Christian Rogers, Director, Capita Symonds, looks at the government’s big idea of ‘Big Society’…
The ideas for devolving decision making to the local level, especially in terms of planning and housing, as well as the proposed rights for communities to take-on service delivery and increased local financial autonomy, could enable significant efficiencies as well as better quality, more locally relevant services. With the right support and approach, local communities could now be free to plan for all of their local needs as part of a single, joined-up local approach for council, education, housing and health services.
In conjunction with potential overhauls to local government finance, this could enable communities to make real decisions about their futures which can be backed up with the means to deliver - free of Whitehall control.
The spirit of these proposals is to be particularly welcomed for its recognition that lasting and sustainable change is more likely to occur if local people are in the driving seat and own it. Direct community involvement in the planning system could help make the move away from the historical position where people have only engaged in the planning system as objectors, and towards groups with the same determination and enthusiasm for positively planning their communities.
But to make it work, local authorities and their local communities will need new skills and resources to be able to engage this ‘legion of community grass roots capital’ and thus enable local government to play its critical role effectively in making the change happen.
Of course, there is a risk that, if not properly supported, it could lead to a return to the bad old days of local government being the whipping boy for failings at both the micro-local and macro-national level. Some might say that there is also a risk that there will be a balance shift towards smaller scale local regeneration projects and away from the kinds of larger scale brownfield developments that have been seen over the last ten years. This could adversely affect the drive to ‘close the gap’ on the supply of affordable housing which major developments like the Thames Gateway and sustainable urban extensions have been addressing. It may even lead to regeneration funding and control being diverted to more ‘politically popular’ projects.
There is also the need to carefully consider how to balance the potentially conflicting aims of greater direct community involvement and a more streamlined planning system as councils will be covering the cost of even more consultation and needing specialists to properly facilitate this engagement process. The need for specialist support for planning within local communities if the regional tier of planning is removed (i.e. moving from a national planning framework straight to a local council level service) again increases costs and the need for specialist support.
There may not be universal support for these new policies - and the RTPI has indicated it will resist them through negotiation with new ministers - so the danger is that we could end up with little more than smoke and mirrors and little real change.
Overall though, the greater freedom for areas to decide how they want public services to operate could be exciting and efficient, stripping out costly central supervision and local duplication. The separate streams could be drawn together in a model that allows local authorities to fulfil a strong community leadership role that includes coordinating a single plan for all local services developed in a cohesive way, focused on local needs and priorities, providing for not only the delivery of health and education services but also for the housing that the teachers and nurses will need. This would replace the current system where formal plans just implement government targets on housing and are often divorced from spending decisions on schools, GPs, hospitals etc.
Local Authorities would therefore be ‘free to plan’ because they would have both the financial autonomy and the planning autonomy: they would be free to focus on the local priorities that they understand best and to provide genuine community leadership that removes duplication and overhead, delivering better services at less cost.