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Do we need to devolve or centralise?

Posted 24/01/2018


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The UK’s housing market is broken and even the Government agrees on that. But who should be responsible for fixing it?

Dealing with the housing crisis is an urgent priority for both national and local government. But there is no “one size fits all” solution. Each council has its own set of unique circumstances and challenges and public policy needs to be able to recognise and respond to this.

The question of centralisation vs decentralisation in the planning system has never really gone away. And while David Cameron’s Conservative government promised a radical shift of power from the centre to local people, the centre seems to have never really stopped flexing its muscle.

The provisions within the Housing and Planning Act, 2016, and the thinking behind the Government’s white paper – “fixing our broken housing market” – highlight that, although we are apparently in a process of decentralisation, the tentacles of central government are never far away.

In a utopian world the idea of allowing local authorities and communities to plan their own growth is a sound one. But first they must show a willingness to manage competing local demands and plan strategically. The success of our planning system depends on it.

When this system breaks down then central government has no choice but to step in. Sadly the consequence of this is that people will experience a deep gap between the changes they want to see and those they can directly affect. A vicious circle that leads to demoralisation and democratic disengagement – a scenario that is potentially on the horizon with the prospect of Sajid Javid intervening in the production of 15 local plans.

Is there a solution? In my opinion there is. Go further and devolve additional powers, including greater financial powers.

Britain remains one of the most centralised countries in the developed world: a country in which 98% of taxation is set by one person. However, if councils are to grow local economies and respond to local circumstances then they need to be able to raise and spend more money locally, and not just manage an allocated budget from central government.

Momentum is growing for such a move and all options are on the table. Now local government needs to step up, show it can be trusted and make it a reality.