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Beware the localism bill

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill has been heralded by the coalition Government as a ground-breaking shift in power from Government to communities. The Bill seeks to empower local councils and residents, overturning decades of centralised control over planning.

On the face of it, this is surely a good thing. Local communities, tired of being told what to do by an increasingly unaccountable Government, will shortly be given a swathe of new powers to decide what gets built and where.

Although this is great news for parish councils, residents’ groups and seemingly manna from heaven for the NIMBY element, when it comes to decisions being taken on unpopular issues, some leadership is required or nothing will get done.

The construction of waste and recycling facilities is one such issue where, given the choice, most residents and their representatives would give a resounding ‘not in my back yard’ to any new scheme in their area. As a result, the Bill has had a lukewarm response from many in the sector.

One school of thought believes that things could not be any worse than they were. But many in the waste sector, on reading the details of the Bill, will feel uneasy about the fact that residents will be given the power to instigate a referendum on any local issue. Although the Government makes it clear that these referendums will be non-binding, it does mean that councillors and politicians will have to take the outcomes into consideration - and they will obviously be more likely to do so with an election looming.

The Bill also stipulates that there must be pre-application consultation with local communities and their representatives on large developments, such as energy-from-waste plants. While the Government is keen to point out that this bottom-up approach will give local people an opportunity to have an influence on new developments in their communities, this part of the Bill has drawn criticism because it does not make allowances for community benefits to be included as part of schemes.

In many European countries where this approach to planning is more common, residents living close to waste sites receive benefits such as lower heating bills in return for supporting such facilities. It could be argued that the UK Government has missed a trick here.

The Community Infrastructure Levy included in the Bill obliges developers to make improvements to any local infrastructure rather than providing additional benefits. This will surely make it even more difficult for those proposing new waste and recycling facilities to win real buy-in from local communities, and presents a further obstacle to getting things built.

Communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles has been vocal in his opposition to fortnightly rubbish collections, and has made provision in the Bill for communities to potentially run their own waste services, should they express an interest in running any service the council runs. Against a backdrop of severe cuts to local authorities, the waste sector will surely be watching this space for the first sign of a well- intentioned group of residents deciding to enter into a procurement exercise with their council to run this service should fortnightly collections return.

As the Bill makes its way slowly through Parliament, it is clear that there is much concern about these and many other details. I hope there is scope for the waste and recycling sector to exert an influence and add some common sense. Without a dose of realism and some innovative thinking, it is hard to see how the Bill can be anything more than a NIMBY’s charter.
James Garland is director of Green Issues Communications

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