Forget Westminster: real green change is local

| 19th August 2009
editor's blog
It's one of the most encouraging reports of the year, and the mainstream media totally ignored it. Think what you like about town hall politics: there's power in them there councils

Here’re some figures for you: 80 per cent; 46 per cent; 40 per cent.

The first is the number of people who, in a study released yesterday, said that they travel outside their local area to meet their basic everyday (shopping) needs.

The second is the number of people in the same study who rated the provision of children’s play facilities in their community as ‘poor’ or ‘bad’.

And the third is the number whose local post office has either closed or is threatened with closure.

Add to this the 73 per cent who thought the provision of fishmongers in their local area was ‘poor’ or ‘bad’, and the 45 per cent who thought the same about greengrocers.

The study – Places, Bases, Spaces – was produced by Urban Forum, a national charity that helps ordinary people get involved with the policy decisions that affect them. Despite its shocking headline statistics – is there really only one fifth of the population who can meet their basic needs from their local facilities? – the report seemed to die a death on the national media’s news desks. It scraped into a few trade publications, but that was it. Local democracy, it seems, is still pretty lowbrow stuff.

It’s this sort of tacit contempt for town hall politics that leaves us forever whining at Westminster. Take a look at Urban Forum’s report and you’ll discover a whole raft of progressive, recession-‘chic’, proposals that most engaged citizens I know would be very interested to hear.

For starters, the report proposes that councils should use their development plans to ensure there are enough shops and facilities (including independent shops) to meet local needs. How do you stop supermarkets and chain stores capitalising on this and killing off the high street? Simple, say the report’s authors: adjust business rates so that they favour independent shops, rather than chains. In addition, you can make sure that high-street competition issues don’t become just a boys’ club for the Big Four supermarkets – every local retailer should have a say.

The report goes on:
‘* Communities should be able to buy or rent local shops at low rates. This should be part of the community asset transfer programme.
* Local authorities should do more to bring derelict property back into use, making better use of available powers including a Public Request to Order Disposal.
* Public spaces need to accommodate the needs of different social groups, particularly young people.
* Children should be taught about urban design, architecture and planning in schools.’

All critical stuff when trying to create sustainable communities. And what’s even more encouraging – and even less widely reported – is that things are actually starting to move in the right direction.

At the end of July, the first round of proposals for reform from local people submitted via the Sustainable Communities Act was made public. If you don’t know what the Sustainable Communities Act is, read this article here.

The list (available here), is enough to make the pulse of environmental and local democracy campaigners race. Residents under Birmingham City Council, for example, want to introduce rules to improve access for home energy generators to the national grid, as well as introducing business rate relief for small businesses. They also suggest introducing Statutory Allotment Status on suitable land to turn it into allotments after a certain period of time.

Brighton and Hove residents want allotment holders to be allowed to sell their surplus produce to local shops (currently illegal), and to put a legal responsibility on supermarkets in the area to reduce the amount of non-recyclable materials they use in their packaging.

Doncaster Metropolitan Borough wants to see a country-wide concession pass made available for young people on public transport, and Lewes District Council is calling for legislation that would force the Highways Agency to ensure that footpaths and cycle paths are properly linked up.

To be sure, there are some pretty questionable proposals in there too. Quite why Ryedale District Council residents think that subsidies on the price of bottled gas is a good idea for a sustainable community is best left to them to explain. But by and large, I have to say this is one of the most exciting spreadsheets I have ever read.

Are some of the proposals hopelessly idealistic? Certainly. Will a good number of them never see the light of day? Quite possibly. Should this stop us from trying? Absolutely not.


For more information on the Sustainable Communities Act, click here.


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