Saturday, 26 March 2011

FoE Localism Bill Meeting at the House of Commons

While we do like to do teleconferencing when possible, there are some times you have to travel to meetings and so two of us went down to the House of Commons on Thursday for a meeting on the Localism Bill. Neither of us were experts on the bill to start with, but were able to use the journey down to London to read up on it using these useful briefings.

We arrived in plenty of time so were able to sit by the Thames enjoying the sunshine and listening to the endless roar of traffic all round us and planes overhead thinking how lucky we are in Birmingham not to have this (for the moment at least).

Going into the Commons was rather like going into an airport (I haven't for a few years, but remember what it was like), although we didn't have to take our shoes off thankfully. Once you're through all the scanners they let you wander about quite freely, though, and we made our way through imposing corridors until we made it to the room where the meeting was to take place.

MP Nic Dakin was hosting the event for us and has also helped introduce some of the amendments we want to see to the bill. We were promised that other MPs would be there, but apart from Gerald Kaufman, who popped in for a while, none of the Birmingham MPs made it along. We had been hoping to speak to Jack Dromey, MP for Erdington, as he has been doing some work on the bill, but neither he nor his PA turned up as they had promised to do.

This was disappointing, but overall the meeting was very interesting and it was great to meet and hear from representatives of other groups who represent local communities and defend their rights in planning decisions all over the country. The Rights and Justice team at FoE really are committed to working on equalities and the things that matter to those whose voices are not usually heard all over the country, yet their work may not be recognised as much as the higher profile campaigners working on climate, food and energy issues.

Detailed notes of the meeting were taken and will be sent round to all attendees soon and can be passed on to MPs and other interested parties, so I'll just make a few comments on what interested me in the course of the discussion.

You would have thought that if a bill is going to give more power to local people to make decisions, that should be good. Unfortunately, with this government things are never that simple as there are many things in it which could be very damaging to local democracy, communities' quality of life and the environment, especially when considered along with the measures announced by the chancellor in the budget, which seem to be a green light for development at any cost.

At the moment, we have some very good guidance on planning decisions in Regional Spatial Strategies, Local Development Frameworks and other pieces of legislation, but the danger is that all this could be thrown out and replaced with much looser guidelines. Originally they were proposing that a neighbourhood plan could be drawn up by a group of as little as 3 people, but this has now been increased to 20. There is still a lack of any guarantee of a right to be heard or any scrutiny over the work of neighbourhood forums/parish councils who will come up with the plans in terms of sustainability, equality or human rights legislation.

There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the current approach to consultation, so we do need to look at what is a better way and draw one up using our experience. This would include ways of protecting the rights of everyone to an oral hearing, looking at the way these things are publicised, ensuring that people can feel that they will make a difference and then see that difference. Sustainable development must be protected and there must be a clear definition of what this is that will be clear to everyone.

You can read more about the localism bill here and if you are concerned about what it will do after reading this, please contact your MP to express your worries, either in writing or by going along to one of their surgeries, which you can look up here. If you want to get involved in the work we do on planning, please get in touch.

Joe Peacock


Jonathan said...

Missing link in the last paragraph.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth said...

Cheers for pointing that out - sorted now.