Category Archives: National Politics

Is This Really a Top Priority?

As a country we are currently facing billions of pounds worth of cuts, cuts in local services and funding, and as part of that thousands of redundancies for staff across the country including one hundred locally, and what does Eric Pickles (@ericpickles) choose to launch a crusade on? Not the damaging effects of widespread cuts to communities across the country, no, he launches a crusade over unnecessary roadsigns, railings and advertising hoardings.

Now admittedly there are quite a few examples, Flickr have a group with a few gems, indeed the BBC has today highlighted a few including one just down the road from us where Wokingham Borough Council Highways department have, rather than replace an out of date sign, just stuck a new, bigger sign in front of the old one. Messy, but I guess it saved a bob or two, and the council is of course under pressure due to the swinging cuts coming down from central government.

There are numerous, serious problems facing this country – should unnecessary road signs really be a top priority for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government?

Should Community Right to Build be a Right to Refuse?

There has been a bit of debate in the media today over reaction by the Rural Coalition to the governments proposed Right to Build scheme. The scheme was announced by Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) back in July, and is claimed will put the power back into the hands of local communities to get the development they want – indeed the follow up press release today is under the heading “Power to Local People to Preserve Rural Life”. When you have a read of some of the reactions from villages across the country the headline policy seems popular with villagers, the problem being that when you look at the detail of the policy, it wouldn’t help many of the people in the article.

Cliff Jackson who lives in St Osyth in Essex is battling plans to build 164 houses in his village and makes the following comment:

“We live in a democracy and it is supposed to serve the majority. If we choose to live in a village, why should someone be able to march in a build a load of houses? If that was to happen we would all have to move because we wouldn’t want to live here any more.”

Whilst in Arborfield our battle is on a larger scale, fighting 3,500 houses rather than 164, his statement echoes the feelings of many in the village. There is a clear need for some housing, but as I’ve written before the scale of what is proposed in our village will transform the lives of the villagers, destroying a rural community. Whilst the local council frequently points to consultations across the borough supporting strategic development locations, what they fail to mention is that the choice has always been over how housing is to be delivered not the numbers, i.e. it’s presented as non-negotiable that we have to build 12,500 homes.

It is clear from many of the stories presented that they see preserving their rural life as being to stop unsuitable developments rather than propose new ones – the proposed legislation is very one sided and gives villagers the opportunity to “preserve their rural life” by building, but no opportunity to vote down unwanted and unsuitable developments. Of course it’s obvious why – if you asked pretty well anybody around here if they want 3,500 homes built on their doorstep, much of it on green fields, pretty well all of them would say no.

Standing Up for England's Counties

There is a bit of a double act going on between Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) and Eric Pickles (@ericpickles) on Twitter at times with one promoting the other. One such bit of promotion came last week when Grant Shapps tweeted the following:

Eric Pickles standing up for England’s counties and 1,000 years of English history – http://bit.ly/aD1Z0Z

The link points to the Telegraph letters page of August 11th which part way down features this letter from Eric Pickles:

SIR – I share the public’s concern (Letters, August 9) at the recommendation of the Postcode Address File Advisory Board to delete counties from the Royal Mail’s address database by 2016. It speaks volumes that unelected officials regard our counties – and over 1,000 years of English history – as a “vanity attachment”.

But the new Government is taking steps to defend our counties. We have scrapped Labour’s gerrymandering which sought to break up the counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk for electoral advantage and we are dismantling the tiers of regional assemblies and development agencies.

It is a response to the recent news that the Royal Mail will no longer include counties in official addresses – and as you can see Eric Pickles uses it as an opportunity to pledge to protect English counties.

I have to say I greeted that with a good deal of amusement, the reason being that I live in what was once the county of Berkshire one of the oldest in the country, which exists now purely as a ceremonial county, and it’s not been Labour gerrymandering for electoral advantage that has reduced the county to a mark on the map, it was the Tory Local Government Act 1972 that transferred a chunk of the county including the former county town of Abingdon to Oxfordshire in 1974, and then the previous Tory administration gerrymandering for electoral advantage that abolished the whole county in 1998John Gummer chose to ignore the recommendations of the commission leaving Berkshire with six unitary authorities.

So what is the effect? For us in our little village at a simple level it means significantly less representation. We have a single local councillor, who we can only vote for once every four years, for the other three years our opinion counts for absolutely nothing. Under the old two tier system we had representation at both local and county level, and many more opportunities to vote.

Looking wider, we now have six authorities fighting with each other. We saw it with the endless debates over housing allocation where Wokingham District fought and lost the battle with the other authorities – each authority purely focused on their own people. Even government documents such as this concede that the six small unitary authorities don’t work in the best interests of the people, check out this paragraph on page 5:

The unitary structure of local government across Berkshire makes it difficult for other stakeholders to engage on issues that cut across boundaries. This is further complicated by the range of political views and agendas within and across the local authorities, and by the fact that changes across other public sector bodies do not align with the Local Authorities or each other (e.g. Police, Primary Care Trusts and Learning and Skills Council)

The size of the authorities causes problems too, I remember a number of discussions with local teachers of the problems, for example the peculiarities caused by Wokingham outsourcing much of their education to next door Surrey, or the fact that school repair projects that were approved by Berkshire were dropped by Wokingham who had more limited funds. We still have the effects now more than a decade later with many students being educated in schools in adjacent authorities rather than their own, purely because villages in the west of Wokingham are closer to schools in West Berkshire, students in parts of Reading are closer to schools in Wokingham.

That also highlights a missed opportunity – Reading still doesn’t have one authority overseeing a strategy for the whole town. A large chunk towards the south east of Greater Reading is in Wokingham, indeed most of the University of Reading is in Wokingham. Over in the west another chunk of the town is looked after by West Berkshire. In both cases there is no clear divide between the areas, but the historic borders were retained.

So will the Tories stand up for England’s counties? I don’t know, but as a resident of the former county of Berkshire their past record doesn’t bode well for the future.