Alan Dean

Liberal Democrat Councillor for Stansted North and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group Learn more

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Residents for Here Today, There Tomorrow

by Alan Dean on 23 February, 2017

Local election candidates who engage most on the doorstep with their potential voters are carrying out one of the basic activities of local democracy; talking to and listening to local people. That was one of the reasons why a Residents for Uttlesford candidate in Elsenham and Henham, who, so I am told, spent several hours a day on the stomp, came top of the poll in last Thursday’s by-election. Congratulations to the winning candidates!

There was another reason; a more sinister reason that has put down roots far beyond the local scene.

It’s not about having principles, basic values and beliefs that help define what you want to do as a politician.

POPULISM is in vogue. Playing on people’s fears, prejudices and selfishness whilst avoiding responsibility for delivering solutions.

So what happened in Elsenham and Henham last week?  Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) candidates leapt from second/third place to top the poll. The central claim of this political party is that their candidates and councillors are not politicians. That is, of course a false and even dishonest claim, but in the Age of Donald Trump it has an appeal to voters. We seem to live in an age when people are fed up and even afraid of change.

There is something appealing in being lured towards politicians who claim not to be politicians; as though the P-word were a dirty word. All councillors are residents. Its misleading to claim to be only residents, bus drivers, housewives, single-issue campaigners, countryside walkers, or whatever, without a political aspiration or thought in their heads. That really is nonsense. To be a councillor is to be a politician. To be blunt, to claim otherwise is an illusion. But we seem to live in an age of fake news. With President Trump we are seeing the truly dark side of this deception.

Take what happened this week. Uttlesford published papers for last night’s Planning Policy Working Group. They contained a set of draft notes of a meeting with South Cambridge District Council (SCDC) under UDC’s obligation to cooperate with neighbouring authorities on plans that might affect their patch. If Uttlesford decides that a new settlement at Great Chesterford should be part of the slowly emerging Local Plan, then our immediate neighbours across the A11 into Cambridgeshire must surely be involved. The notes contained the quotation: “The focus was on the A120 corridor as a priority with some development targeted at the villages and Saffron Walden”.

The italicisation of “was” is mine. That is past tense. Most discussion up to now has been about the five or so proposed new settlement sites along or near the A120. So a reasonable interpretation of the somewhat ambiguous note is that most focus has been along the A120 but now we are talking to SCDC because a new settlement at Great Chesterford is being given equal consideration.

So what did the R4U leadership do. They didn’t phone up the author of the notes before last night’s meeting to clarify the meaning. They didn’t email the councillor attributed with the remarks to check understanding. The put out a press release headed: “Hidden Agenda EXPOSED – Mass housing along A120 … says UDC leadership”.

Exposure? There was nothing new being exposed. If anything, the meeting was about less development along the A120 than would have been the case if last year’s paused local plan had proceeded without the current review.

But it’s effective, fake news to stir up fear and resentment. As a letter writer, Daniel Brett, in today’s Herts & Essex Observer says: “RFU’s Project Fear is a tactic they have used in all elections they have contested. Residents should start demanding answers from RFU’s politicians about their (housing) strategy, because I fear the group has no strategy other than to cause chaos and confusion in a bid to win power”.

Mr Brett is correct. This middle class populism and opportunism – based on contradictory promises that cannot all be delivered, because new housing has to go somewhere – has to be exposed for what it is; deceitfulness.

There are potential dangers in R4U’s opportunism for the progress of Uttlesford’s Local Plan. How will the Conservative administration react to what seems to be an insurgent R4U going round the district whipping up opposition amongst local people to all major development projects in defiance of the fact and their knowledge that difficult decisions have to be made soon about where the best (or least worst, if you prefer) locations are for new settlements and other housing growth?

Will the Tories panic in the way they did around 2012 by dropping Fairfield’s unsustainable new settlement at Elsenham/Henham? Will they repeat their subsequent panic in 2013 when R4U attacked the dispersal of housing to the edge of Saffron Walden and said that the Fairfield plan (“fondly” known as Hellsenham) was the right approach. By 2014 the Tories had switched their support back to Hellsenham, only to have that Local Plan dumped by a government planning inspector.

The flip-flopping record of the council’s other two political parties needs to stop! I am hopeful that the Conservatives have learned their lesson. I don’t think Residents for Uttlesford are yet mature enough to agree to a strategy. That doesn’t fit well with perpetual opportunism.

 

   3 Comments

3 Responses

  1. Janice Loughlin says:

    The registered ‘political party’ R4U, (A rose by any other name?), has councillors in Saffron Walden and Newport.

    Both of these towns/village have seen large numbers of houses, built or being built, since their election 2 years ago.

    The truth is no one can stand on the doorstep and tell local residents that they can protect them from any development, small or large – they CAN’T

    The council has a five year land supply which it must maintain or face the consequences from central Government.

    Losing control of the local plan, currently a work in progress, would mean that the Government could intervene and Uttlesford would have no control over where development would take place. Wherever the bulk of the development takes place it will upset a great deal of people.
    The final outcome of the plan is probably the most difficult decision councillors will have to make and the decision will involve councillors of all political persuasions.
    It should not be used for political point scoring nor for scaremongering in the local press nor for making promises that can’t be kept.

    Raging like a bull at meetings serves no purpose other than to shame the aggressor.

    Listening in to the recorded Planning Policy Working Group meeting may be enlightening!

  2. Matt North says:

    Alan, I think you are quite wrong on this one.

    When SCDC enquired about the overarching strategy for the local plan, the answer from UDC should have been “we are looking at one or more new settlements, the location of which are still under review, plus some expansion at the existing settlements.”

    Instead Cllr Barker said that the “focus of development was on the A120…”. It’s clearly not past tense as in that event it would have needed to be be qualified – I.e. “The focus was on the A120 but now it’s…”. But she didn’t do this. You can’t just italicise one word as that changes its meaning.

    There are other examples elsewhere in the same minutes where the author has used ‘was’ to refer to contemporary situations: for example “SK felt it was important that the Biomed cluster reconnected with local communities”. Are you seriously saying that this is past tense too, and that SC now don’t want it to be connected with local communities? Of course not.

    The fact is, Cllr Barker has form on this subject: the strategy she outlined to SCDC was identical to the one she briefed the press on a few months ago before it had been agreed by full council.

    This is the same Cllr Barker who said that SCDC objected to a new settlement at Great Chesterford when they had done noting if the sort.

    I’m quite surprised that you are prepared to believe the Tories given their past form on this topic.

    • Alan Dean says:

      Matt

      I have long recognized that UDC did not take seriously, even avoided, the consideration of a new settlement in the north of the district before the debacle with the last flawed Local Plan at the end of 2014 and up to the last slightly less traumatic pause in the process last November. This latter delay and subsequent refocussing was in large part because Members were dissatisfied with progress to date.

      Whatever was said and meant at January’s meeting with Cambridgeshire people, I cannot imagine their officers and Members would have agreed to carry out evaluations work of their road network, etc. in relation to Great Chesterford if they were being told at the meeting “don’t worry, we aren’t serious, we intend to build everything along the A120”.

      I shall be pursuing these and other points at a meeting tomorrow afternoon with the other political group leaders, officers and, I expect, Susan Barker.

      You can be assured that I am never complacent. Like you, I am aware of the past. I am more concerned about the risk of destabilising the Local Plan process by alarming headlines that might be avoided by proper face-to-face discussion with the people involved. After all, there is a weekly opportunity for that.

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