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Opinion: Was It a Good Day Or A Bad Day for Democracy in Guildford?

By Martin Giles

Guildford Borough Council leader Paul Spooner, immediately in the wake of last week’s decision to pass the draft Local Plan to planning inspectors for examination, said: “This is great news and a crucial move forward for the future of Guildford.” But is it?

Politicians often feel they get a raw deal in the court of public opinion. But can many of our local councillors, who voted in favour of the Local Plan, really complain if Guildford residents, at least those who voted Conservative, now feel let down?

The council policy of planning strategic development sites in the green belt is not something that has been developed in the last 18 months, since the last borough elections. It was part of their thinking since at least 2012, when I started talking regularly to members of the Executive.

And it was not thinking that came about spontaneously from within our borough, for the good of the borough. It was the result of direction from above, from a central government desperate to promote economic growth, even in an already economically overheated and congested South East, and even if it meant a U-turn on their post-war green belt protectionism.

It was this direction from above that found fertile ground among some local politicians, perhaps they really believed in it or perhaps they were desperate to prove their loyalty to the party machine. Anyway, the “trajectory” was set, as the leader at the time, Stephen Mansbridge, admitted.

So, in 2015, to campaign under headlines such as: “Conservatives Say Green Belt to Stay”, “Conservatives Vow To Protect Our Green Belt” and “Conservatives Say No To [Blackwell] Farm Development”, showed a degree of cynicism unusual even in the spinning, disingenuous world of party political campaigning.

Perhaps even those posing in the photos accompanying the headlines were embarrassed by them. Who knows? But it is impossible to believe they were sincerely meant by those in charge.

How much voters at the time were taken in will never be known and most indications are that voters are, generally, not well informed about local issues when casting their votes. But the Conservatives cannot claim to have any kind of mandate to carry out the green belt developments they propose.

Even today, just a week after a vote described by the council leader as the most important since 2003, if a survey was carried out on Guildford High Street it is doubtful, as councillors privately concede, that most residents would be able to describe the main issues of the Local Plan, despite the efforts of The Guildford Dragon NEWS, the Surrey Advertiser and, it should be said, Guildford Borough Council too.

After all, the council did spend time and money in collecting public views in several consultations. And, unusually large numbers took part. Inconveniently for the council though, most objected to the plan and in particular the proposed strategic green belt developments. But these views, some councillors have said, not all of them Tory, are not representative of the majority. How can they tell?

One of the reasons put forward by several of those voting for the plan was that it should be adopted for the sake of our children. I am a father of two young men in their early 20s, but I found that a peculiar argument. Of course, parents want our children to have the option of living locally but this plan won’t deliver it.

The council leader himself is on record as saying that the planned developments will have little effect on house prices. Even if builders do deliver a percentage of the new developments with homes at 80% of the average house price they will remain unaffordable to most of our younger buyers.

Anyway, the housing target included in the Local Plan has been set, with a formula we have not been allowed to see, at a higher level than ever before. But the demand is mostly from elsewhere, including in large part, according to the “objectively assessed need”, from students, who are going to settle here, despite recent evidence that most students actually return home.

No, our younger generations are likely to remain disappointed, I fear, including those for whom perhaps house purchase has never been a realistic prospect, those several thousand currently on Guildford’s housing list who really need more social housing to be built.

That this was not mentioned once in Tuesday’s debate was a disgrace. What, in particular, were the opposition councillors thinking by not specifically raising this issue. Who is meant to be representing those on that waiting list if not them?

Surely the only excuse, that could be perhaps acceptable, for developing any green belt land would be to provide for this group.

And if the lack of social housing was given scant attention so were the possible consequences of the plan on our environment. Worrying reports of poor air quality already existing near our main roads continue to circulate. The idea that the problem can be addressed while building more homes, that will inevitably introduce more cars on our roads, seems simply daft.

Promises from the council leader that he will never support an application without the necessary infrastructure requirement being in place won’t cut it. He won’t be around forever and anyway, while we might all hope that planning by appeal will not become the norm, there is no indication that the appeal route will not be available to the more determined developers.

I should also mention the “it could be worse” argument presented by a couple of councillors who admitted reservations about the plan but thought it better than the alternative of no plan and then something imposed by central government. It seems like a bad news/good news situation. A doctor says the bad news is that one of your legs will have to come off but the “good news” is you can choose which one, after all, they are both perfectly healthy. What kind of choice is that?

No, last Tuesday was in my view a very sad day for the future of this borough, what remains of its green and rural character is now more likely to be irrevocably damaged. But it was also a sad day for democracy because it does not seem this plan represents what most of us really want.

The damage will not start immediately and it will be incremental and insidious, hard to even notice in some areas, but by the end of the plan period, in 2030, the borough will be a more urban and a more polluted place. That’s not the borough I want my sons to inherit.

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5 Responses to Opinion: Was It a Good Day Or A Bad Day for Democracy in Guildford?

  1. Jan Messinger Reply

    November 28, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    Martin Giles’ words are so true. I am sure this is how we all feel. This is not a borough I want my children to inherit either.

    The amount of housing being proposed in this borough and the huge developments going ahead in all the surrounding boroughs and in local counties is so wrong.

    What I would really like to know is when is someone going to say, “Stop! This is not the answer?” Once the countryside has gone we never get it back again.

  2. Peter Shaw Reply

    November 28, 2017 at 10:40 pm

    Spot on.

  3. John Perkins Reply

    November 29, 2017 at 9:32 am

    Those who claim that any proportion less than an absolute majority “are not representative of the majority” are indulging in crude sophistry.

    By the same reasoning it’s unlikely any councillor is representative and certainly the Conservative Party is not.

  4. Fiona Samuel-Holmes Reply

    November 29, 2017 at 11:08 am

    I think the answer to Martin Giles’ question is, it was a very bad day for democracy.

    Over the coming years Guildford and its surrounds are basically to become an urban sprawl which is a very sad prospect for all who live in the area. Especially, as is said, with the prospect of our air quality worsening, creating a poor quality of life for people and serious health issues, which in turn will fall to our already over-stretched NHS system.

    I agree also with the sentiment about social housing. It’s amazing that no mention was made or figures supplied regarding how much social housing will be built in the region. However, the cynic in me feels that the problem is neither developers nor councils profit enough from building social housing.

  5. Jules Cranwell Reply

    November 29, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    Absolutely spot on.

    Yesterday in parliament, it was stated, in respect of the Brexit impact papers that “the worst decisions are made where there is a lack of scrutiny of the reasons behind those decisions”.

    Does the same logic not apply to the lack of scrutiny of the model behind GBC’s Objectively Assessed Need (OAN)? Scrutiny has not been possible, either by councillors, the Executive, or the public, as GBC has never acquired or released the model.

    The requirement for this model ‘to be reproducible by others’ is enshrined in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF0.

    Even worse, the Executive subjected a councillor, with the temerity to try to reproduce the model, to a Stalinist show trial.
    Surely this simple fact makes the entire Local Plan unfit for purpose.

    We won’t be fooled again.

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