How will the Localism Bill affect Norfolk and Suffolk businesses?

It is heavily focused on shifting power from central government to communities and councils but the Localism Bill has the potential to help small and new businesses thrive.

There are measures in the bill which could stimulate economic growth and ensure the protection of the county's high streets and town centres, which the business community has welcomed.

Business leaders are particularly pleased by measures to simplify small business rate relief and discretionary business rates discounts.

There is excitement that this could give a much-needed leg up to our struggling communities and lead to vibrant high streets full of small independent businesses.

This in turn could prevent empty shops, boarded up buildings and chain stores moving in and transforming our town centres into clone towns.

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But proposals aiming to give communities greater sway in the planning process have been far more controversial.

Among them a measure in the bill would give communities powers to shape their local areas, through neighbourhood plans. The bill will also give residents the opportunity to permit developments without the need for planning applications.

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Business leaders have warned such proposals would give rise to nimbyism, and risks empowering the agitated few who will attempt to block development.

Martin Lake, vice-chairman of the Norfolk branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, said: 'Local businesses are the drivers of local economies and form a crucial part of the local community. As such they should be fully involved in neighbourhood planning.

'The FSB is not convinced that putting local planning power in the hands of local communities that may or may not have the time, capacity or the interest will result in a cohesive and effective approach.'

Mr Lake said that he would like the Localism Bill to put a levy on out-of-town shopping centres or get them to introduce car parking charges to make it a 'level playing field' with town centres.

He added car parking charges should be equal to those of council-run car parks and that businesses should be able to veto any decision by the council to increase these charges.

A new requirement for companies behind very large developments to consult with communities before submitting planning applications is not opposed.

But fears have been raised the move could add substantial costs, while allowing residents referenda on local issues could place 'big barriers' on contentious projects such as wind farms.

Caroline Williams, chief executive at Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said: 'While localism could enable communities to promote private sector growth, we are concerned that some of the plans revealed in the Localism Bill have the potential to block or damage company expansion.

'Everyone agrees that the planning system must be made simpler and faster for businesses seeking to develop new sites or expand existing premises, wherever they are in the country.

'New incentives to encourage councils to promote business growth are a step in the right direction.

'Yet some of the proposals in the bill could have unintended consequences – with local businesses' growth plans shackled or stifled at the hands of an agitated few.'

Under the Localism Bill, the community will be given the right to express an interest and then potentially take over the delivery of a local authority service.

But the business community believe it should also have the right to make such a challenge and show that they can run the service efficiently and cost effectively.

Dr Kevan Williams, director of enterprise, engagement and external relations at Norwich Business School, is surprised how little business appears to be involved in the bill despite the impact it could have.

He said: 'The description of the bill says it will shift power from central government back into the hands of individuals, communities and councils so it isn't so clear to see how business fits in.

'Given the potential impact on business this creates an important role for business representation organisations to ensure no unintended consequences for business.'

He continued: 'The bill has the potential to increase competition within the local businesses environment as it may encourage more wider involvement so potentially it could encourage councils to run more commercial services directly or indirectly.

'It also wants to encourage communities and voluntary organi-sations to run services that may become competitors for businesses.

'On the flip side, there may be opportunities for business to grow or start-up as more of the services move from being government run to being run by others.

'Parts of government or local government may decide they do not wish to run or have limited expertise to run commercial services and therefore would welcome business to take on these roles.'

Overall, the shifting of power from government to individuals, communities and councils will see businesses face a period of uncertainty as the new rules are implemented.

This could stop both small – and large-scale investments until the dust settles and hinder the region's economic growth in this already difficult climate.

Hopefully the government will take these business arguments on-board as they push the Localism Bill through parliament.

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