Plan could end in blame game

The long-ago BBC Jerusalem correspondent, Michael Elkins, once lamented that too many war reporters had not served a journalistic apprenticeship by working on a local newspaper. How, he asked, could they understand the grief of a woman in Beirut devastated at seeing her house blown up if they had never witnessed the tears of a lady in Somerset, disappointed to miss out on first prize in the village flower show? They had no measure of comparison.

Elkins was suggesting there is a scale in such matters, with the local at the mild end of the spectrum. Except it doesn't always look that way. In Britain, there are few things that get people more agitated than their immediate surroundings - the more immediate, the more agitated. Just ask those reporters who've covered neighbours at war over a disputed hedge or overgrown leylandii.

Which is why I'm worried about the row currently playing out in my own patch of Stoke Newington and next-door Stamford Hill, home to Britain's largest community of strictly Orthodox Jews.

The trouble began with a proposal by the government that would allow "neighbourhood forums", made up of local people, to make planning decisions previously left to the council. In the spirit of the Big Society, the idea is that communities will take control of their own streets and houses, rather than having to wait for the ruling of the town hall.

There is plenty of arcane local politics at play

Nice in theory, but here's how it's playing out in London N16. Many in the Charedi community like the idea of a forum that will bring planning decisions closer to home, seeing a chance to deal directly with what is their most pressing problem: a shortage of living space. With an estimated average of eight children each, Charedi families need more room.

But that has sparked local opposition from those who worry that if a neighbourhood forum - with a Charedi majority - takes over, it'll instantly lift planning restrictions, enabling Charedim to build outsized extensions that would blight the street or block their neighbours' light.

Worse still, they imagine expanding families suddenly winning the right to concrete over and build on their back gardens.

Predictably, there is plenty of arcane local politics at play. One group bidding to establish a forum is led by Conservative councillors apparently keen to tighten their hold on Charedi votes (and end the Labour-supporting habit still maintained by some of the borough's Charedim).

And, of course, the Charedi community is far from united, some supporting this Tory-backed initiative, others hoping to create a wider, cross-communal forum that would enjoy more non-Jewish support. Things have turned nasty, with allegations of antisemitism and "social cleansing" hurled at those who oppose the forum scheme.

My own view is simple. I don't want to see a system that pits strictly Orthodox Jews against everyone else, one that would cause local people to grow resentful as they watch their streets or gardens become disfigured by excess construction. Right now, if a bad planning decision is taken, people blame the council. What nobody should want is a situation where they would blame the Jews.

Luckily, the Charedi leadership seems to recognise this danger. They are not in favour of some narrow group winning control of planning. Instead, as the indomitable Rabbi Avraham Pinter puts it, they want a forum that is "broad, inclusive and represents all views." I agree. But if it's too tricky to set up a new body that meets all those criteria, I can think of an old one that ticks the same boxes. It's called the local council. Let it decide who can build and where - and let its members take the blame.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 1:45pm, April 26 2013