Market research agency Comres have found local councillors to be feeling disempowered, lacking faith in the efficacy of planning reform, and under ever growing financial strain. 411 councillors were interviewed between 5th July and 23rd July 2012 online, including 48 from London Boroughs. The results were weighted to give a representative picture in England and Wales.
87 per cent of councillors in England and Wales disagree that ‘the current balance of power between central and local government is about right’. Of the 48 London responses, it was 94 per cent. They most strongly agreed with statements that they are not listened to or understood by central government. What is not clear is whether this feeling is due to moves towards more centralist governance – particularly in London, where the Mayor has never been more powerful – or that local councillors feel that localism has shunned them in favour of community empowerment through measures such as Neighbourhood Planning. Or perhaps both at the same time: Future of London’s survey of Borough officers, found in Localism in London: the implications for planning and regeneration in the Capital agreed that there was a lack of coherence to the localism agenda, suggesting an uncertainty around what the purpose of local government should be within it.
The financial situation is compounding this issue. 72 per cent of councillors in England and Wales do not think that they have the financial resources to give their communities the services they want. This disempowerment is detrimental for those councils already feeling vulnerable. And with 72 per cent also feeling that the financial state of their organisations will worsen in the next 12 months, this picture is unlikely to improve. Councils must seek innovative ways of delivering key services, and make some tough decisions about their role of service provider as the impact of the cuts rises.
More positively, whilst we are 10 months into the Localism Act, some of the measures, such as HRA reform, did not kick in until April. HRA reform was identified in our survey as having great potential to impact positively on local authority budgets. It will take time for councils to reap these benefits, and they are dependent on their ability to take a new approach to business planning.
Another striking outcome was around councillors’ belief in the opportunities of the National Planning Policy Framework. 40 per cent in England and Wales believe that the NPPF will not improve opportunities for growth by stimulating development. London’s 48 responses amounted to 80 per cent. Considering that this was the main objective of the NPPF, this reiterates the divide between central and local government. It is particularly striking in the light of recent further proposals to relax planning rules, all in the name of boosting growth. The LGA were very quick to respond to the proposals with evidence that it is rarely planning that holds developments up.
The report also investigated attitudes to specific types of planning application. Whilst there is general consensus between the three main parties on the kinds of applications councillors supported, there is polar opposition in what should be opposed – wind farms for Conservatives, and fossil fuel power stations for both Labour and the Liberal. Democrats. Perhaps this is not surprising, but it is a sharp reminder of the level of dissent amongst the Coalition Government on fundamental issues facing the country.
Jo Wilson, FoL
NB Comres presented these findings at a breakfast event on 18th September 2012. For copies of the report, contact Jasmine Morgan Jasmine.Morgan@comres.co.uk
 CLG (2012) Statement on housing and growth 6th September 2012 (online) http://www.communities.gov.uk/statements/corporate/housingandgrowth
 LGA (2012) Councils respond to planning announcement (online)