Local democracy threatened by levelling up bill’s key measures, warns CPRE

Houses with scaffolding

2nd May 2023

More than eight out of 10 councillors fear local democracy will be eroded unless MPs and peers heed their warnings and amend the government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is close to completing its passage through Parliament.

The finding comes from a survey of 672 councillors commissioned by CPRE. It found 69% oppose National Development Management Policies, which would grant the government unprecedented powers to override local plans without scrutiny. The cross-party opposition to the far-reaching measures means 4% of all councillors – and only 6% of Conservatives – believe NDMPs will enhance local democracy.

The survey, by polling company Savanta, found:

  • 82% of councillors say National Development Management Policies will erode local democracy
  • the majority of Conservative councillors oppose NDMPs – with only 6% saying they will enhance local democracy
  • NDMPs would give levelling up secretary Michael Gove unprecedented powers to overrule local authorities – the new national policies could cover virtually any planning issue, and override any policy in a local plan

Tom Fyans, interim CEO at CPRE, the countryside charity, said:

‘Local democracy will be trashed by these unjustified planning reforms making their way through Parliament. As things currently stand, an ever-changing secretary of state would be able to override local plans to suit their political agenda. The government’s absurd claim this would ‘restore trust’ in the system sounds like brazen disinformation.

‘As things currently stand, an ever-changing secretary of state would be able to override local plans to suit their political agenda.’

‘National Development Management Policies are a cleverly disguised power grab by central government. The secretary of state would be granted the extraordinary right to override any local plan on virtually any issue, without crucial checks and balances. This is a full-on attack on local democracy.

‘NDMPs will mean government ministers have more say over what happens on a person’s street than their locally elected councillors. This is the polar opposite of what had been promised in the Levelling Up Bill. Local plans should be the chief factor in deciding planning applications because they give local people and our elected representatives power.’

As currently drafted in the Levelling Up Bill, NDMPs would introduce legally binding national planning policies without minimum guarantees for public or parliamentary scrutiny. The government has defended the centralising powers as in-step with the current planning system, saying they do not represent a fundamental change. A recent opinion from leading planning silk Paul Brown KC at Landmark Chambers flatly contradicts this assertion, saying it is incorrect.

More than 80% Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent councillors are against NDMPs. The level of opposition is lower among Conservative councillors, yet a majority (54%) still oppose the policies and only a quarter (25%) support them.

The representative online survey of councillors in England was conducted between 3 and 29 March 2023. Of those who took part, 231 were Conservative, 203 Labour, 113 Liberal Democrat and 125 independent.