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The Dragon Says: How About Some Real Democracy on the Green Belt Issue?

Published on: 5 Oct, 2015
Updated on: 7 Oct, 2015

Dragon Says 470The leader of Guildford Borough Council, Stephen Mansbridge, was in bullish mood this week and went on the attack.

He told the people of Guildford that they had better understand that if they want all the goodies in the recently published town Masterplan they needed to accept what will be coming along in the Local Plan. It is all or nothing. He made it sound like a threat.

The council leader was asked if those who took part in the consultation could be confident that their views would be heard, given that a large number of the 7,000 respondents to the draft Local Plan apparently sent comments objecting to green belt development without obtaining any indication that the council will rule it out.

Opinion Logo 2This is how the leader answered: “There is, I think, a myth that whatever the public say in the public consultation therefore that is what must happen.

“If you take Heathrow [airport] as an example, or Gatwick, at some point an authority, an elected authority, has to make a decision based on a balance of arguments and when you look at the balance in Guildford about 100,000 live in the urban areas and roughly 40,000 people live in rural areas and when you take into account the silent majority who do not speak up, they vote.

“And they voted in May, and they gave us a majority in May, for very good reason – because they have strong feelings. You only have to look at the mix of votes to understand that, during the count.

“So one has to be very careful when you say: ‘Oh well we said in the consultation this is absolutely unacceptable, everyone said the same thing…’ they didn’t, that is absolutely incorrect.

“What is correct is to say that we must take account of what is said in the public consultation appropriately…… but ultimately we are elected to make decisions and that is what we must do.”

I fact, only 47% of those who voted in the borough council election in May voted Conservative. That’s clearly not a majority of the voters, let alone the population.

Of course, with a collapsed Lib Dem vote and under the “first past the post” system the Tories did still win more seats than before. But with most voters undoubtedly focussed on national issues, debated during the coinciding general election, it hardly gave a popular mandate for previously touted Local Plan proposals, especially when quite a number of the Conservative candidates, particularly in areas near large proposed green belt development sites, proclaimed their opposition to such developments.

democracyAs for a silent majority, who are they, how many are they? If the complaint is that those who support the council’s position on green belt development are all silent how can it be tested or measured? Normally those with strong feelings make them known. Unless Cllr Mansbridge has very well hidden supernatural powers, he is no more able than the rest of us to know what those who are silent are thinking.

But there is no doubt the council leader feels he is on a mission. Here is his description of our town’s current position: “Guildford for the last 40, 50, 60 years is like a person wandering lost in a desert and then suddenly through the shimmer of heat haze you see the palm trees that might signal that oasis.”

He continued: “And that oasis is what we seek here because we haven’t found it before. And Guildford is at a tipping point and we don’t see it, we don’t feel it. But it is – and the economic statistics demonstrate that this is absolutely true.

“And that tipping point is about a choice between decline and huge success. We have to choose huge success. We have to find that oasis and this Masterplan represents our oasis, our water.”

Do you recognise this as a description of our town, “Wandering through the desert… searching for an oasis”? Has the council leader been taking his tea too strong?

There are plenty of things that need to change in Guildford, both in the town and in the wider borough, and many good ideas are contained within the draft Masterplan. There is no one seriously resisting any kind of change. The arguments are over what sort of changes we want and the scale of change.

The choice is not the simplistic “grow or die”, however much that might suit central government that continues to oversee unprecedented population growth and desperately wants houses built everywhere, including the already congested South East.

And why can’t we say that we like the Masterplan but not at the price of losing green belt land? The official government line remains that unmet housing need should not be considered an “exceptional” reason required to allow development on the green belt.

But there is one thing that has been made clear to us through the “shimmering haze” by Cllr Mansbridge, in his own words: “There is… a myth that whatever the public say in the public consultation … that is what must happen.”

It’s all a myth – well ain’t that the truth?

So here’s a suggestion: instead of a petition that has been raised, of suspicious parentage, to force a referendum on whether we should have an elected mayor, or even whether we should return to a committee form of council governance, why doesn’t someone raise a petition for a referendum on green belt development? How about a bit of real, direct democracy?

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Responses to The Dragon Says: How About Some Real Democracy on the Green Belt Issue?

  1. Valerie Thompson Reply

    October 5, 2015 at 9:49 am

    As many people have said all along, since the Draft Local Plan was issued, Mr Mansbridge has got his own agenda.

    Backed up by the chosen few in the Executive of GBC, all supporters of development, whatever the cost, Mr Mansbridge has decided to go it alone. He neither listens nor reacts to anything said by residents, other councillors, protesters, or whatever one wishes to call his opponents, whose main reason for objecting is the preservation of the green belt.

    As stated, government policy does not permit unmet housing need to be a reason for using green belt land.

    The answer in Guildford is balance, increase retail and business opportunities, but also to increase the number of houses in the town itself.

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    October 5, 2015 at 10:03 am

    I think its extremely clear what the people of Guildford want and don’t want – you only have to actually talk to the community in an unbiased way.

    We don’t want manipulated information drip fed to us like factory farmed chickens.

    We don’t want to be flooded out by ill conceived schemes.

    We don’t want our countryside destroyed ‘to prove a point’.

    We do want traffic congestion sorted in a rational manner, no a piece meal disjointed approach.

    We do want a town centre that is fit for purpose and accessible – not limited to those who see ‘designer’ in favour of ‘practical’ as a boost to the town centre.

    We do want an integrated transport system which reflects reality not political dogma like ‘unused bus lanes’ and ‘forcing’ people out of cars when they actually in reality have no choice.

    Our council officials need to remember they work for us, they are our servants, not our Lords. They should bow to the peoples wishes, not dictate to them.

  3. Charles Shepherd Reply

    October 5, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    I think for a referendum on green belt development, to be fair, should probably be pitted against the alternative of accommodating the 12,000 odd houses in the non green belt areas such as the Guildford Urban Area or Ash and Tongham. That would be an interesting vote.

    I talk to people a lot about the issues of greenbelt development and have concluded that it is only really those that live close to the proposed sites that feel strongly enough to campaign. The rest kind of accept that more houses need to be built and quietly get on with their lives.

  4. Ben Paton Reply

    October 10, 2015 at 10:24 am

    There was a time – before WW1 – when society was more deferential and people did what their elders and “betters” told them. If the doctor told you to take your medicine regardless of its taste, or even what it said on the bottle, you swallowed it.

    People no longer just take their doctor’s word for it, especially not after Harold Shipman. And they ain’t going to swallow Mr Mansbridge’s commands with unthinking obedience either.

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