An open letter to Michael Gove

An open letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State  for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, from a Correspondent:

Dear Secretary of State, 

Amongst your many new responsibilities you have been given the unenviable task of building 300,000 homes a year with the remit that voters in Tory constituencies continue to vote Tory and not liberal democrat. Also, are you aware that in my part of the world it was an independent who was runner-up twice to the conservative in the last national elections and my local council Independent led?

 This is in response to the previous local Tory regime who “built, built, built”.

You will never reconcile your goals until we, who live in these constituencies, trust that there is democracy and openness in planning, the planning system itself, those who administer it and then those who vote on the planning applications. An Englishman’s home is his castle, large sums of money are invested. There must be a democratic process if any development occurs nearby. The answer is not to seriously curtail local input. 

I am very pleased that the government now is considering that the 1.1 million homes awarded planning permission, but not yet built, may be subject to a land tax. This will ease the housebuilding problem. I believe that this issue was the main cause of the shortage of housing, not the present planning system. The present system is by no means perfect but the suggested changes of Robert Jenrick were not the answer. 

To add to your problems we in Devon and Cornwall have the added difficulty of seeing many of our permanent dwellings bought as second homes and holiday lets. This results in a lack of affordable homes for our local youngsters, inflated house prices, no long term rentals available and serious loss of community. No widow should have to buy a flat for her daughter who can afford to rent but there are no long term rentals available. As she said “I can’t have my daughter homeless”. 

I cannot understand why a dwelling built as a Holiday Let needs planning permission to become a permanent dwelling and yet a permanent dwelling can become a second home without any planning restrictions. Surely this is now the time to change this.

To many of us it is immoral that “The Times” could report that in the last decade more homes became second homes than were built. Grade 1 agricultural land has been sacrificed for a new town in our district which is unacceptable. To add insult to injury the town of circa 5,000 population which was started 10 years ago still lacks a viable town centre with shops.

Why don’t we  trust the planning system? 

Is it that the National Planning Framework is fundamentally flawed? I accept that sustainable development is at the heart of the NPPF but there are safeguards in place to improve the environment and our heritage. The problem relates to the many ambiguous words in the NPPF such as:

“significant; in the best interests; give weight to; harm; conserve and enhance”

This gives tremendous powers to the planners and councillors. A balance has to be struck and weight given between the different policies by the planners but the experience in East Devon is that the deciding factor is always “economic benefit” or “housing need” (in spite of a 5 year land supply).

 For example there was an application for 2 houses in the conservation area of a saxon village, adjacent to 10 listed buildings and 45 metres from the Grade 1 listed church.  This site of great heritage significance was validated with no Historic Impact Assessment as required in the NPPF. The officers were repeatedly made aware of the extreme importance of the site by Historic England’s three comments on the planning portal. Of particular concern was that the orientation of the proposed buildings were at right angles to the historic landscape. These comments were simply brushed aside. The application was contrary to many of the newly adopted local neighbourhood plan policies -number of bedrooms specified in NP; materials; density; design; respecting heritage assets. This contentious application was decided by officers under delegated power and approved. The reason given was the need for housing although East Devon at that time had a 5 year land supply.

So, what about democracy and the planning process? Many towns and villages in East Devon have an adopted Neighbourhood Plan which is a very democratic way of finding locals’ views on issues in their neighbourhood and then voting on them. Some councils and developers also consult on proposed planning matters.

Why then is it widely thought to be a charade? Following a consultation regarding the proposed location of a school it is amazing that Devon County Council still put forward a planning application for a 150 housing development and school in Ottery St. Mary which was contrary to a) the Ottery St Mary Neighbourhood Plan and b) contrary to the result of their own DCC consultation. But of course their reasoning was:

“this needs to be balanced against the benefits of the solution proposed” 

and

“however, in general planning is concerned with land use in the public interest. “

Developers are encouraged to consult. This is exactly what Burrington Estates did in Clyst St. Mary. The first public consultation included, amongst many other dwellings,  14 traditional houses adjoining the houses next to the site. This was supported by the majority of the community.

When the outline hybrid Planning Application was submitted to East Devon Planners these had increased to almost 60 flats which, after objections, have now been reduced to four blocks of 40 flats. Quite an increase as these flats will now overlook the pre-existing houses. In addition 39 more homes have received outline planning permission since the consultation.  

As another correspondent wrote:

“ What this community was originally shown and found acceptable at a Public Consultation bears no resemblance to what is now being proposed!”

Yes, the developers think the present planning system needs revision. Yes, the public also thinks the planning system needs revision. But you must remember that if you wish people to vote conservative you must provide convincing arguments. The 300,000 houses a year target has been question many times. Please tell us in detail where this number comes from. Do something about second homes. Make sure the land is released which has planning permission and developers are sitting on. Make sure our environment and heritage is not sacrificed for the nebulous “economic benefit”, “public interest” or “exceptional circumstances”.

A change in the electoral system is needed

Last week I found myself citing Confucius’s famous curse, “May you live in interesting times”. This week I have been struck by a more modern saying: “I don’t mind the despair, it’s the hope that kills me”.

Paul Arnott www.sidmouthherald.co.uk

Its origin has been attributed to any number of sources, from John Cleese to Nick Hornby, and I have heard it said many times at football matches, especially ones involving England penalty shoot outs. In that context its meaning couldn’t be clearer – in essence, can’t we just take the defeat, ref, and not bother with pretending we can win one of these.

Wherever it came from, this was an expression that haunted my day only this Monday. Along the south coast in Brighton at the Labour party conference, a motion had been put forward by the membership to direct the party towards enacting electoral reform, eg proportional representation.

My naïve heart fluttered with hope. Could this be it at last? Could the centre/centre-left (ie non-Johnson) sector of British politics be about to get its act together? Because ever since I left school in 1979, and the divisive Conservative hegemony all the way from then till 1997, I have only ever longed for one thing in politics – government from the centre.

Of course, old cynics say that those who stand in the middle of the road are bound to get run over, but that’s where I am, and I believe the vast majority of British people are too. We want people to make a success of their lives, to have the freedom to make wealth if they wish, but we also want a kind state which supports education, our environment and our health. Not too much to ask really.

Yet at the moment in the blue corner we have a Conservative party bent on the covert privatisation of the NHS and in the red corner, or at least that represented by the ongoing Momentum influence, we have unelectable fantasy fiscal policies.

So how does the centre get the representation it wants and the country needs? The answer, as ever, lies in our broken electoral system of first past the post (FPP). Even in the polarised Brexit election of 2019, Boris Johnson, on a 67.3% turnout, only won 43.6% of the popular vote, yet governs with a thumping majority. More than 56% did not want to see him in Downing Street at all.

Now this is not his fault; he had to fight on the rules set out for him by our daft unwritten constitution, but as we look around the looming chaos this week, it is clear that he is not up to the job. (FPP has previously favoured Labour too).

To their immense credit, the vast majority of Labour constituencies finally realised that the current system is now little more than a recipe for eternal Conservative rule. One modernising speaker in favour of the motion on Monday was Jake Bonetta from Honiton, who sits within our Democratic Alliance group at East Devon District Council.

So there I was, on Monday afternoon, allowing hope to seep into this battered, nearly sixty-year-old heart. There was a real chance this time. The motion, calling for a Labour government to replace first past the post with a form of PR, had come from more than 150 constituency Labour parties (CLPs). It was also the second most popular issue for the conference.

The drama heightened when a show of hands in the conference hall was not conclusive and it went to a card vote. This showed that very nearly 80% of the CLP votes backed the motion. But all hope was dashed when the votes from affiliates – almost entirely comprising unions – came in. 95% opposed the motion, and this meant that by Labour maths nearly 58% were against.

Hope United 0 Dinosaur Union Leaders 1. A tragedy, but champagne all round in Downing Street.

The Sun Says it!

From petrol panic to M25 protests there’s a sense of utter shambles across Boris Johnson’s Government…

www.thesun.co.uk

IS anyone actually in charge in Downing Street?

Is there a proper strategy for quelling the petrol panic? For ending the insane queues, the forecourt fist-fights, the siphoning of fuel from parked cars? For getting stranded key workers to their hospitals, care homes or schools?……………..