Sunday, April 28, 2019

An unfortunately timed planning application...

Early April, with nominations for the District and Parish Councils closed, and a sense of hiatus, as we wait to see who our new District Councillors might be - Creeting St Peter has moved from the old Stowupland Ward to a new, two-member, Needham Market Ward. And then, a somewhat unexpected event, a planning application that impacts directly on the village core.

The key roads in the village are three in number. Pound Road, which becomes Creeting Lane as it leaves the village, runs through the middle, and is our connection to the outside world in both directions - north towards Stowupland, south towards Stowmarket and Needham Market. Two roads runs broadly eastwards off it, The Lane from the centre of the village, and a private road to Roydon Hall Farm about 150 yards further north. The U-shape that they form encloses an area of meadow, access to which is only possible through a house on Pound Road called, aptly, Meadows.

The planning application is an interesting one, seeking to demolish “Meadows” and replace it on the site with five four-bedroomed houses - executive homes, I guess you’d call them. The meadow is to be left untouched, although the design of the application is such that the option of extending into the meadow (which is much larger) remains open.

Five houses isn’t very much, I hear you say, and in that sense, you’d be right. Except that there are only seventy or so houses in the village, many of which are single storey and certainly smaller than four bedrooms. In addition, the village is designated as non-viable by the District Council, lacking as it does any facilities or services. 

It was clear that this was going to be controversial, and it was agreed that an Extraordinary Parish Council would be needed. Social media (yes, we have well established village Facebook and WhatsApp groups) was already abuzz, especially as the meadow borders many village homes.

As Chair, my job was to remain calm, work with our Clerk to organise a meeting and invite residents to take part and make their voices heard. There was only one minor complication - I wasn’t going to be available to take the chair due to a prior engagement. It was all slightly awkward.

Luckily, as previously mentioned, my Vice Chair is perfectly capable, as is our Clerk, and so, having indicated what I thought needed doing in advance, I left it to my colleagues to handle things.

The report from the meeting was interesting. Twenty-three residents had turned out for the meeting, or in other words, twenty-two more than we usually get, and there was some quite robust, and well-founded, criticism of the proposed development. A view was taken as to a formal response from the Parish Council, and Richard, my Vice Chair, set to work afterwards drafting our submission to the District Council.

It was an impressive effort, and the follow up was just what you would hope for, with engagement with our District Councillor (who added his own elegantly drafted suggestions) and all those who participated in the meeting. Frankly, I can’t see that I could have done a better job.

And so, Creeting St Peter Parish Council Fulfilled its obligations as a statutory consultee. That doesn’t sound very dramatic, or big, or important, but to the residents of the village, it is a demonstration of what we do, quietly, meeting after meeting. It also, I hope, reassures them that the Parish Council is in good hands, which is important to me and my colleagues.

And now we await the response of the District Council. They haven’t always been seen to serve us well, particularly in terms of enforcement, but they have a District Plan, a five year supply of housing plots, and the law on their side.

Let’s hope that they see it our way...

Saturday, April 27, 2019

And, in Creeting St Peter election news...

Nominations closed on 3 April, and I was somewhat relaxed about my likely fate. After all, my colleagues were all thoroughly capable so, were the worst to happen (a contested election and defeat), Creeting St Peter Parish Council would be in good hands. I did at least know that my nomination papers had been successfully filed which, as it turned out, put me at a distinct advantage.

For, when dawn broke the next day (or at least not that long afterwards), it turned out that I had delivered two of the three nomination forms. From a personal perspective, not having to fight an election was probably preferable, as I would have had to campaign properly - at least one leaflet and some door knocking - but from the perspective of local democracy, it’s a bit disappointing.

I could try to convince myself that the lack of competition is due to my winning personality and glorious leadership, but you can really go too far in assuming that. It is more likely that nobody cares enough to run against you. Perhaps somewhere between the two poles is more accurate, who knows?

And so, I have (up to) another four years in office. Admittedly, I can’t currently see the circumstances whereby I fail to see out the term, but I’m a statistician, and in my world, there is no such thing as certainty. I also have a validly constituted Council, as we need a minimum of three councillors to function, and we have three.

Will I continue as Chair? Well, that isn’t entirely up to me, although I’d be happy to do so if that suits my colleagues. My current Vice Chair is thoroughly capable of stepping up, although there is a slight complication in that he didn’t submit a nomination paper. So, on that point, we’ll see.

I do have some ambitions for the next four years though. I’d like to improve the way we communicate - we’re a bit “earthbound” in terms of how we reach out to residents - and we could do more to engage them in our work on their behalf.

I’d also like to do something about the street lights. They are elderly, increasingly unreliable and expensive to run. Yes, there are only ten of them, but they are one of the few bits of infrastructure that we have control over, and they don’t go unnoticed. I’ve had some thoughts on how we might achieve something, but really need to focus on that now.

Other than that, I just want us to run our Parish well, maintaining a strong relationship with the Parochial Church Council and doing what we can to improve the fabric of our community. It’s not big, or particularly clever, but in a world where people have seemingly little faith in politicians, even Parish Councils can be a force for good, reminding people that they can make a difference.

Wish me luck!…

Friday, April 26, 2019

Welcome to the new politics, even if it does look sadly familiar...

I’ve been a Liberal, and then Liberal Democrat, for a long time - thirty-five years now. And, whilst I would prefer to deny it, I am a bit tribal in my politics. I probably cut those of my political family a bit more slack than I might otherwise do, possibly because I know them better. It’s also possibly because I acknowledge that, as a liberal, life is complicated, and people’s motivations are predicated on life experiences that I may very well be utterly unaware of. And, I know that people are flawed, myself included.

Political parties, whilst apparently monolithic on the outside, are not wholly discrete actors. There are members of all political parties who might credibly find a home elsewhere and, in any event, political parties vary their positions in response to a range of external stimuli.

And it’s for these reasons that I’ve seldom remarked on Party defections with anything other than regret.

One of my older political acquaintances announced this week that he was joining Change UK, and took some flak for doing so. I was sorry to see him go, but respect his right to do so. He has his reasons, and I’m sure that he didn’t take the decision lightly. And, depending on what happens, he may return one day. I’d like to think that we could make that easier, rather than harder.

Politics, particularly politics of the political centre, requires the building of coalitions of interest in order to achieve change and, as liberals (as opposed to centrists), we should have a clearer understanding of that than most. Thus, whilst wanting to maintain a liberal political force in British politics, we should show a little bit of tolerance for those who agree with much of our agenda but don’t feel that they are liberals for whatever reason. We will, at some point, need their votes.

Sadly, the news that Change UK have produced a (no longer) secret strategy paper which proposes a slow and steady strangulation of the Liberal Democrats suggests that they don’t see it the same way. The document, if genuine, looks like a classic “new-entrant to a business sector” paper where, in order to achieve viability, you have to drive somebody else out. And, in economics, that might work. In politics, especially FPTP politics, it’s rather less likely.

What it has achieved is to cast suspicion on the motives of a new political party which already lacks a coherent philosophical base. What is Change UK in favour of, as opposed to being against? Are their leaders able to coalesce around ideas because they’re in favour of them, rather than picking some popular policies from a competitor as a form of “sheep’s clothing”? To be blunt, I’m not convinced.

They are, in political terms, a threat for Liberal Democrats (obviously). They are fishing for voters in a similar pool, they will compete for limited media coverage, and they have the advantage of newness, regardless of whether that is justified or not. But, unless they can offer something genuinely unique, their only prospects for long-term survival are electoral reform or a collapse of the Liberal Democrats.

The former means enlarging the coalition for electoral reform, rather than cannibalising it, and the latter requires them to consistently outpoll the Liberal Democrats and make inroads in local government. The latter is surprisingly difficult, as Liberal Democrats found out in 2011-2015 - low membership equates to poor numbers of candidates, thus little likelihood of significance. It also requires a core of people who know how to run a campaign - basic stuff like getting nomination signed and submitted, for example. They will need to find people to do that, which means that this round of local elections probably came far too soon.

But they’re also going to have to come up with some policy ideas now, and as many new political parties discover, that’s where the problems start. New members in the early stages see a party as a blank canvass for their own aspirations, and as it becomes more obvious that they will need to compromise, you start to lose people - the “that’s not the Party I aspired to” dilemma.

So, we shall see. At this stage, I don’t see much to tempt me, but you can and should never say never...

Friday, April 05, 2019

A gentle reminder that underlying dread is not a new thing

It’s been an unusually hectic week on Planet Bureaucrat, but I did manage to find time to join Ros at the launch of a new exhibition at the National Archives on Wednesday evening.

In many ways, it takes reminding that, just thirty years ago, the two superpowers and their allies faced off across the centre of Europe, nuclear weapons blatantly targeted at each other’s centres of population and industry. And, whilst by then, Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Soviet Union were interesting, there was little to suggest to most of us that the whole communist edifice was going to collapse catastrophically and suddenly any time soon.

I’m old enough to remember “War Games”, the programme too shocking (and truthful) to broadcast, which demonstrated in rather unnerving fashion the effects of a nuclear weapon dropped on central London. The fact that such an event seemed entirely possible, if not probable, hung over political debate, even if there was a general consensus that, if it really came down to it, surely nobody would be insane enough to actually push the nuclear button. It would be mutually assured destruction, right?

One of the most interesting exhibits was an extract from a speech drafted for the Queen in the event of an attack. Reading it, you could imagine her voice, stoic but slightly trembling, attempting to reassure - probably unsuccessfully. There was also a recreation of a shelter under the stairs, complete with tins of Fray Bentos and Vim because, as we all knew, in the event of a nuclear attack, Vim would be critical in restoring civilisation afterwards. Yes, we might all be glowing, but the smoking remains of our homes would be clean.

The National Archives are something of a hidden treasure, tucked away next to the Thames at Kew, but their exhibitions and events are fascinating, given the records and documents they hold. They’re a cracking research facility too, with devoted, enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff. 

So, if you’re in the area, do drop in, you’re bound to find something of interest...

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Ros in the Lords: Historic Rights of Way

Yesterday saw a Grand Committee debate on historic rights of way, linked to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. It would be fair to say that the commitments therein to recording all existing rights of way is unpopular with the Minister...

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

I would like to thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for securing today’s debate, for setting out the issues so clearly, and for his tireless advocacy of public access and rights of way.

Between 1993 and 2005, I was a county councillor in Suffolk and, for most of that time, I chaired the public rights of way committee, so I have got quite some form in this area. I remember reading a summing up by Lord Denning in which he said that nothing excites an Englishman so much as a footpath - I have always thought that said a lot about English men.

The cut-off date for claiming these historic rights of way might have seemed a good way off at the time the legislation went through, but it is now coming in near horizon. There are two points I wish to make. The first concerns the reliance on the voluntary sector to make sure that the claims are made before the cut-off date. Groups such as the Ramblers do, and always have done, an amazing job, but they are volunteers, with all the limitations of time, money and expertise that that entails. There is a very strong reliance on local groups. Admittedly, they all know their own areas very well but, like all voluntary groups, their capacity will ebb and flow over time, with more or fewer members and so on. I just do not think it is right that the capacity of the volunteers should determine whether an ancient right of way is extinguished - that just does not feel right to me.

My second concern is around the capacity of local government to deliver within this timeframe. It is well known that council finances are now at breaking point. The legal teams that have to deal with public rights of way claims are now often part of more generalist teams, and they have to compete with areas such as child protection, which - absolutely naturally - take priority. As we have heard, the current caseload is around 4,500. I suspect that, by 2026, the backlog will be so enormous that it will pretty much negate the whole idea of providing certainty for landowners - this will just drag on for decades. Therefore, there should be common cause rather than pitting one side against the other.

I have a final point to make on local authority budgets. The evidence base for historic rights of way is often found within documents such as tithe maps, enclosure awards and so on, many of which are held in local archives. Local archives themselves are coming under enormous pressure as council budgets are squeezed. I am a board member of the National Archives and we have oversight of all this. In some councils, the situation is very serious. One contingency that many are looking at is a significant reduction in the opening hours of local archives, which would make it even more difficult for local voluntary groups to gather the evidence that they need. 

Under the existing legislation, the Secretary of State can extend the cut-off date by five years, and that leeway was put into statute with a purpose. I believe that, with the points that have been made, and to which I have added - the situation in local government, the absence of the secondary legislation and the collapse of the Discovering Lost Ways project - a very good case has been made for delay and, preferably, an entire review.