It starts on the gardens: the Conservatives’ first move towards localism

If every issue that makes up a party’s manifesto is given an icon to symbolise what it represents, land issues and development surely is high on the list that defines localism. Whether it is the uses of gardens, fence and hedge disputes or the contentious issues concerning planning permission, nothing else conflicts, aggravates or separates communities more over the running of an area than its appearance. It is on this idea that the Decentralisation Minister, Greg Clark has stepped forward with his first policy and it is focused on what, perhaps, is the most iconic of localist issues.

Greg Clark has come out stating that local councils will be allowed to refuse developments on gardens in a move to give areas more control over their own growth. Redefining gardens from ‘previously residential land’ (effectively Brownfield sites) restricts green land being swallowed up by developments and while, on paper, this is a solid piece of legislation that surprises no one, it offers an insightful image of The Conservative’s grasp of populist localism.

This is perfectly examined in Steve Coogan’s character in Armando Iannucci’s satirical film, In the Loop.  What develops from a constituency surgery concerning a collapsing wall ends up with the sacking of Tom Hollander’s MP. Even after his clumsy handling of the run up to the war in the Middle East, his handling of this local issue was the death knoll of his political career and the poignancy of this and Clark’s first visible policy is telling. They both show the importance placed on local issues and while The Conservative manifesto was shaped around localism it cannot happen overnight. In the face of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, palpable and small but significant pieces of legislation are needed to soften the ground. It makes sense that the government’s opening gambit is so iconic and so hard to dislike.

Before The Conservatives want to vote on the running of hospitals, before they hand over the keys to the local school to our next door neighbours, and before they open the door to a flurry of referendums, they need something small though significant to lead the way. But there is a danger that in the face of such a sweeping redrawing of our social map, that practicalities may be sacrificed for ideologies. Referendums assume people will take part, they assume our voter turnout numbers are large enough to be truly representative, they hope we are all interested.

How many steps the Tories use to wean us on to their larger society can only be guessed at. A step up from garden and land disputes is perhaps more local control over the banishment of potholes but this policy can only hint at a Tory future. If Cameron cannot fully create and realise his Big Society in his five year term, the Right, and his own party, will feel betrayed by his lack of scope and his inability to do what he promised, leaving the public unsure of his credentials to get things done. The Left will be energised by this failure; if such a divisive segment of legislation falters they can portray Cameron and The Conservatives as ideologues who are unable to construct tangible and workable policy. But Greg Clark knows he needs to conserve his name and office for the larger more influential fights. Before reorganising the running and organisation of schools, NHS and police boards, he needs the public to be on his side. We can only wait to see what follows.

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