14 Apr 2010

Sustainable Communities Act Amendment Bill: now let's act!

I meant to note a big well done to all who helped get the Sustainable Communities Act Amendment Bill successfully passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords and into law last week. The push has clearly been cross-party and I know many of my Green colleagues have joined me in letters and more - indeed it was Green party motion that got Stroud District Council signed up - however we also must note thanks to David Drew who has done considerable work on this.

Pic: By permission of Jaine Rose who has cards for sale in Made in Stroud - see more at: http://www.jainerose.co.uk/

Local Works commented: "This has been a totally unprecedented and quite astonishing event. This back bencher Bill had such strong cross party support as to cause the Government to give it extra Parliamentary time to ensure its success....So we will now have a Sustainable Communities Act Amendment Act. This means that a second round and an ongoing process under the original Act is guaranteed. It also means that Parish and Town Councils will be formally included in that process."

The challenge is now to see how we can make best use of this legislation for real local change. Last August I came across an excellent article by Mark Anslow in The Ecologist. I copy it below as it gives a real flavour of what might be possible...certainly for those of us who have long been arguing for more local powers this has potential.....our country is the most centralised of Western democracies and we have the least powers in local Councils than any other country and the least number of local councillors...this Act could start to redress some of those powers but let's hear some ideas locally?

Forget Westminster: real green change is local

It's one of the most encouraging reports of the year, and the mainstream media totally ignored it. Think what you like about town hall politics: there's power in them there councils. Here’re some figures for you: 80 per cent; 46 per cent; 40 per cent.

The first is the number of people who, in a study released yesterday, said that they travel outside their local area to meet their basic everyday (shopping) needs. The second is the number of people in the same study who rated the provision of children’s play facilities in their community as ‘poor’ or ‘bad’. And the third is the number whose local post office has either closed or is threatened with closure.

Add to this the 73 per cent who thought the provision of fishmongers in their local area was ‘poor’ or ‘bad’, and the 45 per cent who thought the same about greengrocers.

The study – Places, Bases, Spaces – was produced by Urban Forum, a national charity that helps ordinary people get involved with the policy decisions that affect them. Despite its shocking headline statistics – is there really only one fifth of the population who can meet their basic needs from their local facilities? – the report seemed to die a death on the national media’s news desks. It scraped into a few trade publications, but that was it. Local democracy, it seems, is still pretty lowbrow stuff.

It’s this sort of tacit contempt for town hall politics that leaves us forever whining at Westminster. Take a look at Urban Forum’s report and you’ll discover a whole raft of progressive, recession-‘chic’, proposals that most engaged citizens I know would be very interested to hear.

For starters, the report proposes that councils should use their development plans to ensure there are enough shops and facilities (including independent shops) to meet local needs. How do you stop supermarkets and chain stores capitalising on this and killing off the high street? Simple, say the report’s authors: adjust business rates so that they favour independent shops, rather than chains. In addition, you can make sure that high-street competition issues don’t become just a boys’ club for the Big Four supermarkets – every local retailer should have a say.

The report goes on:
‘* Communities should be able to buy or rent local shops at low rates. This should be part of the community asset transfer programme.
* Local authorities should do more to bring derelict property back into use, making better use of available powers including a Public Request to Order Disposal.
* Public spaces need to accommodate the needs of different social groups, particularly young people.
* Children should be taught about urban design, architecture and planning in schools.’

All critical stuff when trying to create sustainable communities. And what’s even more encouraging – and even less widely reported – is that things are actually starting to move in the right direction.

At the end of July, the first round of proposals for reform from local people submitted via the Sustainable Communities Act was made public. If you don’t know what the Sustainable Communities Act is, read this article here.

The list (available here), is enough to make the pulse of environmental and local democracy campaigners race. Residents under Birmingham City Council, for example, want to introduce rules to improve access for home energy generators to the national grid, as well as introducing business rate relief for small businesses. They also suggest introducing Statutory Allotment Status on suitable land to turn it into allotments after a certain period of time.

Brighton and Hove residents want allotment holders to be allowed to sell their surplus produce to local shops (currently illegal), and to put a legal responsibility on supermarkets in the area to reduce the amount of non-recyclable materials they use in their packaging.

Doncaster Metropolitan Borough wants to see a country-wide concession pass made available for young people on public transport, and Lewes District Council is calling for legislation that would force the Highways Agency to ensure that footpaths and cycle paths are properly linked up.

To be sure, there are some pretty questionable proposals in there too. Quite why Ryedale District Council residents think that subsidies on the price of bottled gas is a good idea for a sustainable community is best left to them to explain. But by and large, I have to say this is one of the most exciting spreadsheets I have ever read.

Are some of the proposals hopelessly idealistic? Certainly. Will a good number of them never see the light of day? Quite possibly. Should this stop us from trying? Absolutely not.

So what could we do?

Well here's a list from a colleague of some of the ideas already submitted elsewhere...some good and some not so.....

* A default speed limit of 20mph on all UK residential roads to be introduced in place of the current 30mph.

* Monthly, local and central government supported and advertised 'lights out' campaign to limit wasteful lighting and encourage energy saving.

*Carbon budgets to be allocated to all individuals/households/businesses and trading in carbon allocations facilitated.

*House building targets to be set by local authorities in conjunction with local communities as a replacement for imposition by regional/central government.

*Submission of 'before and after' biodiversity and eco-footprint data to be a compulsory part of all planning applications - the data to be a statutory consideration for planning committees.

*A code of conduct for all elected representatives at all levels (along with their key public officials), based on the Nolan reports 7 principles for standards in public life to be a part of the constitution of all local and central government bodies.

*Government to assess all technologies according to at least its: technical capabilities and limitations; environmental impacts now and into the future; cost-effectiveness now and into the future; employment impacts now and into the future; before supporting in any way.

*All major population centres to have integrated transport authoritiies, with a majority from the general public on the committees running them.

*Local, regional and national government to review all communications according to Plain English standards.

*The status of general public contributions to planning committee proceedings to be raised to equal that of council officers eg in terms of time allocated and facilities available for presentation and committee proceedings to facilitate two-way interaction between officers, councillors and the general public via a question and answer session(s).

*Government to publish a general welfare or wellbeing index, calculated by factoring in the external costs and benefits of achieving economic growth, alongside GDP figures (councils or another suitable agency to publish equivalent local figures).

*Potential loss of local community facilities to be assessed via the quantified total costs and benefits of any change, that is the social and environmental costs and benefits as well as economic.

*Developments permitted on any greenfield site to be required to fully compensate for the total ecological footprint caused.

*Transport policy and practice locally and nationally to be reviewed to ensure that walking and cycling are prioritised above and before motorised transport in principle and in practice.

*Empty houses and other properties that could be used to house people to be promptly brought into good use before building on green (or even brown) land.

*Planning committees to be given a broader range of statutory considerations to apply to planning applications to decrease the likelihood that granting or refusing planning permission goes against the rational problem solving process.

*All public consultations conducted by all levels of government to be tested against a set of ‘fairness, openness and balance’ criteria before embarked upon.

*Transport costs to be directly related to the total costs of travel by factoring in external costs and benefits, fuel/tickets/fares to be adjusted accordingly.

*Those currently required to annually publish financial accounts to be required to publish social and environmental accounts alongside.

*Councils to annually publish their total ecological footprint, established via a standardised method.


Toby said...

hi Philip
thanks for including the Ecologist article about our recent research report on local people's influence over their environment. I know your blog was primarily about the SCA, but i thought you might like to see the full research report (in case you've not already). 'Places, Bases, Spaces' can be found here:http://www.urbanforum.org.uk/research-reports/places-bases-spaces
hope it's of interest
best wishes
Toby Blume, Chief Executive, Urban Forum

Philip Booth said...

Thanks - yes since posting this item I've had the chance to read the Places, Bases, Spaces - was struck by the fact that 80% currently travel outside their local area to meet their basic everyday needs.

I also take on board comments re need to ensure adequate shops and facilities re the LDF - this is an issue we repeatedly raise and it is good to have more evidence to support the call.

Thanks - pity I could not vote Green on your Urban Forum website!

Toby said...

we did consider including Green (and other parties) in our poll, but it's only a small space....but we'll know most 'other' are mostly likely Green!
glad you found Places, Bases, Spaces of interest.
good luck with your campaign