Putting Communities Back in Control of Planning

YestGreekerday saw a historic victory for Syriza, the far-left anti-austerity party in the Greek general elections.  Though much expected, it is an exciting moment in European politics – there are claims it is the first significant electoral victory for the hard left in Europe in over 40 years.    With all the wide-eyed fantacism that is weaved into the DNA of socialists, some will inevitably see this is the beginning of the end for neo-liberal economic orthodoxy in the West.  As Syriza struck a deal with a nasty right-wing party this morning, others will fear this is the first wave of something a lot more troubling.

We should be cautious about making predictions.  Syriza have made some bold promises about how they are going to renegotiate a £280bn debt with some of the biggest economies in the world.   With a volatile cocktail of political and economic flavours in play, we can only guess at how this will shake out.  My own view is that Germany has room to compromise to keep the Euro project alive.  But if Tsipras gets greedy he could send his country into bankruptcy.

It’s fascinating that Greeks are willing to take that risk.  Admittedly Syriza won on a 35% share of a 60% turnout, but with this result, Greeks are saying that they want a party that has rejected the economics of austerity at the table to throw the dice for them.

Faced with technocrats and experts telling them that the house always wins, Greeks are betting against the bankers.  Faced with misery being forced upon them by unelected bean-counters, Greeks are saying they want to run the numbers themselves.

I find that belief inspiring.

We need to capture that spirit as we attempt to protect Oxfordshire from extraordinary levels of house-building, mandated by our own pesky unelected suits.  In our case the people within the suits are the consultants that produced the Strategic Housing Market Assessment for Oxfordshire, and the gravy train passengers of the Local Enterprise Partnership that appointed them.

Together they have contrived to come up with a plan for a 40% increase in housing in the Vale of White Horse in the next 15 years, with inadequate provision for infrastructure to support that population growth.   That’s an extra 20,000 houses without so much as a new train station, a dual carriageway or a serious attempt to fund schools or healthcare into the bargain.  For anyone living in the communities where these thousands of houses are to be built it is clear that, no matter how many strategies, assessments and reports you throw at us, the result will be a mess.

The SHMA is the Beeching Report of the 21st Century and these consultants promise to do a lot more damage to our communities than the fat controller.

Unfortunately, like the Greeks before yesterday, we have an MP and District Councillors who are willing to swallow the SHMA medicine.  The suits say that we need this many homes to support growth and the politicians nod dutifully and don the high-vis jackets to wave in the cement mixers.  20150124_111200

Well if the turn-out and anger at Saturday’s ROAR rally was anything to go by, this might be changing.  There was more indignation at the Faringdon Town Meeting this evening.  Everywhere I go knocking doors, the trumping of local views on housing by consultants’ reports is a live issue that people are deeply dissatisfied about.

So what’s the answer?  I believe that local communities should be empowered to have the final say on house-building projects of a certain scale in their area.  A national policy that supports a building frenzy, supported by technocrats from Whitehall and experts with spreadsheets in ivory towers should not have the right to dictate to local communities what is the 20150124_111301sustainable level of housing for them.  Neighbourhood plans should override national planning policy.

To get there, and to avoid the outrageous damage that will be done to the countryside of Oxfordshire by unchecked developers we must take a lesson from the Greeks.  We have to believe that by electing different politicians, promoting a different agenda, we can make a difference.

Just like in 2010, the Greek situation may well over-shadow our polling day in May.

Instead of the fear of 2010, let’s capture the Greek democratic spirit of 2015 and vote for politicians who will stand up to the faceless technocrats and put their local communities first.

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