“Is our democracy OK?”

by Peter Cleasby

“The behaviour of Trump and May over the past few days should make us ask some hard questions about our governance.

I don’t normally go to public demonstrations. Yesterday evening I made an exception, and joined in one of the many rallies around the country provoked by President Trump’s travel ban. Even more out of character, I stood up on a bench, took the proffered microphone and spoke to the crowd.

The speakers before me had concentrated, rightly, on the impact of Trump’s travel ban and the damage and hurt it was already doing to individuals and families. They spoke movingly, based on personal experience and knowledge. I spoke to highlight the other spectre in the room – the UK Prime Minister, who failed to condemn the ban when first asked about it, and has since made only mild disapproval known through other ministers and her spokespersons. This is further evidence that Mrs May is not keen on human rights – during the EU referendum campaign, her most memorable intervention was to favour withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (which is nothing to do with the EU).

Mrs May has steered our country into a position where our government is in effect begging the United States for an early post-EU trade agreement, as if that were the only priority in international relations. Trump had barely paused for breath after being sworn in as President, before she was on a plane to see him. And Trump knows we are the supplicant: the pointed refusal at the press conference to confirm his “100% backing” for NATO that May claims to have extracted from him; the hand-holding; and the executive order for the travel ban as soon as she was on the plane home (he clearly couldn’t have tipped her off, otherwise she would not have been so equivocal when asked about it in Turkey – wouldn’t she?)

What we’re seeing is the two leaders of the “special relationship”– both novices in their own way – practising bad government. Trump is rushing out executive orders on hugely controversial topics, firing anyone he can who disagrees with him (the acting US Attorney General has just been removed), and allowing his press secretary to use inflammatory language: the Attorney-General was guilty of “betrayal”, the senior US diplomats who are protesting against Trump’s policies should “either get with the programme or they can go.” No respect, no acknowledgement that others may have a point.

Back on our side of the pond, the Prime Minister is unmoved by a petition of over 1.5 million signatures protesting against a state visit by Trump – note that the objection is to a state visit involving the Queen, not to a working political visit. Statements from May and her office completely fail to recognise the strength of feeling on the issue: she’s issued the invitation and that’s that, is the line. Even though it’s unprecedented (I think) for a state visit invitation to be issued no more than a week after the invitee has taken office – but then there’s that trade deal to be thought about, isn’t there? A deal, by the way, that will almost certainly favour the US more than the UK, and will resurrect the objectionable elements of the now-defunct TTIP [1].

Our Prime Minister also has scant regard for Parliament. It took a decision of the Supreme Court to reassert the need for Parliament’s authority to approve the decision to give our Article 50 notification to the EU.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the behaviour of May and Trump highlights the fragility of the arrangements for representative democracy, here and in the US. Government is, at the end of the day, a series of negotiated settlements between competing interests, and the purpose of elections is to redefine from time to time what the “public interest” is in those negotiations. Ministers need to be sensitive to the views of others, open to change where that seems to be in the public interest, and ready to acknowledge and respect other views even where they do not agree with them.

It would be ironic if the two countries who perhaps more than any others stood firm in the defence of freedom, tolerance and democracy during the 20th century were now to be debased by leaders who prefer diktat to persuasion. But that is what seems to be happening. In the UK, Parliament needs to remember that it is the source of all legitimate authority – and start acting on it. And a critical appraisal of our governance should be high on its list of priorities.


[1] The TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – was being negotiated behind closed doors between the EU and the US until talks broke down last year. In the name of “free trade” the TTIP would have led to some weakening of EU rules on the environment, food standards and employee rights; and would have ensured that once a public service had been privatised it could never be returned to the public sector. It was drafted as, in effect, a charter for big business to do pretty much what it liked.”

Is our democracy OK?

“Queen’s Drive. Is it a full planning application or not?”

Press Release 31.1.17

A most heated debate took place at Exmouth Town Council’s Planning Committee meeting last night.

Cllr Megan Armstrong, an EDA Independent District Councillor for Exmouth explained at some length that the “Reserved Matters Application” they were about to debate was in effect a “Full Planning Application” for phases 2 and 3 for the Queen’s Drive development.

The Chairman however interjected half way through her 3 minute allocated time and stated she wished to make a point clear. She then explained that East Devon District Council (the Applicant) has not allocated funding for the project, and therefore was not in a position to proceed.

NOTE (The consideration that an applicant has funds to deliver a project is not a consideration for a planning committee to debate).

Cllr Megan Armstrong was then allowed to proceed and stated she hoped the committee would consider the planning application without reference to the press releases and documents sent to each councillor by the applicant.
“Forget the promise of further consultations and further promises of more planning applications, don’t be confused by the press releases and further information sent to you, they are inadmissible.”

“You have to consider this application on its own merits from the documents and plans presented and anything else you have been told is irrelevant and should not be a consideration.”

NOTE (Planning regulations state that an applicant can apply in one of two ways. To submit a “Full Planning Application”, or if the application is substantial or problematic the applicant can submit an “Outline Planning Application” reserving all the detailed drawings and details to be submitted if the outline application is approved within a 3 year time period. This is known as a “Reserved Matters Application”).

Following the representations from a number of local residents and Cllr Armstrong the Chairman opened the debate to the planning committee.
Cllr Bill Nash (Conservative) started the proceedings explaining to the committee that Cllr Armstrong was incorrect and referring to the press release and documents sent by the applicant, explained that the application was merely an extension to the outline, and that there will be further planning applications and consultations for Phases 2 and 3.

At no time during the whole debate were the plans explained or shown on the large screen. The only document shown throughout the debate on the overhead projector was a flowchart of the possible suggested consultations and planning applications that may be brought forward at a later date.

In fact one councillor stated he looked forward to the plans for the “Watersports Centre” in phase 2 and another councillor was most interested in seeing the proposals for the hotel plans in phase 3.

This simply demonstrated that some of the planning committee members had not seen the full list of documents that they were now discussing.

The local authority planning portal has all the detailed plans for the application, and it is standard practice for major planning applications for the local authority to provide paper copies as well as providing the information online to assist councillors to understand the proposal that they were required to debate and on which they should agree a proposal.
Within the documents provided were very detailed drawings of both the proposed hotel and full details of the watersports centre, showing every aspect including the positions of the tables and chairs and the cycle store layout!

The public who are not allowed to comment or interject during the debate were at times most vocal to the discussion and content of the debate, demonstrating their displeasure as much as they were able.

The whole debate centred on the issue that it was a “mere exercise” in extending an outline application (this is not permitted in National Planning Policy). The other issues debated were the further consultations and further planning applications.

NOTE. (A planning application should be considered in its entirety with only the planning documents presented by the applicant and separate from any other planning application).

Without a single explanation of the design and layout and without a single illustration of the proposal the chair asked for a vote and the decision was carried 6 votes to 3.

The decision demonstrates the change in opinion as the previous outline application was not supported by the Town Council and in fact Cllr Bill Nash wrote a very strong letter of objection regarding the outline proposal in 2013 on behalf of his constituents living on Trefusis Terrace overlooking the proposed development.

Cllr Megan Armstrong when asked about the decision said:

“I was not surprised by the inconsistencies and change in opinion. It is unfortunate that such an important decision seems to have been turned into a party political game which is so sad. Party politics should not be an issue for such a momentous decision for the people of Exmouth.”

“However the town council planning committee is simply a consultee and the final decision will be made at East Devon’s Development Management Committee meeting at Sidmouth in a few months’ time.”

“Let us all hope that the facts will be explained without any spin and the decision is agreed democratically by the members on the district council committee.”

Adult and Social Care Crisis

Older and vulnerable people could stop receiving vital help to get out of bed, washed and dressed, because the underfunding of social care has become so severe, councils have warned.

Leaders of 370 local authorities in England and Wales fear that some councils are finding it so hard to provide the right level of support they could face a high court legal challenge for breaking the law.

The Local Government Association said care visits could become shorter, carers could face greater strain and more people could be trapped in hospitals, making NHS services even busier as a result. The LGA estimates that there will be a £2.6bn gap by 2020 between the amount of money social care services need and their budgets.

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, the chair of the LGA community wellbeing board, said: “The intentions and the spirit of the [2014] Care Act that aims to help people to live well and independently are in grave danger of falling apart and failing, unless new finding is announced by government for adult social care.”

The act, which came into effect in 2015, was intended to ensure that councils provided help with basic everyday tasks to anyone who was struggling to undertake at least one of them on their own, because of a physical or mental impairment. But the purpose of the legislation is at risk because councils cannot afford to meet demand, the LGA told the Treasury in its submission ahead of the budget in March.

Only 8% of council directors of adult social care said they were confident that they could fulfil their full duties under the act in 2017-18.

Barbara Keeley, the shadow social care minister, said: “It is deeply worrying that councils are now having to spell out the risks that this lack of funding is causing. We should not tolerate the fact that growing levels of basic needs are going unmet, care visits are shorter and there is increased strain on unpaid family carers.”

A government spokesman said: “Local authorities have a duty to implement new rights introduced in the [2014] Care Act and while many are already providing high-quality social care services, we will continue to challenge and support those not currently doing so.

“We have provided councils up to £7.6bn of dedicated funding for social care over the course of this parliament, significant investment to ensure that vulnerable people get affordable and dignified care as our population ages.”