the bill is a recipe for conservative forces, with both a big and small C, to oppose pretty much anything new being built. If the bill goes through in its current form there is a very real risk that the UK's renewable energy industry will be thrown into stasis.
It is time for any business with an interest in energy security, the development of the low carbon economy, or even a simple desire to ensure Britain is not permanently confined by 20th century infrastructure, to make its concerns known.
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