Attending the ACS-organised Heart Of The Community conference last week, I was struck by how much the political mood has swung from the national to the local since the election. It seemed that every speaker was looking forward to a bright new future where individual communities will determine their own future and our high streets become energised by entrepreneurial spirit.
Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems like the idea of localism, so, it's inevitably going to be a major issue for the next few years. However, as is often the case with nice ideas, there is a catch.
Key to the debate are the implications for planning. One of the most common questions I am asked by retailers as yet another Tesco opens is: 'how can we stop this?'. Bearing in mind the number of locations where the giant retailer has had its development plans initially rejected but ultimately approved on appeal, the answer, sadly, is not very easily. There are ways to oppose a Tesco development, but the fact remains that the company opened a million square foot of new selling space last year and is on track to repeat the feat this year.
So while I'm all for decision-making at a local level, this is only good if those making the decision are well-informed and legally well-protected, so that no means no, regardless of which retailer the council is talking to. Local authorities should be able to call the shots with confidence, not terrified at the prospect of incurring a crippling legal bill.
If you want a further example of the drawbacks of localism, look no further than the alcohol licensing regime. The previous government changed the system to make it operated by local authorities rather than the courts, but few people think it been improved as a result.
For one thing, the bureaucracy has proved costly for local authorities and the applicants pay through the nose to cover these costs. Second, the increased power of objection granted to local people and the police has meant, in practice, that retailers have to jump through more hoops to obtain or retain an alcohol licence.
I know of many retailers who have spent months or even years trying to overcome local objections to a licence. Some have simply given up and walked away from their proposed new store. And we are starting to see outlets having their licences curtailed or suspended simply as a knee-jerk reaction to generalised anti-social behaviour in the community.
The new government wants to dismantle the old system but at the same time increasing the influence of local groups. This is a worry. An increased local influence over licences could put stores' viability at risk from groups of local busybodies with nothing better to do than blame retailers for the activities of a few local idiots.