The Localism Bill, due to receive its second reading next week, aims to offer communities ways in which they can revive their areas, by giving them more decision-making powers, particularly over planning. One of the elements is the Com-munity Right to Build scheme, which the Government hopes will kick-start the house-building market, especially in rural areas.

Under the terms of the Bill, neighbourhood groups can make planning proposals that will go to a referendum and, if the majority vote in favour, permission will then be automatically granted, so long as the proposal meets certain minimum requirements. The Government envisages this as ‘power getting off the ground more quickly in rural areas where communities are smaller and local people have a vast amount of shared know-ledge about the opportunities and challenges facing them’.

This proposal has been broadly welcomed in principle, although with doubts as to how it will work in practice. Mel Clinton, director of planning and economic regeneration at Nash Partnership, points out that ‘giving greater power to people who genuinely understand a place has the potential to uncover opportunities overlooked or trampled on by standardised approaches to development’.

The Home Builders Federation executive chairman, Stewart Baseley, is equally upbeat. ‘These proposals provide a chance for people to develop their communities for the better and to build the homes communities want. More homes mean more money for local services and will enable young people to live in the communities where they grew up.’

However, Ian Smith, head of planning at Smiths Gore sounds a note of caution shared by many. He asks: ‘Will it be possible to persuade even 50% of a community to support anything other than the most anodyne scheme, which would probably have achieved planning permission anyway?’ And Turley Associates chief executive Rob Lucas also foresees problems: ‘In some areas, partnerships between a neighbourhood, development provider and local authority may work for the benefit of all. But this cannot be relied upon as communities are much more used to saying “no”.’

John Coleman, head of rural places at the Commission for Rural Communities, believes that giving communities the ability to plan housing, together with vital services, will stop people moving away. ‘Rural communities will be less resistant to new housing if they can see its beneficial impact on tackling the crippling lack of affordability and helping maintain the viability of local services.’

Simon Randall of Winckworth Sherwood, who has been advising a community in Suffolk in its efforts to develop a Right to Build proposal, believes schemes that include a community facility, such as shops or a leisure amenity, will be more likely to get support than those purely concerned with providing new houses.

The Government’s desire to protect local amenities has led it to introduce a highly contentious measure in the bill-the Community Right to Buy. This requires local authorities to list ‘assets of community value’ that can’t be disposed of without being offered to the local community, which will have an extended period to develop, and raise funds for, a bid. Nominations for this list can be made to the local authority.

‘This proposal will be a concern for individuals and organisations looking to develop land or redundant buildings that have a potential for community value to be attributed to them,’ says David Boulton of Carter Jonas. ‘We have dealt with redundant churches and old halls ripe and right for development where small reactionary groups have delayed matters with unrealistic hopes of rejuvenating sites for a hypothetical community purpose. The flip side could be community groups buying land and property from a council if they felt that it wasn’t managing a site properly for the true benefit of local people.’

Mr Smith sees another possible benefit: ‘Although it will restrict the ability of landowners to dispose of underused or under-performing assets, it may provide a vehicle where a landowner who has kept open unviable and costly facilities for the benefit of locals can now transfer the ownership and costs to the community.’

‘If nothing else, there promises to be more collaboration between authorities, communities and developers,’ says Caroline Bywater of lawyers Mills & Reeve. ‘That is to be welcomed, although the Bill does assume that proposed incentives, including the financial ones, will encourage a more development-friendly culture than we are used to.’ However, this may turn out to be a big assumption.

Localism Bill: some key proposals

  • Give communities the option to run local services
  • Give communities extra time to buy local assets (pubs, shops, libraries)
  • Allow referenda on local issues, such as Council Tax
  • Ban plans for pay-as-you-throw charges for waste
  • Scrap 2020 housing targets
  • Neighbourhood forums

to decide on development

  • Plans with 50% local support can be built without planning permission
  • The Bill will officially abolish Home Information Packs