I'm happy to take up the challenge set by Nick Drew over at C@W - the thorny issue of planning permission and localism. Nick cites the case of a London faith community seeking to take advantage of the government's initiative to localise planning decisions, as they feel the existing planning authority are acting unreasonably in refusing their applications to build faith schools and house extensions to house their large families. No, it's not Muslims in Newham or Tower Hamlets - it's ultra-Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill. If local councils lose control of planning, the theme goes, what will we end up with?
OK. Firstly Localism is about devolving collective administrative functions down to their most appropriate level; it doesn't mean everything has to be at the neighbourhood level. Defence and air traffic control can only be done nationally. Minerals planning may best be done on a regional, geological, scale. State education planning may work best at the County level. However, asking the Secretary of State to rule on replacement glazing or front-door colours in conservation areas is clearly inappropriate. So we need to agree criteria about how far to devolve.
The regulation of built development is only legitimate so long as its necessary for the common good. We have Building Regs to ensure structures don't collapse or go up in flames like BBQ fuel, and planning rules originating on Public Health grounds to ensure people don't build unduly crowded, insanitary, disease-liable rookeries; there are standards for maximum bed spaces per acre to stop the Rahmans of this world erecting instant slum tenements, and a whole range of rules to constrain the negative externalities of inappropriate development. There are some alternatives. If we stop people building on their gardens because it reduces permeable ground and places additional costs on the rest of us to deal with their rainwater, we can always pass on the entire marginal cost instead. Yes, you can build on your garden, but it will cost you an additional £500 a square metre in Council Tax each year. And Yes, you can build a house without any parking space - but you must pay an additional fee of £20,000 for the road congestion that you will cause.
The problem with communities such as the Stamford Hill Jews is that they are seeking to impose all the negative externalities of creating a dense, crowded religious shtetl on the rest of us without meeting the cost. That's not localism - it's anarchy; 'gaming' the planning reforms isn't localism - it's asocialism. Either there's a robust framework of rules that allocates the full cost of development back to the developer, or decisions need to be taken at the lowest level at which decisions can properly be made on behalf of all those affected - and that's not the Rabbi and his mates.