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.