In days gone by the word ‘local’ had either a positive meaning – as in ‘pub’ – or a negative meaning – as in the anaesthetic you’d rather not have. Now it’s become another ‘ism’.
Localism is the cornerstone of the coalition government’s decentralisation policies and it’s the name of a parliamentary Bill (all 400 and more pages of it) that’ll become law by the end of the year.
As with many ‘isms’, localism has been more rhetoric than reality, so it was to explain what the Localism Bill will mean for the Marlborough Community Area that two senior Wiltshire Council officers brought their road show to the Town Hall last week for a seminar chaired by councillor Nick Fogg.
Broadly speaking the Bill will bring new freedoms to local government, give local communities new powers and local people more of a say, and change the way new housing is planned.
Steve Milton, the council’s head of community governance, explained how the new policy would give communities the right to buy their local pub or shop if it closed and might become a private house. And a community will be able to take over some services – litter picking for instance – from the authority higher up the chain of command.
One example that has already happened is Pewsey taking over its car parks. But that was pretty simple because the parking was free. When Marlborough Council tries to take over the town’s paid-for parking from Wiltshire Council it will get very complex indeed. Unpicking the intricate web of unitary, town and parish councils is not a simple matter.
Wiltshire Council are taking this policy very seriously. Over the next four years they have committed £3.2 million more to the area boards, in addition to the £10 million already allocated. But the full details of how the policy will be implemented won’t be clear until the Bill becomes law.
Joan Davies, who chairs Savernake Parish Council, raised the vital matter of scale. How would Savernake with a population of about 200 spread over a wide area and without any village focus, manage to take part or afford to draw up its own neighbourhood plan?
Wiltshire Council’s Alistair Cunningham said there was no chance of redrawing parish boundaries, but parishes might be able to join into clusters. Quite how that could work financially, democratically or legally was not addressed.
One of the most contentious parts of localism will be changes to the planning laws. These were supposed to give the final say to local communities. But after the coalition government’s budget last month, a ministerial edict rules that the necessity for economic growth must trump local decisions on planning applications.
It looks as though the Treasury’s big stick is about to knock a hole through the Localism Bill.
After the meeting, Councillor Fogg told Marlborough News Online: “The Localism Bill is as much rhetoric as matter as far as I can deduce. What emerged from the meeting was that not all that much is going to change.”
“I don’t think it is going to make a lot of difference when it comes to local councils like Marlborough taking over pubs, shops, this kind of thing… .It is disappointing. There is a lot of rhetoric attached to this government, which I had high hopes for but they are slightly being dashed.
Watch this space as Marlborough News Online follows how our area fares under this new policy – and see whether Councillor Fogg’s judgment is right.