Last week saw the start of the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill’s passage through the House. ‘Levelling up’ in its broadest sense is a great ambition and the right thing to be doing. I do not however for one minute underestimate how challenging that is. For this to be a success, as with any major policy area or piece of legislation, there must be an understanding of the differing needs and differing solutions for our varied communities to level them up. The solution for a rural community and the solution for an urban community are very different. The detail, when it is further worked out, needs to be properly rural-proofed, and probably urban-proofed too! One size certainly doesn’t fit all and we need to avoid falling into that trap.
Devolution of power from the centre is welcome, and I am pleased that the Government are positively considering the Devon, Torbay and Plymouth devolution deal. One of my main asks to Ministers is to ensure that there is a devolution of real power with the money to go with it. My frustration and one that I know is shared by our local authorities has often been with the strangling bureaucracy and red tape that mean the real power to change is taken away. I would love to see the end of what I see as pointless bidding processes. As I understand it, there are currently 139 separate funding pots for local government to bid for! It is taking up so much council time, often with zero results. If we could reduce the bureaucracy to free up officer time to do things that drive productivity, that would be a real win.
Long overdue planning reform is in the Bill and most of what is proposed, I support. Of course, we want beautiful communities – a key government objective- but we don’t want overdevelopment. The current housing number targets are forcing councils to give permission to developments which are not needed or wanted – sometimes even by the council who can see it’s wrong! The result is partly because of the way developer’s game the system. With colleagues I’m lobbying for that to change so housing numbers are driven by local need – not just the numbers but the type of housing. Local plans are to be given more of a push which is welcome, but I am concerned at new proposed powers giving government the right to override them, which new powers I am lobbying against!
Whilst housing reform isn’t itself a focus of this Bill, it needs to be a Government priority. The issue of affordable housing is not going away. The problem we face in the South West is that salaries are so low and house prices so high, that a 20% discount on market value simply isn’t “affordable” for most! The definition needs instead to reflect local salaries and house prices. We have no proper provision either for social and community housing. Housing Associations were established to take over the Council’s role to create social housing “council housing” as we knew it. But these associations have too little power and too little cash to do the job. If the new right to buy scheme is to work, those properties sold need to be replaced - immediately.
The overriding mission here needs to be to “think longer term.” What do we do when all the brown field land is built on and land banked property is finally built and empty properties compulsorily purchased and put to use? Where is the vision? There was a vision for new sustainable villages. That needs to be dusted down and Poundbury is a great example of the sort of the thing we need to see more of. And alongside this we need to review and extend legally protected green belt and properly classify and restrict for planning purposes that agricultural land that cannot be developed and what can to ensure security of food supply.
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