Localism

The Localism Bill gained Royal Assent in November 2011. It is a major plank in the government’s expressed ambition to push power downwards and outwards to the lowest possible level, including individuals, neighbourhoods, professionals and communities as well as local councils and other local institutions.

Different parts of the Act will come into effect at different times, and there may be further consultations on some of the details. But some of the key measures in the pipeline include the following.

Community Right to Challenge

A range of groups – community groups, social enterprises, parish councils, voluntary organisations, and public sector employees – who think they would make a better job of running a public service, will have the right to make a challenge to do so. The local authority will have to make a response, and if it accepts the challenge, there will be a procurement exercise.

Community Right to Bid

Some have dubbed this the ‘Community Right to Try to Buy’. Communities can seek to get valued local assets, such as village shops, pubs, markets, parks, etc, registered with the local authority so that if they are threatened with closure or come up for sale, they will be given time to develop a bid and raise the money. This doesn’t mean they will get first refusal, nor will they have to pay less than the market rate.

Right to approve or veto council tax rises

At present, central government can put a cap on council tax rises but thinks this should change so that local people decide. Government will set a limit for council tax increases, but if local councils want to go higher than this, they will have to hold a referendum to get approval from the local electorate.

Neighbourhood planning

A new right for communities – residents, parish councils and local businesses - to draw up a neighbourhood plan saying where they think new houses, businesses, shops, etc should be sited and what they should look like. Neighbourhood plans are not intended to be a mechanism to block development.

People will come together through a parish or town council, or in unparished areas through a neighbourhood forum, to develop their plan. It’s the local planning authority’s job to keep an overview of all the different requests to do neighbourhood planning in their area. They will check that the suggested boundaries for different neighbourhoods make sense and fit together. The local planning authority will say “no” if, for example, two proposed neighbourhood areas overlap. They will also check that community groups who want to take the lead on neighbourhood planning meet the right standards. The planning authority will also say “no” if, for example, the organisation is too small or not representative enough of the local community.

If the neighbourhood planning group is given the OK, they will be able to give full or outline planning permission via a neighbourhood planning order where they want to see homes, businesses or other facilities developed. Providing the neighbourhood development plan is in line with the strategic vision for the wider area set by the local authority, and with other legal requirements, local people will be able to vote on it via a local referendum. If the plan is backed by the majority of the people who vote, then the local authority will bring it into force.

Community Right to Build

This Right goes hand in hand with neighbourhood planning, as the Act allows local people to deliver the development they want to see. Development proposals which win support through a local referendum and which meet minimum criteria, will be able to go ahead without requiring a separate planning application.

Reforms to the Community Infrastructure Levy

Local authorities are able to require developers to pay a levy when they build new businesses or shops. This money is then used to support new infrastructure. However, the Localism Bill will give councils more freedom in setting the rate that developers pay, and some of the money raised will go to the neighbourhoods where the development is to take place - those neighbourhoods will have a say on what the money gets spent on.

Reforms to social housing

Councils will have more freedom to set their own policies about who should qualify for social housing.

Social landlords will be able to grant tenancies for a fixed period of time, with the minimum length of tenancy being two years in exceptional circumstances, with five years or more expected to be the norm.

A national home swap scheme for social housing tenants.

Councils will be able to keep the rent raised from their social housing tenants for the upkeep of their social housing. Previously, this revenue had to go to central government, and councils got back a share.

Councils will be able to place people experiencing a homelessness crisis in the private rented sector where appropriate, keeping social housing for people in need on the waiting list.

A plain English guide to the Localism Bill is available on the Dept for Communities and Local Government website.