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There is a quiet revolution going on'
Local Government Chronicle – 17 January 2013

Local government minister Don Foster tells Mark Smulian the true extent of change has yet to be widely appreciated

Can a government truly be called 'localist' when it sets limits to council tax increases and seeks to tell councils how often to empty their dustbins?

Don Foster is the sole representative in the Department for Communities & Local Government of the Liberal Democrats, a party that prides itself on its localist credentials.

If he has any misgivings about his boss Eric Pickles' periodic lurches into centralist diktats he is keeping them to himself. Well, almost.

"I don't think there is any question the government takes localism very seriously indeed," he says.

For Mr Foster, the importance of the community rights initiative has been underplayed in the debate about the government's commitment to localism. "We are spending millions of pounds in working with organisations that go out into communities and help identify things the community wants to do and to point them to the various tools that are available for them to take action," he says.

"It gives real power to local communities through the rights to bid, challenge and build. There are also 200-plus pilots of neighbourhood planning and already another 120-odd areas simply getting on with it."

He cites everything from "very exciting results" coming from the community budget pilots to wider powers to establish parish councils as evidence that "if you look at true devolution down to grassroots, that is being done".

Ringfences have been removed right around local government since the coalition came to power, Mr Foster says.

But how about what amounts to council tax capping in all but name?

"Of course, you can interpret that as centralist, and I accept that is an interpretation, but we are saying that if you want to go beyond 2% we are not stopping it, but you have to go through a local referendum and that is an additional hurdle," he says.

Mr Foster takes a similar position with business rate retention. "Yes, some councils believe we should have gone further and are unhappy with levels being held centrally, but they have got an opportunity to retain 50% of business rates and to borrow against that income and if you throw in core cities and enterprise zones, where there is an even greater percentage of retention, I would argue this is a massively decentralising government," he says.

"If you do a comparison with the level of centralisation that occurred under the previous government, which got worse over its 13 years, this is a complete freeing up.

"We've given councils a general power of competence, which they've asked for for years, and introduced much greater flexibility over borrowing generally through prudential borrowing."

He urges councils to look at this arsenal of powers and decide how they can marshal them with partners to achieve their goals.

"It's wrong to look solely at what a council can do by itself, it's what it can do in partnerships with other agencies," he says.

A reason Mr Foster gives for the government not being credited with a commitment to localism is that much is not yet fully visible.

"There is a quiet revolution going on and it's about the increased power to local communities and the enhanced opportunities for democratically elected local councillors," he says.

"One of the things not yet quite understood is that a lot of the tools we are making available to local communities are the very tools councillors could be using to become champions in their wards in a way they never have before."

Backbench councillors in cabinet-run councils who feel excluded from purposeful work could use community rights to lead protection of a community asset, take over a service, instigate neighbourhood planning or perhaps save local pubs, he suggests.

Mr Foster says he's been "staggered" by the response to the community rights initiative, with enquiries now easily topping the 1,600 announced in November.

"We have been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest shown but until we go out and work in communities to make people aware of what tools there are and how they apply them you will not see the big take-off."

This is, he says, about "not just devolution to councils but down to the grassroots".

Education

Councils' future role, if any, in education must be the most uncertain of all their responsibilities.

Academies and free schools have spread across England, with the government encouraging their creation. This has left councils with uncertain roles in relation both to these new schools and to their own schools, whose days may be numbered because of education secretary Michael Gove's enthusiasm for getting schools away from local government influence.

Mr Foster was originally a teacher and did a long stint as Lib Dem education spokesman.

"My view is there is a need to have greater clarity on the role of local government in education because there have been so many changes so quickly over types, organisation and funding of schools," he says. "We now need to look again at the role of local councils in that."

He cites the potential use by councillors of the new community rights to challenge service delivery and to bid for public assets as possible routes to councils gaining more footholds.

"It's interesting exactly how the community right to challenge might be applied in education," he says.

"At the moment it is not envisaged that would be its use, but we are always open to suggestions of how we can develop the programme in terms of meeting objectives in education."

Addressing the affordable housing shortfall

Don Foster had been a minister for just two days when communities secretary Eric Pickles sparked controversy with an announcement of measures to boost the construction industry that annoyed local government.

Mr Foster's responsibilities include housing and building regulations so he has been closely involved in the subsequent negotiations.

The initiatives included the compulsory renegotiation of section 106 planning gain agreements where developers felt that the volume of affordable housing required by councils made their projects unviable. They also allowed homeowners to build larger ground floor extensions without planning permission.

The first drew complaints that it was a breach of localism and unnecessary because councils were willing to renegotiate. The second provoked fears of neighbour disputes as unsightly extensions sprouted uncurbed.

"Liberal Democrats have been very clear in discussions at ministerial level that where it is said a development has stalled because it's no longer affordable [for a developer] we want there to be independent verification of that," Mr Foster says.

"I am confident our wish will be granted because it just makes sense. There are clearly issues to do with details around it but the principle is one that is accepted."

He says this verification will "almost certainly be done by the Planning Inspectorate, and will be published".

There is 300m of government money available to make sure the absolute number of affordable homes built does not fall through renegotiations of 'unviable' sites, something Mr Foster again attributes to his party's pressure.

He is optimistic that some of this cash support will be available to such sites so that developers can build the same number of affordable homes as the council had originally required.

"The advantage is it could ensure you continue to have mixed developments, which is what we want," he says.

"Obviously it also has the benefit that it can get ahead quickly because the land has already been purchased and at least outline planning permission granted."

However, he does see little shifting on the home extension issue, which provoked cross-party hostility among councils.

"It's a controversial one but we've been able to agree that it will be possible for a local authority that has good reason not to go ahead with this to use an Article 4 Direction [a planning power] over the whole of the local authority area or part of it.

"But the announcement did not give unfettered rights to have increased extensions, it does not override protections that already exist, for example party walls or right to light. I think we can say we have made progress there."

Mr Foster is opposed to developers 'landbanking' by sitting on sites "waiting for better times" rather than building on them.

"Where somebody gets planning permission for a restricted period of time until work starts, if that 'work' merely consists of drilling three holes in the ground planning permission becomes in perpetuity and they can afford to hold on to the site," he says.

"We've got to find a way of ensuring that doesn't happen and that there is some degree of continuous progress. [Planning minister] Nick Boles is very sympathetic."

Mention of Mr Boles leads inevitably to the furore he caused in late November by saying house building would have to take place on greenfield sites and that environmentalist opposition to this was misguided.

Mr Boles recently returned to the theme, labelling the lack of affordable housing the "biggest social justice issue facing the nation" and pledging that communities would be given cash incentives if they voted to give housing developments the go-ahead.

Mr Foster supports his Conservative colleague on this one. "What the coalition government is doing is recognising that we need to build more houses, in particular affordable ones, than under Labour, when in 13 years their number fell by 421,000," he says.

"What Nick Boles is saying is that if you are going to build more houses we have to have somewhere to build them.

"While we'll continue to press very hard on bringing empty properties back into use and build where possible on brownfield sites, you cannot alter the simple fact that more homes means we will have to build on more un-built upon land.

"People are coming forward with a range of solutions and there has to be a huge amount of consultation about location, protection of green belt and design of houses."