What’s behind Localism and the new Planning System

The Localism Bill 2010 is one part of a wider philosophy that the Coalition has adopted, spanning more than just the planning system.

When David Cameron chose to make the “Big Society” the centre piece of his election campaign, it took many people by surprise, including those from his own party. Cameron (a big believer in small government) officially launched the Big Society in a speech in Manchester shortly after taking office. His keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference similarly focussed on the subject, suggesting that, like it or not, it is here to stay.

But what do these terms mean and where do they come from?

The Big Society

The Big Society is a broad vision that crosses a range of public services, when Whitehall and centralised decision-making will be reduced and communities ‘empowered’. This is not just in planning, in education, for example, the Conservatives plan to introduce Swedish-style free schools that could be run by groups of parents outside of local authority control, alongside an expanded academy programme.

At its core, the Big Society is a vision to create a nation grounded on an ethic of volunteerism, where local decisions are taken by local people. It is a shrinking of the state.


For planning, the Big Society has come to be defined by “Localism”, a new word with – at present – no firm meaning except that planning decisions will originate from local rather than national policy. A recipe for even lower housing delivery? This is the fear of the development industry already scarred by an unpredictable planning system.

This process has started with the end of nationally set targets through Regional Spatial Strategies, giving local authorities the power to consult and set their own. It means a greater emphasis on public participation in planning applications and in some cases, an end to planning applications altogether.

The vision for Localism was spelt out in two green papers whilst in opposition:

Control Shift set out the Big Society and Localism as core principles of any future Conservative government. In it, Cameron described localism as holding “the key to economic, social and political success in the future”.

Open Source Planning, published at the beginning of the year, outlined what localism could mean for the planning industry. The paper contained numerous policies which you can view here.

The Bill represents the realisation of the vision spelt out in these papers.

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