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The Dragon Says: A Day of Shame For Guildford

Published on: 29 Sep, 2013
Updated on: 8 Oct, 2013

Dragon Roar Still 470For once, the ‘extraordinary’ council meeting lived up to its billing. Out of the ordinary it was on Tuesday (September 24). And there was only one item on the agenda, a planning application for 400 new homes on a green field site in Ash, one of the few corners of the borough where the fields are unprotected by green belt status.

The first clue was the stewarding to guide us council taxpayers to the right meeting areas, the second was being asked, when already half-way up the stairs that led to the Millmead council chamber, who I was and did I have a ticket. Quickly, and with typical courtesy, a council officer who recognised me dismissed the challenge and assured me the normal press seats were available.

But the reason for unusual measures was soon obvious. The level of public attendance was unprecedented. Extra seats had been laid out in the lobby and the staff canteen equipped with large screens to enable proceedings in the chamber to be relayed, viewed and heard.

For those who want to see more engagement in local politics, it was encouraging. Most of us might not normally be even bothered enough to vote for our local councillors. But the people of Ash had woken up and they, most definitely, were bothered.

Opinion Logo 2They were not going to be disappointed by their decision to attend. This show was going to be more dramatic than most things they could have seen on TV and it was real. The issue affected them directly, far more than most debated at Westminster. Unsurprisingly, those present were overwhelmingly from the objector lobby, local residents who did not wish to see such a major development in their back yard as nearly all of us would not want it in ours.

If local democracy in local planning issues meant much, the application would have been strangled at birth. In fact, conception would probably not even been attempted. But this is central government policy, fuelled by our their inability to control migration and population growth, forcing local councils to permit building development regardless of whether they, or their constituents, want them.

One might hope that such a scenario could lead local politicians to forget their party allegiances and stand up against central government and the realisation of Joni Mitchell’s pessimistic vision in her song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Those over fifty might remember the lyrics:

“They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”

Of course, an aerial view of our borough will show we have a way to go before we are completely paved over but this development in Ash is only one of many  proposed. It is just over the county border from a major development planned for Aldershot; and within what is already the most congested corner of England, the second-most densely populated country in Europe.

Cllr Richard Billington told the meeting yet again, land is precious. We can build on a green-field site only only once, which is why green-belt protection has been deemed necessary for centuries.

But some time ago, planning debates at Guildford Borough Council stopped being purely about the merits of an application. The pernicious and undemocratic impact of the Planning Inspectorate, unelected individuals who police planning decisions on behalf of the central government, ensures that wherever discretion is exercised it is in favour of developers.

Many councillors, perhaps understandably, have seen their role as trying to predict an inspector’s decision and only refusal applications that will not survive an appeal. Why? If an appeal is successful, the unelected inspector can also award costs against a council, effectively a deterrent to planning refusals.

It is easy to imagine that such risks influence council officer judgements when making recommendations. They are only being pragmatic. But I would argue that our councillors should ignore such risks in the interests of those who voted them into office. That is their duty. They should not allow their judgement to be held to ransom.

The mood for the debate was set by Cllr Paul Spooner (Con). Most would accept that as a ward councillor for the area affected it was proper for him to propose a motion to refuse the application, reflecting the majority view of his constituents. But he went further and criticised the council’s own planning department for, what he claimed was, the poor quality of some parts of their report on the application. Eyebrows were raised but the criticism was measured and, compared with what followed, mild.

The council leader, Stephen Mansbridge (Con), as another councillor for South Ash & Tongham, supported his ward colleague’s motion. But as he spoke, the interim legal services manager, Phil Devonald, walked along the back of the Mayor’s podium to hold a whispered conversation with the head of planning, Carol Humphrey. Such asides are quite common and hardly ever interfere.

But Cllr Mansbridge found it more than distracting: he found it annoying and irritating, perhaps because the head of the department he was criticising, through no fault of her own, could not fully listen to what he had to say. The red mist descended and he shouted at them, as if they were delinquent school children, insisting they terminate their conversation immediately.

I am sure I am not the only one who was embarrassed and ashamed. We felt intruders on a private squabble or a marital row. This was our council behaving like children in a playground, far below the standard of behaviour we should expect.

The Mayor, chairing the meeting, was unable to exert control. Sue Sturgeon, the acting chief executive, said nothing and advice and pleas for decorum from the well-mannered interim head of legal services, Satish Mistry, fell on deaf ears.

Cllr Mansbridge, reading from a script, resumed his calculated attack on his own officers, claiming that their work was sub-standard and that they had failed to properly consult ward councillors. His remarks obviously dismayed many of the stoney-faced councillors, including some in his own Conservative party, while the disdain, and perhaps hurt, of the offended planning officials, sitting only a few feet away, was plain.

The verbal assault was unfair. Even those in the public gallery who desperately wanted to air their case for objection must have felt uncomfortable. This conduct was  not only against the council’s own protocol it was against natural justice.  Cllr Mansbridge, even if he was correct, should not attack, publicly, council officers who are not allowed to argue back and defend themselves. The council and the town needs leadership, of which he is capable, not bullying.

Further contributions were more measured and more considered, notably from Cllr Tony Rooth. Other Conservatives still appeared demoralised.

Then Cllr David Goodwin, the Lib Dem leader, lost his temper, and his good sense, with Cllr Mansbridge. His intention to protect those who were not allowed to defend themselves may have been noble but he sank to a lower level. We all are all aware of the council leaders’s recent conviction for drink-driving, but claiming that if the planning officers had not consulted him it was probably because he was under the influence, in the pub, was oafish.

There were audible gasps and several cries of ‘Shame’. Having supported an attack on those who could not defend themselves, Cllr Goodwin had then effectively kicked a man when he was down. Twice he was invited to withdraw his slur by the head of legal services, a paragon of reason amongst the bloodied bodies on the floor of the Coliseum, but he refused.

These are not the standards of behaviour we should expect from our elected councillors, especially in such an important debate. It was, frankly, shameful and deplorable. Not only that, both accusations were largely or entirely beside the point.

The real problem of central government policy was hardly mentioned, although Cllr Spooner perceptively observed that if all councillors were doing was trying to predict a planning inspectorate’s decision there was little point in holding council planning meetings.

The Guildford Dragon says if Cllrs Mansbridge and Goodwin wish to vent their spleen and show off there alpha maleness they should quickly apologise for their behaviour and travel up to Westminster together to confront Eric Pickles, our Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

The two councillors should form a united front on behalf of the people in this borough and explain with the same force they displayed so destructively on Tuesday that Guildford will not simply roll over and accept targets that will mean the irrecoverable destruction of our precious countryside.

The answer to the problems caused by the negligence of successive central governments is not to simply cram more and more people into the already teeming South-east. Even if we build thousands of more houses will that end the problem? Of course not. The demand is inexorable and the current policy unsustainable in many ways, not least environmentally.

We have had enough. If our councillors want to really represent us they need to start making sure that their central government party colleagues understand. That’s where the energy is required and where the attacks should be made.

That does not mean Guildford should be preserved just as it is. Of course not. There are plenty of improvements that should and can be made, including some more houses, especially truly affordable houses for local people, on appropriate sites. But the number of houses should be one we agree on locally, not one foisted on us by the Westminster cabal.

Finally, think back to the last General or Local Election. What decided you to vote the way you did? I doubt very much it was housing development policy. Next time, whether you think I am right, or if you disagree and are happy to give up some green belt and have thousands of more houses built, find out what the candidate(s) think and let it be a factor in your decision.

See also:

As Insults Fly, Council Approves Plan For 400 New Houses in Ash

‘Appalling Behaviour’ v. ‘I Stand By My Comment’ – Reactions to Ash Planning Meeting

Ash Planning Decision – How the Councillors Voted – Includes Absentees

 

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test 4 Responses to The Dragon Says: A Day of Shame For Guildford

  1. Trevor Harris Reply

    September 29, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    There has been a development in the planning application for Ash. At 09:30 on Wednesday 25th September, Tara Taylor, the Planning Officer at Guildford Borough Council was served with an “Interim Holding Direction” by the office of the Secretary of State. This means the Council cannot formally give planning permission until the Secretary of State has decided whether or not to “call in” the application. This could lead to a Public Enquiry. I wondered why the Dragon had not reported this?

    Cllr Mansbridge had no choice but to criticize such a sub standard report which ignored many of the councils own planning rules.

    I thought Phil Devonald having a conversation with Carol Humphreys while Cllr Mansbridge was speaking was very rude. Unelected council officials should be silent when a councillor is speaking.

    The Mayor, who was meant to be chairing the meeting, did not seem to know what was going on and did not take control of the situation.

    • Martin Giles Reply

      September 30, 2013 at 12:12 am

      There was no ulterior motive in not reporting this development. The Guildford Dragon NEWS is grateful to Mr Harris for pointing it out and a separate article ‘All May Not Yet Be Lost For Those Opposing Ash Development’ has now been published. Ed

  2. Trevor Harris Reply

    September 30, 2013 at 10:15 am

    I did not mean to be critical of the paper as I suspected many did not know about it. I only knew about it from an email from the Ash Residents Association.

    I have only recently started to read The Dragon and I have found it to be very informative. Much better than the Surrey Advertiser.

    • Martin Giles Reply

      September 30, 2013 at 11:32 am

      No insult taken and I am sincerely grateful for the reminder of this development in the story.

      We do our best to report news as quickly as we can, as our resources will allow.

      Thank you for your compliment and your comments. We value and encourage reader participation so that The Dragon can act as a forum for debate on local matters. Many local councillors are readers so it is a good way of drawing attention to your views. Ed.

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