‘Space... is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space’ – Douglas Adams
I’ve been reading quite a lot lately about the Localism Act, 2011. This is a hugely significant piece of legislation in the UK which represents a major refiguring of how local government works. There’s lots of really interesting stuff in the Act, much of which can be read through the lens of a broadly neo-liberal Conservative party talking a good game about handing power back to communities, while in practice making deep cuts to the resources available at local government level and below. Communities, in effect, are supposed to fill in the gaps of a state rollback. A more cynical mind could also see the Act as having the potential for a mass privatisation of local services – the Act gives ‘communities’ the right to bid to run services in their neighbourhood but, having expressed an interest in doing so, competition law kicks in and the private sector can bid to take over those services. There’s no guarantee, therefore, that a community that says it wants to take over a service will actually get to do it. Doubtless Serco are rubbing their hands in glee.
At the moment I’m trying to think through some of the issues that the Act throws up in terms of planning. The old regional spatial strategies, which set housebuilding and other planning targets at a regional level, were scrapped when the Coalition came to power in 2010. Planning power moved up to the national level and down to the local authority level and, in a new experiment, to the neighbourhood scale.
Groups of 21 or more people living or working in an area now have the right to apply to become a Neighbourhood Forum. Once you’ve created a Forum, you then have the right to access a whole series of powers through the Localism Act, including the right to draw up a Neighbourhood Plan. If you do this and it passes a simple majority referendum at neighbourhood level, then your Plan gains the force of law and you’ve determined the spatial destiny of your neighbourhood (for a somewhat fuzzily-defined period of time).
Except that it’s not quite so simple. Let’s say you draw up a plan and want to designate an area of brownfield land in your neighbourhood for housing. This will probably be okay. But what if you want to, for example, say that you don’t want any more chain coffee shops in your neighbourhood, or that you don’t want a windfarm built? Well, that’s the point where you run slap up against the general drift of national planning, codified in the National Planning Policy Framework 2012, which says that there should be a general presumption that development should go ahead wherever it is deemed ‘sustainable’. And sustainable here is defined by the UK Treasury, i.e. it’s a pro-growth agenda. So while it’s okay to say you want to build ‘x’ in your neighbourhood, it’s absolutely not okay to say that you want to prevent ‘y’ from being built there.
Your plan won’t even get your draft Neighbourhood Plan to the referendum stage if it is in conflict with either the plan for the wider local authority or national planning priorities. In effect, therefore, you get to fiddle with the details of what happens in your area, but you certainly can’t use the local scale to challenge the primary assumptions of national planning – i.e. growth at all costs (so long as it’s ‘sustainable’).
Why the Douglas Adams quote at the start of this post? Well, partly there’s the terrible cliché of academics trying to make their work seem cool by association with elements of popular culture (cf. Zizek’s analysis of The Matrix), although frankly a Douglas Adams quote simply shows my age. But it’s more about my trying to think through issues of scale here. There’s lots of interesting stuff written about how the local scale is constructed as being more authentic, more genuine, more reflective of everyday feelings (see Mark Purcell’s paper on the local trap). And, of course, this is hugely problematic. Doreen Massey has written some much cited stuff about how the global scale is just as constructed through the intimate relations of individuals as the local – the global is built somewhere, it doesn’t just float up there out of the reach of mere mortals. The thing that I’ve been musing on is that the global scale is just so damn big that it seems terrifyingly incomprehensible. When you start thinking about just how much stuff (ideas, objects) moves around the globe every day – the extent to which we are enmeshed in a deeply complex set of interconnections – you can start to get a touch of vertigo. Hence the old saw about ‘think global, act local’, attempting to break down the complexities of the global scale by taking control over your own life at a local level, which seems a lot less scary than confronting the sheer bigness of the global.
Of course, this is a fundamentally conservative strategy as it means that you’re not challenging the way that the global operates – i.e. a neoliberal privileging of the already rich at the expense of the already poor. Hence why the Occupy movements were so interesting, as they were attempting to make that challenge, rather than just trying to do things within local communities and ignoring the injustices that a neoliberal global system perpetuates.
It’s taken as somewhat of a truism in geography now that different scales – the home, the neighbourhood, the local, the regional, the national, the global – all intersect and overlap. You sit at home and video chat with someone in Australia, you buy locally grown veg from your nearby organic market but you also buy the latest smartphone made in China. Scales and territories overlap. Similarly planning isn’t arranged neatly into hierarchical units – not every neighbourhood needs a nuclear power station, but major pieces of strategic national infrastructure have to be placed somewhere and that’s going to be in someone’s back yard. So the boundaries between local, regional, national are very porous.
One reading of the Neighbourhood Planning powers embedded in the Localism Act is, therefore, that they’re a distraction, a smokescreen of participatory democracy. You can have some control over your neighbourhood so long as you don’t try to challenge the fundamentals of how planning is supposed to operate in UK Plc. – i.e. to generate a very particular kind of neoliberal infused ‘growth’.
As you can tell, my thoughts on this are at an early stage. I need to focus some of this down into something coherent using the material generated as part of the MapLocal project. And, with the start of term just five weeks away, time is running out to think this all through...
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer