Farm groups warning over localism pitfalls

Countryside groups are warning the government they must address potential pitfalls in the forthcoming Localism Bill, despite being broadly welcoming of the proposals.

The issue was discussed at the BIAC conference in Northamptonshire which was titled ‘Localism and beyond’ (13 October).

The new Localism Bill attempts to bring together planning, housing and local policy under one act.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) will work with the Localism Bill to reform the planning system. It will have a significant impact in the rural community on building regulations and planning permission.

Advantages of the new policies are the proposed streamlining of regulations to make planning applications easier and more efficient, cutting down red tape and shifting power to the local and community level.

William Worsley, president of CLA, said local action was not a new concept to the farming community: “The countryside has been doing it for years and understands it better than anyone.”

He gave examples of localism in action in the everyday lives of farmers from the drainage of land, to flood defence to the clearing of snow.

But speakers warned the government that there were potential pitfalls with some of the planning reforms.

Mr Worsley said: “It is a well-meaning initiative but the government has not properly thought the implications.”

Retrospective planning permissions would lead to small deliberate breaches and the concealment of developments, he said.

The NFU’s chief rural affairs adviser, David Collier, said that while shifting decision-making and power to the local community was a step forward not many people would have the time in reality to do it.

He feared that neighbourhood planning would fall to retired professionals whose agendas may not serve the whole community.

The decisions would be made against economic development and in favour of the status quo, he said. They would be guided by “nimbyism and not-over-there-either-ism.”

The Localism Bill is currently at the Lords Report stage and Royal Assent is expected in November.

However, the NFU has welcomed an amendment which means farmers can allow land to be used for community events without it hampering their ability to sell in future.

The Bill introduces provisions to protect Assets of Community Value (ACVs), requiring local authorities to maintain a list of properties deemed to have some social value to members of the local community, for instance village shops and pubs

However, these new rules could have seen farmers and landowners prevented from selling land at a time of their choosing, due to a lack of clarity over what can be listed as an ACV.

Any land designated as such would face a moratorium on any sale so that community groups are given time to submit a bid.

NFU head of government affairs Nick von Westenholz gave the example of a landowner or occupier who allows his property to be used for local events such as the annual village fete.

Under the original proposals, to do so would have run the risk that a field could have been designated an ACV, so impeding his ability to dispose of the land as he wished in future.

“The threat of this risk would have resulted in less land being made available for community use, not more”, said Mr von Westenholz. “However, we are pleased the government has now listened to our concerns and introduced a number of key changes to the legislation.”