In the slow moving world of town planning you don’t often get a EUREKA moment but last Thursdays report on Localism in The Guardian was certainly one of them. At long last we got some accurate national media reporting of what is actually happening out there in the world of Localism. Namely that planning decisions are often being dominated by wealthier homeowners, aged over 60, usually men and often with an anti- young, anti- housing agenda.
The basis for the article is a report published by the Intergenerational Foundation (IF) entitled, “How the Localism Act Hands Power to Older Generations”. I.F. is a think tank set up to promote fairness between generations and follows similar principles to the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations set up in Stuttgart in 1997.
Their Localism report has a subtitle – “Your Village, Keeping Young People Locked Out” and concludes that younger people who may need housing are excluded from local decision making whilst those who do have influence are often hard wired into opposing new housing. The research looked at local authority, Parish and Town Councils across the country and identified some interesting findings:
1. The average age of Councillors is 60 compared to 46 in the rest of society
2. 32% of society is under 35 compared to 5% of Councillors. Only 1% of Councillors are under 25.
3. In the last 12 years the average of Councillors has risen by 4 years. (50% increase in Councillors over 65)
4. Councillor’s homes are 18% higher value than their electorate’s houses
5. The transfer of power to older people via Localism is adversely affecting the supply of housing for younger people
6. Only 8% of people aged 25-34 have objected to housing compared to 25% aged 55-64.
Some of the most significant conclusions are:
“real danger of local democratic institutions becoming a means for members of the older generation to strike down attempts to increase the supply of housing in order to defend the value of the properties they already have the privilege of owning”
“flawed assumption that decisions taken at the local level are inherently more democratic than those taken centrally”
“clear democratic deficit in in the failure of many local councils to represent young people”
The report identifies some clear barriers to attracting younger Councillors, including, inter alia, residency requirements, lack of time and evidence that young people are more likely to be turned off by the confrontational style of local politics. And, crucially, subconscious voter preferences. After all only 10% of 18 -25 year olds vote in local elections compared to 85% of the over 65s.
For us planners working hard to deliver housing right now the report provides no new information. Localism is making our job harder. Whether it is the constant stream of vexatious and time consuming Freedom of Information requests or the personal and vitriolic insults now routinely handed out by objectors. The internet makes it far easier to dig for mud to throw. For my part I am promoting a new mixed use scheme including a new sports centre in my own town. So far my house and car have been attacked with eggs twice.
We aren’t whinging here – it’s in our DNA as planners to recognise that planning is a confrontational process. We recognise this and our training teaches us that harms to private interests (flowing from new development) can sometimes be justified if the new development brings overriding public benefits. Usually those benefits are in the meeting of social, economic or environmental needs and/or in the delivery of adopted public policy. In every case the need or the policy will have been underpinned by evidence and scrutiny.
What seems to have changed is that localism has created a framework for older people promoting private interests to view themselves as now having a power to strike down new development. There is no blame attached to them – indeed it is to be expected that people will fight to protect their perceived financial interest. Rather my concern (as a planner) is with the nature of Localism itself. At the moment Localism is sometimes acting as a dictionary which translates “local private interests” into “power of veto”.
To me that cannot be right for a society desperately needing to address its housing crisis and economic difficulties.
We often get obsessed with reducing our carbon footprint in order to hand down a better world to the proceeding generation. I would argue for a greater focus on handing them down a house and a job.