Richard Patient, Indigo - The likely impact of localism

Only dinosaurs need fear legislation that obliges organisations to consult with communities.

The Localism Bill is set to transform the way companies, including property developers, deal with communities. The Government is keen to encourage real engagement with local people, rather than seeing property companies pay lip-service to the needs of local communities.

Or so the Government has been telling us. In reality, companies in the property development sector have shifted from alarm about the potential for a Nimby's charter, to scepticism that much will change.

What we know is that the Treasury wants a laissez-faire planning approach to deliver faster growth, make it more developer-friendly and remove red tape. That's why we see the New Homes Bonus and a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

We know that the Localism Bill will enable communities to resist bureaucrats' top-down planning decisions, with local people producing their own neighbourhood-led plans, and the Government abolishing the regional spatial strategies. Local referenda and online virtual planning mechanisms are being touted as the norm - a possible Google zeitgeist scenario.

Of course, they're abolishing the Infrastructure Planning Commission, but don't expect high-speed rail lines and nuclear energy plants to be decided by anything other than central Government.

Let's face it. In reality, whatever the Government does to empower local people, it will only be as good as local people's abilities to grab that power.

Giving tools to people to help shape their community expresses optimism about human nature, but will only bear fruit in some areas.

Take the issue of predetermination for councillors. Up until now councillors, encouraged by their officers, have hidden behind the predetermination rules and the Standards Board to resist meeting with developers. But councillors and officers have too much to lose to change the system overnight, so don't expect a revolution in how developers approach elected members.

Take consultation. Only the dinosaurs in the property development sector have ignored it. Most have been undertaking excellent consultation exercises for the past ten years, involving the community and very often learning things from local people to improve their schemes. We've even been involved in, and helped our clients win, local referenda.

I do know of one property company that thought all this 'consultation nonsense' was just that. Perhaps it's not surprising that many of their schemes never got off the ground, losing at local level and again at appeal.

We've been working with our clients to reinvent how we do things, adding workshops and learning techniques to ensure we're always listening to people who have the ear of the decision-makers, and ensuring we've not only gone further than necessary, but much further in many instances.

Back to human nature. It's a fact of life that the more affluent areas of the country have a high proportion of articulate, professionally qualified residents. These communities will grasp the tools the Government is granting, and it is up to developers to engage fully to prevent a Nimby state.

Less well-off areas have passionate leaders too. At the least, the Government will be enshrining good practice and asking dinosaurs to do better.

Developers shouldn't fear communities - far from it. But nor should we expect a revolution. Local people might continue to agonise over whether they want a skateboard park or child's play area, but most developers have been agonising with communities over these decisions for years.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

If you had 15 minutes with Cameron or Clegg, who would you choose?

Nick Clegg. I'd like to see how many knives are stuck in his back. I think history will be grateful to him, whatever his party and his voters currently think.

Which bodies have emerged best from the public sector cuts debate?

The TaxPayers' Alliance has emerged with great credit, and its leader, Matthew Elliott, is now basking in the glory of winning the AV campaign.

How has public affairs changed since the advent of the coalition?

Coalitions bring more realpolitik, but the process of engaging is the same. Public affairs consultancies need to have excellent contacts across all parties.

Richard Patient is Managing Director of Indigo Public Affairs

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