Hezza’s magnificent mixed bag and other riveting news

Nik Darlington 10.03am

It is “thought-provoking” and “bursting with ideas”, even “good ideas”, so say Downing Street and the Treasury. There shall be a response in the Autumn Statement, so we’re told. Of course there will, Georgie; and I think last night’s EU budget rebellion was a fine old ruse too.

Lord Heseltine’s independent growth and competitiveness review has garnered a mixed bag of reactions among Westminster’s chattering class. Sky News calls it a “radical plan for growth”. The FT calls it a “radical overhaul”. The Independent describes at as a “highly critical report” that will “just provide succour to the Government’s critics”. The Guardian, always able to locate the grey lining, says it has the look of “a pamphlet produced by an enthusiastic amateur” and full of “reheats of discarded Labour policies”. It is, so one of their journalists writes, “destined for the long grass”.

Granted, the cartoon front-cover does give it the air of something released by one of those kill-joy, bumbling, tenured right-wing think tanks. Though behind the cover there are rich seams of thought and policy. The Times (£) lauds Lord Heseltine’s “ambition and action”, his “elixir of urgency”, particularly on aviation capacity, which does indeed need to be resolved more quickly, albeit not at Heathrow in my view; that newspaper also calls the review “an important step in flushing out a broad narrative for Britain’s future”.

Even ConservativeHome, setting aside their own ideological scruples, found a few bits of the review they liked.

Whatever you deem Lord Heseltine’s review to be (and many cuds have been chewed in the past 24 hours), consider it mainly as this: a classic ruse to create a space within which Downing Street and the Treasury can operate. By daring Tarzan to reach for the stars, George Osborne may hit the moon. This much is obvious.

Elsewhere, it has been a busy couple of days for politicians from this stable. The Sun reports Alistair Burt, foreign office minister, warning of the “real threat” of a nuclear dirty bomb being deployed against Britain. This at a time when concerns are resurfacing about Iran.

The abortion row shows no sign of abating as new health minister Anna Soubry signals no intention of changing laws or guidelines on abortion counselling. The Daily Mail is not amused, nor, for her two pennies worth’, is Nadine Dorries.

On Tuesday, new energy minister John Hayes unilaterally opposed the Government’s wind farms policy. The Telegraph's Peter Oborne writes today that he has “never come across anything quite like it in 20 years reporting politics”. Embarrassing, amateur, or just plain odd: call it what you will, Mr Hayes’ hysterics may have pleased some people, but it sends out a stupidly senseless hodge-podge of mixed messages to investors. This is the scenario spelled out by Mr Hayes’ predecessor, Charles Hendry, as reported today by the Times (£). A group of twenty Tory MPs has quite rightly written to the Prime Minister to complain.

And to finish, a little note of welcome and good luck to new Tory group, Blue Collar Conservatism.

Chaired by the MP for Carlisle, John Stevenson, and led by a broad-based advisory group consisting of Esther McVey (Wirral West), David Nuttall (Bury North), Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes), Philip Davies (Shipley) and Matthew Offord (Hendon), Blue Collar Conservatism aims to foster debate and generate ideas to ensure that blue collar voters remain at the heart of the Conservative party’s agenda.

The new group draws on the support of sixty-three Tory MPs, including the Chief Whip, Sir George Young; the new secretary of the 1922 Committee, Robert Buckland; and others including Damien Green, Laura Sandys and Robin Walker.

If the Conservative party is and always has been a coalition of parties itself, then Blue Collar Conservatism is an admirable cross-party initiative and I wish it well.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Planning reform: a victory for conservationists, but beware the calm before the storm

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Some (moderately) good news! The Government published the final version of its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) yesterday and it is a paramount improvement on earlier drafts.

What is more, the DCLG has managed to squeeze it in to even fewer pages (a mere 49 compared to 52), proving that as far as planning is concerned, size really isn’t everything.

The Telegraph is tickled pink. The newspaper’s 'Hands Off Our Land' campaign, which I have lauded on these pages before, provided a sustained and important outlet for opposition to the Government’s clumsy proposals last summer. The new NPPF, says the paper’s leader, “strikes a far healthier balance between development and the environment.”

Environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean hails the Telegraph readers who “refused to be fazed” during a seven-month “bloody battle” with a Government that “veered from amazement to anger”.

The Chancellor and Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, immediately announced: “No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.” Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, called objectors “semi-hysterical”, the planning minister Greg Clark accused them of “nihilistic selfishness”, and his junior, Bob Neill, blamed “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups”.

In the Times (£), columnist Alice Thompson declares ”the circle has been squared” by the “genial” Greg Clark, the “Clark Kent of politics” who has “achieved the impossible” by reconciling the divergent interests of big property developers and conservationists. She closes by suggesting mischievously that Mr Clark should be considered for the Department of Health, to “see if he can also achieve the impossible there”.

Meanwhile Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and perhaps the single most vocal critic of the initial proposals, unsurprisingly devotes his Guardian column to declaring victory for conservationists over the “cowboy lobbyists”.

What last summer read like a builder’s manifesto has been replaced with proper planning guidance.

The builders’ lobby customarily seizes on housing shortage to argue for freeing the countryside for construction. But there is no shortage of land - only of land builders can most profitably develop, and that is rural land.

But Sir Simon warns that, of course, “the proof will be in the eating”. There are still fears for what even these vastly improved reforms could unleash if local authorities and communities, given only twelve months to get local plans together, cannot stand up to powerful developers. Localism is only a virtue if you have strong locals.

The Daily Mail is a lone dissenter among the leader columns:

…Those who stand to gain most are get-rich-quick developers…[and] the biggest losers will be the lovers of England’s countryside…

No amount of ministerial bluster can disguise the acute threat to the countryside - a heritage as precious as our language - contained in the order that there must be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

I have written elsewhere why there is no such thing as sustainable development. And as Sir Simon Jenkins wrote last summer, “the only sustainable meadow is a meadow”.

But sustainable development will always be a woolly concept. We cannot truly determine sustainability in the present; that task is left to future generations. We make do with best guesses. Therein lies the risk. Yet such an existential risk would have existed whatever the Government had written down in its planning guidance.

As it happens, by making explicit recognition of the coalition’s updated sustainable development strategy, the wording is tighter and less open to abuse.

What other improvements are there in the final draft? I wrote for the Richmond Magazine last month that recognition of the “intrinsic character and beauty” of ordinary landscapes (i.e. the 55 per cent of the countryside not protected by National Parks and the like) would be crucial to any breakthrough.

That recognition has been restored, along with a brownfield-first policy, stronger protection for the Green Belt and playing fields, and the ‘default yes’ to development has been removed.

These are all revisions to be celebrated. Nonetheless, there are many challenges ahead. When he delivered the Budget last week, the Chancellor was very clear that whatever concessions were made in the final NPPF, development would still be easier, not harder. That remains true.

If localism is to have any worth whatsoever, then local communities need to work flat out in the coming months to be ready. The Daily Mail's negativity (or nihilism) goes too far, certainly. But this could well turn out to be the calm before the storm.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Coalition hasn’t killed the NHS, but its planning reforms could kill the countryside bit by bit

Nik Darlington 10.14am

In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP.

NB: The body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia.

It probably wasn’t the first instance of an ironic elegy by an English newspaper, but the Sporting Times' obituary for English cricket is possibly the most famous.

The Mirror newspaper puts on its front page today a mock tomb stone mourning the NHS, “killed by the coalition” aged 64 (right).

Call me overly presumptive, but I don’t think it will follow the Sporting Times' cricket obituary into the history books.

And as English cricket did not truly die in 1882 (with England the pre-eminent team in the world today, the game is in rude health), the NHS did not truly die yesterday. Nor will it truly die when the Health & Social Care Bill receives Royal Assent, as it is due to do sometime before Easter.

The NHS will undergo some significant upheaval, of course, which makes previous promises of “non top-down reorganisation” look imprudent. And some people in the healthcare professions a bit upset (to put it mildly, which many others won’t).

But there will still be a National Health Service, free at the point of use, funded by general taxation. That founding philosophy is unchanged. And, thanks to the Conservative party’s commitment to increase health spending each year, the NHS will continue to receive the funding it needs at a time of increasing costs and demands for healthcare.

The Mirror and other excitable clods will look just a bit foolish when 2013 rolls in and the NHS is still alive and breathing.

Elsewhere though, another national institution of sorts, of a similar vintage, does have one foot in the grave.

As the Independent reports, the Chancellor is expected today to announce the publication of the re-drafted National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and “drive a bulldozer through decades of countryside protection”.

These represent the biggest changes to the planning system since it was set up by the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, and effectively change it from an instrument to protect the countryside into an instrument to foster economic growth.

I’m told by the National Trust that a more robust definition of “sustainable development” has made it in to the NPPF, following input from Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee. This, fingers crossed, should tighten up one of the woolliest, most incompetent elements of the original draft.

Nevertheless, the feeling is that there will be very few practical concessions on policy. For instance, George Osborne remains adamant that economic growth should be prioritised ahead of concerns about greenfield development.

And most worryingly, the Government is withholding protections for “ordinary” countryside (55 per cent of rural England), with only established biscuit-tin landscapes safeguarded by the new framework. Again, from the Indy:

In previous guidance…ordinary countryside was given an explicitly recognised value in making planning decisions, but in the new NPPF, this has simply been dropped.

"If this goes ahead, it will be the biggest and most harmful change to the planning system since it was established 65 years ago, and a huge threat to the countryside," said Kate Houghton, of the CPRE.

The new plans do hold out some hope for the ability of local activists to oppose unwanted and detrimental planning applications. But having just been involved in such a campaign in my local area, I know what a draining battle this can be when residents are pitted against resourceful developers. And local plans can be drawn up to counter excessive construction, but the vast majority of the country is plan-less.

Even if the health reforms open the door for a flurry of ultra-competitive independent healthcare providers and private investment (and gosh, what a shock that would be for the decades-old system of privately owned GP surgeries), the NHS will not die.

The politicians may have gone about these reforms maladroitly, but no politician is stupid enough truly to abolish what Lord Lawson once referred to as “the nearest thing we now have to an established church”.

However, the Government’s new planning framework truly could destroy parts of our countryside, bit by bit, in an ignorant dash for economic growth.

I shall not doltishly declare the countryside dead, because nature will, in its own immutable way, outlive us all. But the nation’s 65-year old planning laws have succeeded in setting aside space for nature to thrive, away from man’s malefic designs.

Yet nature cannot survive buried underneath a new warehouse, however strong its spirit. And once gone, it’s gone.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Bideford: Not only have Christians done no wrong, they only ever intended to do good

Jack Blackburn 12.58pm

Legally speaking, the High Court’s ruling that Bideford council was breaking the law by having prayers on its agenda was absolutely correct. It does, however, demonstrate an unfortunate state of affairs in this country concerning how we view religion and how we actually approach the idea of toleration.

It should be stressed that, despite what either side of the debate would like you to think, Friday’s judgement was very narrow. Christians have cried wolf by claiming some form of “marginalisation” in this ruling. Mr Justice Ouseley’s judgement stressed that it was the fact that these prayers were formally added to the agenda of Council meetings which was unlawful. The prayers are not illicit, but the law suggests that there is a time and a place for them.

On the other hand, Clive Bone, the former councillor who brought the case, and the National Secular Society should not be claiming a victory. They’re uppermost aim was to claim that what Bideford council had done in putting prayers on the agenda was against Mr Bone’s human rights. Mr Justice Ouseley rejected this outright. All Mr Bone and the NSS served to do was to clarify a point of law, which Eric Pickles claims is soon to be outdated when the Localism Act comes into force.

So either way, the Bideford ruling is not as extreme as has been represented, but the reaction to it does highlight a depressing state of affairs. The view that we should “tolerate people’s beliefs” is widely held but often expressed in manner which makes the act of toleration sound like an onerous task, akin to keeping a dangerous lunatic happy so that they do not overrun the asylum.

In certain instances, the general rule of tolerating everyone’s sincerely held beliefs logically runs into absurd situations which are rightly put under intellectual scrutiny. For instance, can we really tolerate the sincerely held beliefs of Muqtada al-Sadr? Clearly, most reasonable people would say no, implying the conclusion that there are limits to our toleration.

Did Bideford Council transgress those implicit limits? No. Not even close. The less hysterical Christian response has highlighted that all the councillors were doing was conducting a ritual according to the beliefs of their faith to assist them in making the best decision for their constituents. They did not force Mr Bone to partake, and many other councils across the country do not force their councillors to take part in prayers (Christian or otherwise), though it is reasonable to say that the prayers do not have to be the official agenda.

But one could equally say that it costs nothing for an atheist councillor, or a councillor of a different faith, to sit there and accept the prayer in the spirit it is given, which is one of goodwill and generosity. It should be noted that this is not a Christian issue. Indeed, the NSS gleefully pointed to an incident in Portsmouth when a councillor walked out to avoid a Muslim prayer. The councillor’s actions are as bad as those who do not accept the prayers in the spirit they are given. Any prayer, sincerely offered with a view to making better decisions should be accepted as a good gesture, even if you think the prayer will have no effect.

To claim that prayers at council meetings come even close to a violation of human rights is absurd, and one can understand why Christians have been so upset. Not only have they done no wrong, but they only ever intended good.

In part, toleration means accepting the generosity of a religious tradition and being grateful for its benevolence. Regardless of whether or not you think it is going to have any actual effect, the act of prayer itself has meaning. In the case of al-Sadr, that meaning can often be malicious and we should stand against that. In the case of Bideford council, our society, religious or atheist, should have taken this generous act with thankfulness.

Follow Jack on Twitter @BlackburnJA

Pickles clamps down on taxpayer funded trade unions and politicised councils

Craig Barrett 6.45am

The total costs seems to range from £30 million to £250 million but the size of the offence pales in comparison to the offence itself.

Namely that the taxpayer is forced to pay for union members in the Civil Service to work full or part-time for their union (rather than their actual job). The nickname for these brethren moonlighters is “Pilgrims”, after a member of staff at St George’s Hospital in Tooting.

As a party, we have never had an easy relationship with trades unions; as far as I am aware, the only sitting Conservative MP who is a union member is Sir Peter Bottomley, dating back to a period spent post-graduation as a lorry driver.

I see little point in trades unions, the original purpose for which they were created having largely been replaced by employment legislation, health and safety at work legislation, and the rest of it. Perhaps I am not alone in questioning their place in the modern workplace given that trades union membership is in steady decline.

Yet they continue to dominate headlines, partly as a result of their “no cuts” activism but also, more obviously, because they provide 85 per cent of the Labour party’s funding and delivered their block votes to deny the more impressive Miliband brother the victory his party needed.

For a long time, trades unions benefitted from hand-outs of successive Labour governments, in the form of the “Union Modernisation Allowance”, whilst at the same time donating funds to that party.

In effect, the Labour Party was subsidising itself by using public money. I appreciate some readers will point out that the political levy and union funds are separate but I would argue that if the unions simply used their own funds on their own activities, they would not need government hand-outs. As it is, the iniquity of the fact that members are forced to opt-out of the political levy rather than the much fairer opt-in means that RedEd’s paymasters still have huge funds at their disposal.

Fortunately, the Union Modernisation Allowance has been abolished by the coalition and it looks like the unions are going to be forced to pay for their Pilgrims as well. This is entirely fair - it is, after all, what members pay their unions subscriptions for and I do not see why we, as taxpayers, should fund activities which are tantamount to political activism.

Eric Pickles, one of the great achievers of this government, announced this with characteristic straight talking. Councils have continued to fund Pilgrims, taking money away from the frontline, whilst howling about cuts. Libraries are being closed to meet budget targets but Pilgrims, and union activities, are seemingly sacrosanct when it comes to Labour run councils. Guido even has a neat graphic here.

But, of course, it doesn’t end here. Labour are making these cuts for reasons that are entirely political. Rather than understand the necessary structural changes to budgets, councils are simply making cuts to popular services and blaming it on the “Tory-led” government.

As ever, alas, we are too slow to respond to the accusations. So here’s an idea for Eric Pickles: every council that has a cost centre or budgeted expenditure that is not being cut by 5 per cent this year should be made to publish details of what the money is being spent on and why it is not being cut.

Then let’s see how long Labour councils are able to feather their own nests with increased allowances and waste money on unnecessary projects which serve their political ends rather than the needs of the taxpayers. We must force them to be open about areas that they refuse to cut. Ending taxpayer funded Pilgrims must only be the start.

Follow Craig on Twitter @MrSteedUK

Britain must choose higher urban density instead of suburban sprawl

Stuart Baldock 6.03am

Demographers estimate that the UK population will increase to approximately 75 million by 2051. If this is true, the increase equals the population of two cities the size of London.

Therefore the UK is going to have to build many more houses. Even if demographers have over-calculated, life expectancy is increasing and there more households with single occupancy - both factors increase the demand for housing.

There is also the pressing need to enable first time buyers (FTBs) to get onto the property ladder. The typical FTB is now looking at having to pay over £150,000 for their first property - in London the average is more than £250,000. The average age for a FTB is now 35, and in London it is 43. This is partly a result of the lack of affordable credit, but the lack of suitable housing stock is critical.

The UK will soon be forced to answer the question nobody wants to confront: Are we favour of higher urban density or suburban sprawl?

The NIMBY argument that the UK is already developed enough is not one any political party can afford to entertain. Only 10 per cent of the UK is actually developed and this figure includes garden land - there is plenty of space to build more houses should we want to expand suburbs.

However, our preference ought emphatically to be in favour of higher-density development. Higher-density urban areas are more environmentally sustainable than suburban areas in the medium to long term (something that Nik wrote about recently). Whilst this assertion may seem counter intuitive, it is a popular misconception that because a suburban area is aesthetically ‘green’ - with grass, open spaces, trees etc - it is environmentally sustainable. The diametric opposite is true.

Compare emissions of climate altering greenhouse gases. As noted in a UN Population Fund paper published in 2009 “low-density suburban development is 2.0-2.5 times more energy and greenhouse gas intensive than high-density urban core development on a per capita basis”.

The typical Londoner produces in an average year only a little over half the UK average per capita of CO2. The per capita CO2 emissions of a London resident are approximately 6.18 tons - the UK average is approximately 11 tons.

This impressive statistic could be better still and the results emulated by other UK cities. It could be achieved by abandoning the very British fascination with suburbs and embracing high-rise / high-density city centre living such as has taken place on the continent.

The reason the average London resident produces less CO2 than the UK average is due to the proximity of their house to their place of work. Reduced travel distance = reduced CO2 emissions. Even suburban trains and metro’s emit CO2, a 5 mile journey by train emits 0.4kg of CO2 per person. The ultimate goal of urban development should be to make cities as compact as possible with as many people as possible living within walking or cycling distance to work. Not only will this have positive environmental benefits – it will have positive health benefits. An advantage urban dwellers have over their suburban counterparts is significantly lower rates of obesity and associated diseases.

It is true that the UK has not a comfortable history with high-rise / high-density developments. Many of the post-WW2 experiments in municipal housing have blighted the views of entire generations to high-rise living. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Aylesbury Estate in South-East London. It was described by the press in the 1980s and 1990s as “Hell’s Waiting Room”.

Other high-rise estates around the country have had similarly bad reputations. Many became known as areas of high crime, social depravation and depressive environments. Therefore it probably came as a shock to many residents and Ladbrooke Grove locals when in 1998, the Department of Culture Media and Sport, gave Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower a Grade-II* listing. This was due to the building being an early example of the ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture.

We should not let past mistakes cloud our judgement about the kind of city we need to build for the future. It should not be beyond the skills of architects to design buildings in which people today want to reside. It may though necessitate some rather draconian restrictions on building in the urban fringe, as well as some imaginative use of Section 106 agreements to get developers to construct mixed use high-density buildings.

Follow Stuart on Twitter @stuartbaldock

Lord Heseltine insists localism is the solution to our ‘Two Nations’ problem

Nik Darlington 6.04am

Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The riots that engulfed English cities this summer have spawned supposed solutions, counter-solutions, right solutions to wrong solutions and platitudinous non-solutions. One of the problems with coming to terms with what has happened, aside from its nebulous causes and consequences, is that this country is not used to it - or has not had to be so for a very long time. The public and, most importantly, our leaders are uncertain how to react. The English are used to watching other people rioting, like the French.

The last time anything similar occurred was during the first years of the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and David Cameron was still at school. Lord Heseltine was tasked, in his role as Secretary of State for the Environment, with addressing the aftermath of the Brixton and Toxteth riots. After the screams, Lord Heseltine produced a thesis, It Took A Riot, though the jury is out whether or not he disproved Mr Emerson.

Now a TRG patron, Lord Heseltine was writing for the Times (£) yesterday about that report and its lessons for today.

The biggest lesson, he says, is to mend ‘from the bottom up’. What the Prime Minister refers to as the ‘broken society’ is not an entire whole, rather it is many smaller entities that have to be dealt with in their own way. The riots are a wake-up call for localism.

In significant parts of England it is not so much that society is broken but that it accepts a very different set of standards to those supported by the majority of us.

A society based on families and parental authority has strength. Parents should encourage their children, provide discipline, instil shared values, live within the law, respect the police and expect them to enforce the laws that protect the quiet enjoyment of life and keep the streets safe. Of course this idyllic world has its blemishes: things go wrong, parents fail and children disappoint. Nonetheless the language of repair, of restitution, of putting right the broken society resonates. But is this the society where hooligans run riot? I think not.

There is another society - much smaller but with a different set of assumptions. Unemployment is passed almost as a right from generation to generation. For a significant proportion of children, a decade in school does not provide education, just a ten-year passage to the dole queue. Crime does pay and pays more than anything else on offer. Local law is the law of the gangs. Fear is the enemy of respect… This alternative society is getting worse.

…I believe that the Prime Minister understands the scale of the problem. But he will need local leaders on his side. He should involve them closely - and this means delegating power to them and creating incentives to drive their enthusiasm. To get things moving in the short term, it also means putting a senior civil servant or businessman in charge to co-ordinate the many public services at a local level that are essential for the task.

Thirty years ago my report noted that problems festered in the inner cities because there were no local leaders to take charge. The problem is the same today. We need local leaders if we are to create one society, not two.

What Lord Heseltine speaks of is similar to the ‘Two Nations’ of Benjamin Disraeli, only these ‘two societies’ are not separated merely by wealth, but also by values - a far more invidious divide.  It is a One Nation ideal, and going into battle to achieve it are Burke’s little platoons. The Government and the Prime Minister can talk of strong action and justice but it is local people who must make the changes that need to be made if two smaller societies at loggerheads are to become one big society at peace.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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Big businesses know that localism’s time has come

Nik Darlington 6.03am

There have been no small amount of “little local difficulties”, to paraphrase Harold Macmillan, but the coalition’s localism agenda is quietly being hailed as a success. Nigel Keohane, head of research at the New Local Government Network, has praised the Government for its “ambition” and called the Localism Bill a “good start”.

Localism is central to the ‘big society’, an idea that the Prime Minister refuses to leave idle for long, however much the commentariat try to kill it (out of spite?). It’s not “some optional extra”, Mr Cameron said this week at the launch of the Giving White Paper.

Partly this localism is being instigated centrally in Whitehall but partly it reflects a gathering momentum in society as a whole away from big structures to smaller, more local units. David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of guru book of the moment The Social Animal, wrote yesterday in the Guardian that the “general direction [in Britain] is clear: the move from a centralised, industrial-era state to a networked, postindustrial one”.

Last month, people rioted in Stokes Croft, Bristol and vandalised a newly opened Tesco. The rioters’ actions have rightly been condemned; but putting aside those protestors’ counterproductive means, their objectives are not a million miles away from the residents of Sheringham, Norfolk, who have campaigned for half a generation to oppose a Tesco store opening in their neighbourhood.

The Government’s proposed legislation will allow for communities to approve or reject such developments. Parish councils and “neighbourhood forums” can decide where new shops, offices or homes are opened or built. It’s not all negative nimbyism either. If a community wants a development in their area, as long as they can win more than 50 per cent approval in a local referendum they can bypass planning permission.

Businesses are waking up to localism too. Last week, HMV sold Waterstone’s to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut for a cut-price £53 million. James Daunt, who successfully set up Daunt Books, has been hired as managing director. He described his bookselling philosophy as being to “have bookshops which mirror the tastes of your customers as closely as possible”. There is intense competition from the internet and supermarkets but Daunt believes that a localist agenda can resurrect Waterstone’s fortunes.

And yesterday, Marks & Spencer’s chief executive Marc Bolland announced that the retailer is going to “stock its shops according to their surroundings”. Criteria such as affluence, demographics, local competition and regional and ethnic differences will be taken into account, reports the Times (£).

Consumer and retail expert Mary Portas, recently recruited by David Cameron to advise the Government on saving town centres and small shops, has declared (£): “the public mood is changing. If I were the Tesco boss, I’d be worried.”

The recognition of localism’s importance by businesses such as Waterstone’s and Marks & Spencer in recent weeks shows that the localism agenda is not some naive, foolish nostalgia for a bygone age of quaint market towns with butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that people will ever tire of the convenience and affordability of the supermarket.

It’s not the big stores necessarily that people are turning against - it is the feeling of atomised anonymity. When every high street looks the same, communities lose a bit of their soul. It shouldn’t take much to redress: when I was growing up, our Sussex market town had a Boot’s chemist but unlike every other Boot’s chemist I’ve ever seen, its frontage was in black and gold rather than white and blue, in order to blend with the surroundings. As Mary Portas suggests, we might not want to kick out the big stores but we want them to be considerate of their environment. If there’s a much-loved local butcher across the street, Portas recommends that the supermarket doesn’t open a fresh meat counter. These simple acts of local people power can make a huge and lasting difference to how we feel about our communities.

Yes, it’s a policy that on paper appears more emotional than economic. I stress appears. Because as more and more companies bank on localism to deliver their future success, and more people recognise that numbers and spreadsheets can’t answer everything, we might just find that those fuzzy heartfelt emotions are the real economics after all.

Twitter: @NikDarlington

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