Localism: Community Empowerment or the new synonym for NIMBYism.

Localism: Community Empowerment or the new synonym for NIMBYism.

The Localism Bill remains instrumental to the Coalition Government’s “Big Society” Agenda. Taken at face-value, it amounts to more dialogue with communities at the earliest opportunity in order to help them shape plans for their neighbourhoods.
The Localism Bill spans 510 pages, 215 clauses and 25 schedules, but as yet, its significance and potential is untested. But, if recent events are anything to go by — take for example the protests at the Chelsea Barracks site, or the threat by residents to use Localism Bill powers to thwart CapCo’s redevelopment of Earls Court — communities are more than keen to get involved. But what does this mean for the developers charged with rebuilding neighbourhoods.
The Localism Bill is currently being debated in the House of Lords and should it pass into law it will provide local communities the opportunity to become involved in the planning and development stages of projects within their community at a much earlier stage.
For example, the Bill provides an opportunity for “neighbourhood forums” to facilitate the types of development that a community wants to see. The Bill also seeks to give a community the power to initiate local referenda on local issues and define local development policy in order to push through favoured types of development. But all too often, the wider community benefits of a particular development will be difficult for an immediate neighbour to appreciate, especially when they will endure the construction and physical effects of the development: increased traffic, noise, interference with light.
But whilst few would disagree that encouraging dialogue with communities is a healthy way of developing community infrastructure, should we be concerned that developers will find it increasingly difficult to secure planning consent for certain types of development? As is often the case, people like new leisure facilities, better housing and more employment but they’d rather it wasn’t right at the bottom of their garden. Admittedly, the Bill is not handing over complete control of the planning process to communities, but it is making more of us think about what goes on locally and how we might influence it.
It may be relevant to consider briefly how the behaviour of the public has changed in recent years. Title indemnity insurers are strangely well-placed to observe on these events, since they are often asked to insure against the issues which have become favoured tools of members of the public when seeking to protect their environs. Take Judicial Review, Village Greens, Rights of Light or even the trusted Restrictive Covenant. All have been employed on countless occasions in a last-ditch attempt to halt a supermarket or limit the number of units on a housing estate. And recent judgments appear to encourage use of private law rights. Take for example the recent judicial movements limiting an applicant’s exposure to a respondent’s costs in an application for judicial review, or the Court’s decision in the context of the Commons Act 2006 to remove ‘deference’ as grounds for resisting an application to register land as village green. Or even decisions of the Lands Tribunal resisting modification of a covenant notwithstanding extant breaches or developments of a similar nature in the vicinity. And whilst title indemnity insurance can help manage the legal and commercial risk associated with all of these issues, the process of acquiring sites and readying them for development is becoming more challenging, time-consuming and expensive. Clearly we will need to see how the landscape develops over time before we can say whether Localism will have adverse effects on developers. But it may be fair to say that having invited the public in to the planning forum, private rights may end up being employed to get the results that Localism promised but failed to deliver. Let us hope that localism doesn’t become a synonym of NIMBYism.
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Kevin Williams can be contacted via email [email protected]

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