The rights-based approach taken by the Coalition in promoting aspects of the localism agenda is a powerful rhetorical tool. The granting of a new ‘right’ is cast as a benevolent act from Government and lends the exercise an air of permanence: once given, it is difficult to take a right away without a fight. However, to be credible in the longer term, these rights have to help communities deliver on their own priorities.
Take the Community Right to Buy. This worthy measure has been scaled back from its original ambition that ‘local people and organisations will be given first refusal to take over community amenities’, as in the Scottish model. Instead, the Community Right to Buy now consists of a moratorium, perhaps as short as three months, on any asset of local value, after which the landowner can proceed to sell it at any price to any buyer. This doesn’t address the fact that many communities will simply struggle to raise the funds to make a bid for an asset at market price. Will such a right enhance the quality of many people’s lives?
Far more fundamental to most people’s experience than building or buying facilities is protecting those that are already there. Yet the Localism Bill makes no provisions for communities to safeguard the local shops and services at their heart in order to help maintain vibrant, sociable, walking-friendly neighbourhoods. Changes of use to basic local shops and services such as community pubs or banks often fall under permitted development and can therefore proceed without the need to apply for planning permission.
Some surprising changes of use can have major impacts on communities – for example, changes from a pub to a pawnbroker or a bank to a betting shop can currently occur with no voice for the local community. Planning industry technicalities can only take the argument so far: communities intuitively feel that classing banks and betting shops together is nonsensical, and 81 per cent of us think communities should have a say on changes of use in their local area.
We have the Community Rights to Buy, to Build, to Challenge – why not a Community Right to Protect? Living Streets has exposed the isolation, lack of physical activity, inequality and neighbourhood decline caused by a lack of local shops and services within walking distance. Though committed localists may wish it were otherwise, many people will care more about being able to access the services they need in their neighbourhood than about who runs them.
With the Government reviewing the rules on permitted development, providing for communities to have a say when local shops and services change use would be simple to implement legislatively. Another, more community-driven alternative would be to empower neighbourhood forums to amend these rules for their area through neighbourhood planning. Currently, neighbourhood development orders are allowed to liberalise restrictions, but not to tighten them – even if that’s what the neighbourhood community wants.
Such simple, fundamental rights as having a say on a planning application are a much-needed stepping stone to the more radical end of Big Society activity such as taking over a local amenity; without them in place, the fabric of the localism agenda, already beset by cynicism, will be strained even further.
Living Streets is a national charity working to create safe, attractive and enjoyable streets around the UK. Follow this link for further information on the campaign for a Community Right to Protect.