Public Affairs: Soap Box - Jon McLeod, chairman, corp. comms & public affairs, Weber Shandwick

What are voters in the 279 councils in England with elections on 5 May to make of 'localism', the coalition's flagship policy for local government?

If anything, the policy (and its attendant Localism Bill currently chugging through Parliament) should unleash a new era of municipal sovereignty and self-determination.

The Bill will devolve greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities more control over housing and planning decisions. Yet it is strangely at odds with the recent Budget announcement from the Chancellor that he would all but tear up planning regulations in favour of development if it created jobs.

So the waste incinerator that a local business wants to build next to a local school is opposed by local parents. Or the social housing for locals that a local housing association wants to build at the gentrified end of the village is opposed by local residents. It seems the question is 'whose localism?' And that is why we have a planning system - to take the sting out of decisions and to ensure that some form of probity and neutrality prevails.

Just take a look at any Mediterranean coastal ribbon development for a lesson in what happens when a planning system really fails. A similar riddle applies to council finances.

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