by Alan Dean on 2 June, 2021
Wednesday, May 26th, 2021 was an extraordinary day in both national and local politics. It was, in my opinion, a day of rotten politics.
At Westminster, the Prime Minister’s former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, gave a damning account of a government in a state of chaos, dishonesty and incompetence from the beginning of 2020 over its response to the Covid-19 virus. It seems to me that a man who confesses to his own inadequacies, as Cummings did, earns a right to criticise the behaviour of others, especially when they were former close colleagues with whom he worked closely. There will be much denial from those who chose to employ Mr Cummings, and the arguments are far from over.
Rotten politics is not only a national and international phenomenon of the early 21st century. The root cause is populism. This is a divisive style of politics from politicians who promise what many people want to hear, even though their electoral commitments are not deliverable, but sound enticing. I will go no further than to mention the name Brexit.
It’s also happening locally. Here in Uttlesford district, the political leadership of the district council and chief planning councillors have been exposed by a damning report from planning inspectors. The council’s mishandling of Stansted Airport’s appeal against the council’s refusal of permission to grow passengers to 43 million per annum was laid bare last week. The airport’s appeal was allowed (i.e. approval was given) by three planning inspectors.
Councils often lose planning appeals when inspectors disagree with councillors’ interpretation of planning policy. So, readers may ask: “What’s new?”
Let me try to explain. Uttlesford’s Planning Committee refused the airport’s application to grow beyond 35 million passengers annually to 43 million on several grounds, including the impact of aircraft emissions on climate change. The committee overturned an earlier but uncompleted approval based on changed circumstances.
Firstly, the council issued a Decision Notice that did not faithfully reflect the committee’s decision to refuse planning permission.
Then, at the end of last year, councillors were told of what was claimed to be a “shrewd” way of defending the planning committee’s ten to nil votes for REFUSAL. Instead of defending the refusal decision, incomprehensibly the appeal hearings went ahead in January with the council’s team seeking APPROVAL. The council asked for the approval to be given, but subject to a planning condition that the inspectors declared was unlawful. For this and other reasons the inspectors said that Uttlesford has been practising unreasonable behaviour.
The inspectors were also concerned that Uttlesford had withdrawn and started from scratch (for the umpteenth time over 15 years) its Local Plan a year ago and so had no up-to-date policies on the airport that might have made the refusal more defensible. That was yet another populist election promise that had gone sour and has yet more surprises to unveil.
As a result, the likely penalty for such reckless behaviour by the present Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) political leadership of UDC is a seven figure bill (£?,000,000) of compensation awarded to the airport owner. This will have to be paid by local taxpayers.
In coming days and weeks, there is likely to be much denial from those responsible. In their few public statements to date, R4U has already begun to look for scapegoats. They have started to blame central government. It is thought that they want to put the clock back by insisting the Secretary of State makes the decision afresh. That route had previously been rejected by the previous Conservative administration. It had been attempted by newly renamed Stansted Airport Watch (ex-SSE), but rejected in the courts.
So why would UDC try that route several years too late? Passing the buck to a government minister, as the Council Leader indicated he’d like to do on BBC Look East last week is, in my opinion, a fruitless exercise.
In my opinion, Uttlesford District Council should have stood shoulder to shoulder with its own planning committee and with WAR/SSE to defend robustly the committee’s reasons for refusal. But it didn’t. Why?
I can only think that such is the behaviour of all populist politicians: they promise the earth; do the opposite; blame others when it all goes belly-up! They hope no one notices – at least until we all get a big bill.
The Residents for Uttlesford leadership needs to recognise that there is a difference between truth and falsehoods; between personal accountability and scapegoat hunting; between wise actions and incompetence.
Local Conservative, Independent, Green, Liberal Democrat and any R4U councillors who stand for honesty and integrity, need to hold the council leadership, including its discredited planning coterie to, account for their rotten local politics.
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