Local Power

Last Friday, more than 400 local residents attended a public meeting which I called at Fontwell Park.  The issue that caused so much concern was a proposed new development of 2,000 houses in the Six Villages area.

There's a strong view that the previous Government's housing numbers were too high, not least because of completely inadequate local infrastructure.  Our villagers know only too well the problems with roads, water and sewerage.

But I was especially struck by another flaw in the proposal.  The whole point of localism was to give neighbourhoods powers to write their own plans.  But this reform is being undermined by the continuation of a top-down approach.

Thank goodness the hated regional housing targets are finally about to be scrapped.  Now district councils like Mid-Sussex, Horsham, Arun and Chichester will have the job of setting overall housing numbers in their areas.

But I'm concerned that parishes still don't have enough of a say as they draw up their own neighbourhood plans.

With power comes responsibility.  And it's noticeable that parish councils haven't just been saying 'no' to any development.  But they do have the best idea about what is sustainable.

And their proposals will be put to a local vote.  That means decisions will have real local legitimacy.  So they should be respected.

The principle of localism is clear.  Power should be as close to the people as possible.  And our county and district councils are certainly a lot closer to local people than, say, the late and unlamented South East England Regional Assembly.

But many decisions can be taken more locally still - and not just over planning.  So if individuals can control personal budgets, they should be empowered to do so.  West Sussex successfully pioneered this with social care.

The same principle could be extended to new areas where personal choice over how public money is directed would ensure that it is spent better - for instance, healthcare and schools.

If personal control isn't appropriate, give communities power.  Earlier this year I saw a brilliant scheme in the Netherlands where a local community is allocated hours of police officer time.  They really did set the neighbourhood policing priorities.

Governments find it hard to let go.  So, sometimes, do councils.  But the strength of our West Sussex villages lies in our communities.  It's time to give them the say they deserve.   

Christopher N Howarth