And finally, at the local level…

The final part of a personal political manifesto

I have talked in earlier posts of the need for leadership from national government, and most importantly (particularly with regard to measures to tackle our climate and ecological emergency) for the development and implementation of top-down policies that take the pressure off individuals ‘doing the right thing’. Well leadership needs to be shown at the local government level as well. Whilst I fully appreciate that what Dorset Council can achieve is severely limited by national government policy, and in particular by national government funding, until we have achieved a good balance between the powers and responsibilities of national and local government, Dorset needs to show ambition. It needs to show leadership by proclaiming what it would like to achieve and be prepared to publicly challenge Westminster if it is prevented from delivering.

This challenging of Westminster is particularly relevant to planning issues. Dorset is currently in the process of developing its new Local Plan – a local planning policy that, alongside national policies like the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), will form the main reference point for all planning decisions for the next five years or so. One of the most contentious areas of the plan is the number of new homes that will be built – a number that is calculated according to the methodology of Westminster’s housing needs assessment. But it’s not just the number of new houses that is the issue, it’s also the type of houses. Most in need are smaller homes that local people can afford, not larger homes that attract people to move down from London. To be fair, Spencer Flower, the current Leader of the Council, in response to the campaign group Dorset Deserves Better, has raised these concerns with Michael Gove, the minister responsible.

Back in 2018, the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and the Royal Town Planning Institution (RTPI) published a joint report, ‘Rising to the Climate Crisis’, which was “a call to arms to put climate change at the heart of the planning process.” I see very little evidence of this happening in Dorset. Planning is arguably the front line in the local government battle against the climate crisis, so climate must be at its heart. This report calls for Local Plans to “set a carbon dioxide emissions reduction target and lay out clear ways of measuring progress.” Whilst it admits that there is a lack of clarity as to the extent the Local Plan can set ambitious targets on the energy efficiency of new developments (an example of where Westminster needs to show leadership) it does say that there is “nothing to stop local plans adopting requirements for on site renewable energy generation.” Dorset’s new Local Plan needs to take these recommendations seriously and push at the boundaries of what it is allowed to do regarding the energy efficiency of all new developments.

Closely linked (if not inseparable) with planning is transport. The RTPI recently published a research paper ‘Net Zero Transport’ which argues that the “planning system often appears to deliver the wrong type of development in the wrong place”. We need to take this report seriously. We need to maximise “the potential for local living by ensuring that most people can access a wide range of services, facilities and public spaces by walking and cycling.” This means creating what the report terms ‘the 15 minute neighbourhood’, communities where most residents need to travel no more than 15 minutes by foot or bicycle to meet their needs. Through the planning system we need to transfer travel demand from private vehicles to active travel and public transport. This will also require the development of local mobility hubs; transport hubs that connect, for example, the surrounding villages of a town like Bridport to the town centre (through e-bike hire and charging for example) and the town centre with other towns and the rail network (through a cheap and efficient bus network).

An issue that has been growing in my thinking is the need for local governments to develop their ability to engage with local residents. By this I don’t mean simply ‘going out to consultation’ to get their views on any new council proposal, I mean finding ways, new ways, of actually engaging with residents to both find out what matters to them, what are the issues that most concern them, and explaining to them why certain decisions are being proposed. Leadership has two directions. One is the challenging of national government policy, the other getting local residents ‘on board’. Whether we like it or not, how we live will need to change a great deal in the coming years. Many local residents may not fully understand these changes, and will quite understandably react against them unless they feel involved in the decision making.

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