Malmesbury – the oldest borough in England – is one of many Wessex market towns on the front line in the struggle against London overspill. The Coalition, for whose parties all constituencies in Wiltshire mainly voted in 2010, is doing its best to make sure that Malmesbury loses.
The National Planning Policy Framework – the NPPF – is one of those documents designed to worsen our quality of life, while assuring us of the opposite. “Sustainable development,” we’re told, “is about change for the better.” Who could disagree? And who judges that? Look at the detail then, say on congestion: “Development should only be prevented or refused on transport grounds where the residual cumulative impacts of development are severe”. Whatever ‘severe’ means, which can be a right old barristers’ banquet. What’s clear about the NPPF is that it expects things to get worse, and even encourages them to get worse, at least little by little.
Or take education. In 2012, one of Eric Pickles’ Planning Inspectors turned down a proposal to build 77 homes on the edge of Malmesbury. She refused to include in the reasons for doing so a local concern about school places:
“The situation concerning primary education is that due to an existing shortfall of school places in Malmesbury, the Council provides bus transport so that 14 pupils resident in the town can instead attend primary schools in neighbouring villages. The future occupiers of the currently proposed development are likely to include 22 children of primary school age, and this would clearly result in pressure for more primary school places in Malmesbury. There is the additional concern that the primary schools in neighbouring villages will themselves shortly be full. I understand that there is currently no collective agreement as to the means by which the deficiency in primary education provision should be addressed… However… in my judgment, the increased strain that the proposed new housing would place upon the already pressured primary education infrastructure of Malmesbury is not, of itself, sufficient reason to refuse planning permission outright for residential development.”
From time to time we encounter the argument that Wessex should grab whatever it can, the way London does. If Wessex is growing then it needs the money for all the new roads, the schools, hospitals and leisure centres. We should campaign for the Celtic nations and the north of England to be written off as economically hopeless and invest instead in success.
It’s not an argument we’d ever be comfortable making: ever since the 1970s we’ve been striving to protect what makes Wessex special and opposing its transformation by other regions that are more heavily industrialised and urbanised. What Wessex needs is not more money to ease its transformation into a clone region but the power to reject that unwilled transformation.
The argument continues that transformation is what Wessex folk welcome: why else would they vote for the London parties? But no-one, no voter, certainly no council leader, can have failed to spot that MPs from the London parties are quite useless in standing up for their communities’ right to make their own decisions. Upon taking the Oath of Allegiance – a calculated insult to democracy, demonstrating our servile status – do they in effect surrender any loyalty to their constituents? Apparently, they do. The evidence is overwhelming and utterly damning. They cease to be the voice of the voters and become instead mouthpieces for the regime or for the indistinguishable parties to which they belong. It’s quite safe for them to do so, as long as their rivals do exactly the same. All of them become convinced, if not already won over, that localities must act ‘responsibly’, ‘in the national interest’, all ‘doing their bit’ for the great common project directed from London. And be overridden if ever judged to be slacking.
In Malmesbury, local folk have had enough of being dictated to. They’ve got together to use the system to influence events, as far as they can. They’ve drawn up a Neighbourhood Plan, with the full backing of Pickles’ department, or so it seemed. In a remarkable piece of Whitehall farce, a planning appeal to build 180 homes on the edge of town was upheld when civil servants failed to let the Inspector know in time that the Government was taking a particular interest in progressing the Neighbourhood Plan. A judge in Bristol allowed them to nullify the decision. Now that judge has been overruled by the Appeal Court in London. The developers are jubilant, having undermined the Neighbourhood Plan process and created a precedent that could see hundreds more homes approved in defiance of local wishes.
The FibDems’ prospective Parliamentary candidate for the area has called upon Pickles to resign. Funny how your party can be in government for four years and then decide it was all nothing to do with them. Meanwhile, the civil service assure us that lessons will be learnt and it will never happen again. Sorry, but under true localism, where a developer’s right to appeal wouldn’t exist, it couldn’t have happened in the first place.
Don’t imagine that it’s only Malmesbury that’s been targeted for mass colonisation. Just west of Wiltshire is Bath, where the demand for housing is insatiable yet must, on Government orders, be met anyway. The Council this month agreed to remove land from the Green Belt. With a heavy heart. Fully recognising that the London regime leaves them no other alternative but to lose appeal after appeal and then be denied the funding to pay for the resultant infrastructure needed. But not ONE of them took the opportunity publicly to tear up their London party membership card.
Among the consequences will be 300 new homes at Odd Down. The Planning Inspector reporting on the proposal to the Council notes: “Overall, there would be a loss of Green Belt, localised harm to the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (nonetheless great weight should be attached to protecting this landscape); only slight harm to the Wansdyke Scheduled Monument, with a small benefit from planned positive management measures; and limited and localised harm to the setting of the World Heritage Site… I consider that there are the exceptional circumstances to justify removing land from the Green Belt and for major development within the AONB. The need for housing and the benefits of additional housing in this location at Bath outweigh the harm that would arise, taking into account the great weight that must be given to protecting the AONB and heritage assets.”
What’s happening is being termed the second Sack of Bath. Bathonians are content to let this happen because they’re far too polite to confront the London party bullies (nationally) and cowards (locally) and see them off. The Tories are blaming the FibDem-run council for everything. The FibDems are blaming the Tory-run government. And they’re both right.
About the only good news for Bath’s environs is the rejection, for now, of the Duchy of Cornwall’s plans to build 2,000 homes on highly sensitive Green Belt land forming the south-western backdrop to the city. No doubt they’ll be back, come the next salami-slicing exercise in just a few years’ time. When you’ve been accumulating the estate here since 1421 you can afford to take the long view. Never let it be said that Prince Charles is a committed environmentalist; there’s only one thing to which he’s committed and very firmly so. We need to be equally committed, with appropriate allies in Cornwall and elsewhere that the Duchy has land, to dragging this feudal relic into the 21st century.
Further west still, North Somerset Council this month approved 150 homes on high-grade farmland (some of it Grade 1), seemingly accepting the developer’s view that a shortfall in the supply of land for housebuilding trumps even our future food security. Now, if planning is about considering the long-term, especially resilience in the face of uncertain global circumstances, then it should provide for new housing to the extent that is compatible with agriculture. What’s happening is the exact opposite.
Planners work with information on agricultural land quality that is often incomplete and becoming dated. Issues such as optimum farm structure, severance of fields or the problems of farming the urban fringe are rarely even considered nowadays in a system dominated by pressure for development.
The London regime’s aim is “to boost significantly the supply of housing”, so as to meet the needs of a population that is being deliberately raised to breaking point and the demands of a financial system that sees homes, including multiple ‘homes’, as an ever-appreciating investment. The housebuilding targets really do trump everything: even floodplains are OK to live on now, with the increased insurance costs passed on to everyone else through Flood Re.
And where do these housebuilding targets come from? Not us, say the Coalition. Wedon’t impose numbers like Stalinist Labour did, we leave it all up to local folk to decide. Except that the number still has to be approved centrally and if it’s judged too low, local folk must go back and think of another one. As North Somerset Council found, after a costly court case brought about through no fault of its own when the Planning Inspectorate failed to back a higher number put forward by developers, a failure judged ‘unreasonable’ by the court. The Council was left to pay both sides’ legal costs; the London regime walked away, having so written the legislation as to put itself out of reach.
Back to Malmesbury again. In that 2012 decision, the Inspector said of the Neighbourhood Plan, then at a very early stage of production, that “it is material to note that ensuring local communities have an increased ability to shape the development of their areas, through mechanisms such as Neighbourhood Plans, is a key plank of the government’s Localism Agenda. This consideration needs to be balanced with the importance the government attaches to the role of the planning system in promoting growth…”
Well, there’s a surprise. Democracy carries great weight. But debt weighs more heavily.
UK public debt has rocketed in recent years, as the graphs here show. (And what they don’t show, the off-balance-sheet items like the bank bailouts and the unfunded pensions ponzi.) It’s a shock doctrine moment when communities up and down the land can be terrorised into surrendering some of their most cherished environments, to build the houses that will (allegedly) kickstart the growth that will enable the compound interest (now £40 billion a year and rising) to be paid on the mountain of debt that no-one has the will to manage. And that’s because no financier will bankroll a party promising a property taxation and common ownership package that would remove any need for public borrowing. Getting rid of debt is common sense in a world where resource constraints mean it cannot go on being serviced by growth. In fact though, there’s no plan to eradicate the debt: fear of the debt is just the cover under which other things can be done. Financiers, naturally, want the debt to grow and financiers have the willing ear of Government.
In the boom years, under Labour, the pressure for growth was equally strong but more pull than push, and environmental angst was always allowed some degree of public expression before being largely disregarded. Nowadays, environmental protection is one of those painfully erected ‘barriers to growth’ being comprehensively torn down on the orders of global finance.
Billions continue to be wasted worldwide on corrupt practices like ‘defence’ that add nothing to human welfare. A top-heavy London-based government acts as our master, not as our servant. City slickers make off with our common wealth, going for a song. These are clever folk, who know how to confuse us as to the difference between money and reality. We need to be cleverer.