For those who do not click on links, here is the text of Paul Arnott of the independent East Devon Alliance’s hopes for change at the crucial district elections as they appear in the current Devonshire magazine:
My first published book about fifteen years ago concerned a subject with a very boring name – adoption – with its potentially dull backdrop of social services and filing cabinets. The only way to animate it was by my personal story. I did not know until my mid-thirties that I had been illegitimately conceived in 1961 by a scared young Irish couple in London, who later went on to marry in Dublin and have four more children, my full-blood siblings. I was a devoted Englishman who it transpired had flesh and blood from County Carlow.
Now here is another boring word – planning. How to persuade a reader that at its dark heart may be the seedbed for the rebirth of our moribund national democracy? It has to be me again, for which I apologise. I was diagnosed with leukaemia four years ago, had a bone marrow transplant three years ago, am fully recovered and should be doing something quiet and nurturing with this reborn life – learning to paint, taking up the harp etc.
Instead I find myself chairman of a movement called the East Devon Alliance, which is supporting a network of Independent candidates to fight the majority of ward seats in the district election happening on the same day as those for Parliament.
It is the biggest Independent effort in British electoral history, more than 40 individual, plucky people who have decided they cannot trust our beloved environment to the whims of a one-party council dominated by pals of developers any longer. They have realised, in supposedly sleepy East Devon, that democracy can only be revived by entirely changing the guard. Indeed, perhaps in this roots-up path may be found the eventual route to national reform?
When I first fell amongst these lovely people, their horror stories from about twenty towns and villages were of a piece with my experience before being ill, making J.K Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy seem like a Year One show-and-tell project. To all of us, it was now beyond doubt that many dominant parish, town and district councillors (and sometimes clerks) mainly sought office to grease the wheels for planning consents for their allies.
Dysfunction was endemic in even the loveliest communities. Rigged agendas, bullying in meetings, and fixed minutes, were all product of the ugly elephant in too many civic rooms. In 2011, the coalition government, announced that in Planning the mantra would now be a “presumption in favour of development”.
It was game on for many well-placed councillors. The only protection against ill-conceived building in the wrong places (key agricultural land) for the wrong people (we need low-cost housing, not executive homes) was for a district to have an adopted (that boring word, again) Local Plan in place. By extraordinary chance, East Devon District Council has managed its affairs in such a way that after an unopposed four year term of office, in a relatively simple area to deal with, it has no such Local Plan at all. Naked in the conference chamber.
Instead, as in the Ireland of my genetic forebears, there is a rush for re-zoning arable for industrial estates, and a gross over-inflation of need at the upper end of the housing market. Of equal concern, there is no positive vision either. Nimbys is the stale acronym thrown at the likes of us. This is unjust.
All of us have identified adjacent to our towns and villages former factories or farmyards which are ideally located for brownfield development, many derelict for years.
Why isn’t the District Council making a united effort to build on these? Is it because this would reduce the need to build on the greenfield locations owned or agented by councillors’ pals, who have long favoured decisions to be made in skittle alleys, lodges and clubs.
We are now at the eleventh hour. I emerged from five months incarceration in a sterile, isolated hospital room to recuperate not in the pollution and tarmac of the London where I was born, but the valleys and hills of the county I love, the landscape which sustains our two essential industries of agriculture and tourism. I, and my fellow Independents, cherish and understand the meaning of stewardship – that we are but passing through. And if we can take back the reins of our afflicted district from the one-party group who now have hold, it is not too late for East Devon to become governed not as the land for robber barons but for a new era of stewards protecting democracy and environment alike.