Quote of the week

Life isn't about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself'

George Bernard Shaw
If you cannot mould yourself entirely as you would wish, how can you expect other people to be entirely to your liking?
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/wish.html

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Power to the People

In recent months I have spent quite a few evenings in Village Halls (principally Great Waldingfield Village Hall), listening to representatives from development and other companies intent on selling their ‘visions of the future’ to bemused ranks of local residents. I felt that in the interest of balance and open mindedness I should spend some time with a representative of the Suffolk Preservation Society.

This body, the County branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, was founded in 1929, and ‘works to protect and enhance the countryside, towns and villages of Suffolk’. This seems a laudable aim and I was anxious to discover its views on planning and environmental matters in the Babergh area.

The Society’s Director, Richard Ward, clearly feels that in the area of planning generally quality of design and execution is being sacrificed in the name of target setting and speed. These views are in accord with the recent report from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which stated that one in three homes built in recent years should not have received planning permission! Recently the Society ran a ‘Worst of the East’ competition in which it asked the public to vote to name the ugliest recently developed building in the area. Many of the buildings on the short list were the result of over hasty and ill considered planning decisions. (Those of you who missed the well publicised results can find them on the Society’s web site.).

Richard also condemned the top down ‘one size fits all’ approach of the present government whose focus remains unremittingly urban. This comment brought to mind the development at the Piggeries in Great Waldingfield. What was once an application for 40 dwellings in the village suddenly mushroomed into an application for 93, a number dictated by centrally imposed density targets for larger developments, regardless of their location. Another example is Central Government’s enthusiasm for imposing centrally planned schemes, such as wind farm developments, on open countryside as a panacea for the problems of global warming. Perhaps a more complex, but ultimately more rewarding, approach would be to give local communities the responsibility for developing environmentally friendly solutions appropriate for their own areas; local composting schemes, or small scale power generation for example.

At public meetings about knotty planning issues I often hear the comment ‘Of course there’s nothing we can do…it’s a done deal.’ People feel excluded from the decision making process and distrust the motivation and ability of those who are making decisions over their heads. The Society’s view is that power should be returned to the people, that they should be involved from the very earliest stages of the planning process on the basis that the people best placed to plan the homes and workplaces, essential to meet the needs of the future, are the people who live in the local community.

The preliminary remarks of the Quality of Life Policy Group (Built Environment section), and independent body set up by David Cameron to advise on policy related to the environment accept the premiss that the balance of power has shifted to the centre. They write:

'For much of the last generation, the design of place and space has been built on the principle of uniformity and prescribed and restricted by a centralised planning system which has taken the decision-making power over planning and development away from local people in the direction of Whitehall.'

Is the tide about to turn? The SPS clearly thinks that it should.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Devil is in the detail...

At Great Waldingfield Parish Council meeting yesterday evening the developer of Chilton Woods gave a presentation of its ‘thinking’ with regard to the detailed plans for the scheme. Not surprisingly perhaps, the blueprint differs in several respects from the outline plans that were endlessly debated and finally adopted as part of the Local Plan. A little bit of ‘community woodland’ is being eroded by housing here; roadways and roundabouts have been moved closer to tranquil countryside there. It does seem to me that those who want to follow and influence the planning process have to have very highly developed qualities of stamina and concentration, in addition to the capacity for close attention to detail. This development has now been under discussion in one form or another for well over ten years, and the goal posts continue to shift, albeit less dramatically than hitherto. One has to keep alert!

Some aspects of the scheme appear very attractive. The circular central ‘village hub’, which will provide a focus for the community, if sensitively done, should give a sense of unity to the scheme. There are a number of green open spaces throughout the area, despite, or perhaps because of the very high density of houses in the zones earmarked for building. Cycling and walking is to be encouraged by a proliferation of footpaths through the area. A circular walk is envisaged.

It is unfortunate that the plans for two important features of the development, the school and medical facilities, cannot currently be finalised due to the fact that policy regarding the Education and Health systems in Suffolk are in a state of semi-permanent revolution. As far as health provision for the new Chiltonians is concerned we do now know however that the community centre (for want of a better word) will include ‘therapy and well being rooms’…so that’s alright then! It is to be hoped that those undergoing therapy aren’t too disturbed by the fumes and roar of traffic driving around the hub outside; given the proposed closure of Acton Lane and the road layout as it stands at the moment, it looks as if most cars coming from the North into Sudbury will be funnelled directly into the hub which will hardly be a tranquil ‘village green’.

Traditional villages and older communities of course grew up organically over time, and a mix of housing styles is inevitable. One might think that being able to start from scratch on virgin soil in this way would offer a great opportunity for an architecturally adventurous, unified, scheme which is pulled together like Haussman’s Paris, or Wood’s Georgian Bath. In fact however the styles of the houses envisaged by the developer appear alarmingly eclectic. All the latest fads and fashions appear to be here, from buildings incorporating traditional Suffolk features in the vicinity of the hub, to ‘Poundbury Style’ dwellings on the northern fringes, and ‘eco-dwellings’ built in part on an area that was in the outline plan designated as woodland. These latter phenomena are only due to be built towards the end of the development period. (Sudbury, according to the representative from the developer, is not yet quite ready for them.)

The impact of this development on nearby villages, notably Acton and Great Waldingfield, must be of concern. For example there was no evidence that the probable increase in traffic likely to be caused in Great Waldingfield by the currently suggested road layout, had been carefully considered. Furthermore how will the new facilities, the proposed shop, the community centre, affect the vibrancy of adjacent village shops and halls? These are serious questions and challenges for all involved.

The developer was keen to stress that the detailed plans currently being presented are not set in stone. They form the basis for feedback and debate from the community at large. If you are interested and want to have your say the plans can be seen on http://www.chiltonwoods.com/. A series of further presentations and exhibitions are being staged. People in Acton, for example, will be able to attend a meeting in the village hall on 23rd April.

Some development in and around Sudbury is inevitable and necessary. Babergh District Council has some 1000 people on its Housing Waiting List. A recent article in the East Anglian revealed the large number of children who live in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation in the District. The Chilton scheme represents some 50% of all development envisaged in the Subury area by the Structure Plan. 35% of the homes that it will provide will be ‘affordable’. It is vital to get it right!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Why a Conservative?

Several people have asked me why I am not standing as an Independent. Surely, they say, party politics is not really relevant in local government?

This indeed was my mother’s view. She sat as an independent councillor for Stratford upon Avon Rural District Council for some years in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and believed firmly that this gave her more freedom of action.

When contemplating whether or not to become a candidate I did consider standing as an Independent, but swiftly rejected the idea. While it is true that many of the decisions taken by local politicians have no connection with party politics, none the less I am, I think, fundamentally a Conservative, and to stand as anything else would not be honest.

What do I mean when I say I am a Conservative?

I believe in small government, and where government is obliged to get involved to seek to achieve good value for money. The result of this should be to keep taxation as low as possible.

I believe that relying too heavily on the ability of the human race to plan the future is dangerous, and that well regulated market forces often deliver better results.

Finally, and probably most importantly, because I value the tried and tested and am keen to conserve English heritage and the countryside, I believe that change should only be undertaken with great care. On the Today programme last week Tony Blair stated that ‘All politicians want to do things’. My reaction to this is ‘Well yes, but not by indulging in perpetual activity that in its haste destroys that which is good and worthwhile’. Change should be safe change; I am totally opposed to reform for its own sake.

Conservatism is not a particularly ideological creed, and the principles set out above should be read as pre-dispositions rather than inflexible mantras. If I am elected as a councillor I will be approaching all issues with these guiding principles in mind, while recognising however that each and every situation should be assessed on its own merits.

Monday, February 5, 2007

What can I say?

How interesting and informative can this blog be? To what extent can I really express my opinion on matters of importance to people in Waldingfield? The spirit of blogging depends on the promotion of personal opinion and, like most people who put themselves forward as candidates for public office, I have some pretty clear ideas about how I think ‘things should be done’. The trouble is that by expressing my views about specific matters too forcefully it seems that I might, if elected, disqualify myself, from participating in the decision making process.

A concrete example illustrates the point. A year or so ago it was difficult to miss articles in the local press about the plight of those Babergh District councillors who signed a petition opposing the development of land on the edge of Great Cornard. Having made their opinions clear they were excluded from the council chamber when the issue was debated and they were also prevented from voting on the matter. Had they not been excluded the decision to develop the land might have gone the other way. This local example has been mirrored many times around the country, giving rise to complaints that debate is being stifled and the democratic process undermined. (For further examples see the Cornerstone Report ‘A Question of Standards, Prescott’s Town Hall Madness', by Paterson and Howarth.)

I contacted the relevant officer at Babergh District Council for some guidance with regard to this issue and received a prompt and useful reply.

It seems that those who signed the petition with regard to land at Cornard, together with many other Councillors around the country, fell foul of the rules with regard to Predetermination. This is a common law concept which has been taken up and enforced with enthusiasm by the Standards Board for England, a body created by the present Government some years ago. The basic rule is that any local councillor who has, or gives the appearance of having a closed mind in respect of a particular issue is precluded from participation in debate or from voting on that issue. Saying what one thinks about a hot local topic in an election campaign does not necessary preclude one from subsequently voting on an issue. It may however, presumably if expressed with too much vehemence, be deemed to be evidence of a 'closed mind.' It is all a matter of degree.

This is troublesome. Where should one draw the line? When campaigning it is hard to maintain an ambivalent stance without being considered indecisive at best, evasive or dishonest at worst. If I expressed my opinion against, let us say, a proposed development in the Ward, I might automatically disqualify myself from doing anything about this when elected, despite having been elected at least in part because electors supported by opinion. In my view a principal role of an elected representative is to champion the interests of electors. The rules on Predetermination can,it seem, make this difficult.

Factors such as the membership of a lobby group can also apparantlybe interpreted as evidence of having already made up one’s mind about an issue. Have I already burnt my boats in this respect? Does my membership of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England preclude me from being on the Planning Committee? What might be read into the few pounds a month I give to the ‘oldies’ at the Dogs Trust, or the subscription to the Child Poverty Action Group? What about letters that I have written to the press over the years stating in black and white my views on various topics? How about my participation in the Countryside Alliance March several years ago? The list could go on….

Restrictions such as these inevitably result in unintended consequences. It seems far safer for a candidate to campaign on issues which in reality they have little chance of influencing when in office than those which really affect the people they are trying to represent. Thus it seems one can safely express trenchant opinions on local issues which fall within the remit of some other branch of Government. In this connection for example I can unequivocally say without fear that, like Colin Spence, I am absolutely opposed to the closure of the Walnuttree Hospital.

Difficulties caused by the activities of the Standards Board for England have not gone unnoticed, and before the elections on 3rd May it is likely that some aspects of the current guidelines will be relaxed. I will report on changes as and when they are available.

In the meanwhile I must assure all readers that I do have views, and hope to state them. I also hope, if I become a councillor after May 3rd, to express the concerns of those who I represent. It must always be borne in mind however that I will always consider alternative views!