Saturday, 31 October 2009

Esher & Walton: Protect the Greenbelt, Strengthen Local Democracy

Hands up any Labour Minister who is an IMBY ? I ask because, last year, the best Margaret Becket (then Housing Minister) could muster when pressed on the arbitrary impact of housing targets on Elmbridge was “we have to put [them] somewhere” ! I suspect local residents might have a few suggestions – perhaps Derby South, Mrs Beckett’s patch. Funny how the charge of being a NIMBY (‘not-in-my-back-yard’) rolls of the tongue a bit easier than requests for development IMBY.

Over the last few months I have received briefings from the Campaign to Protect Rural England about the threats to the Surrey greenbelt, and Elmbridge in particular. This week I went for a closer look, listening to residents and hearing from a local planning expert. The specific threat is plain enough. Under the South East Plan, drawn up by regional quango and rubber stamped by Whitehall, a target of 5,620 new houses has been imposed, ‘top-down’, on Elmbridge. That target is arbitrary and presents a real risk to the greenbelt. What should be done?

This problem is at least partly ‘made-in-Whitehall’. The rising demand for housing which has fuelled development is the result of three failures. First, a concerted policy of ‘open-door’ immigration, which has put enormous pressure on public services and housing, especially in London and the South East. Areas that do not get the direct impact still feel the inevitable spill over from London. Second, the failure of the regulatory system to manage the unsustainable increase of personal debt that led to ‘boom and bust’ in the housing market. Third, the government’s strait-jacket approach of issuing top-down targets – like the South East Plan.

I mention these underlying causes, because they demonstrate the need for deeper reform, not a sticking plaster approach – including a cap on immigration, greater Bank of England oversight over debt bubbles, as well as a revolution in local democracy. Fine, but how do we protect Esher and Walton? Since the problems have been made – or at least made worse – by Whitehall, the answers must lie elsewhere.

First, I would like to see local authorities wrest the target-setting power away from regional government, and the current Elmbridge target scrapped. Given the way central government undercounts actual house-building in Elmbridge, there is a real risk of the current target being missed, which would mean inroads on the greenbelt.

I looked for myself at the precarious position in some areas. The photo, above, shows how housing backs directly onto the greenbelt. It is just one area in Elmbridge that, because of its location, would be vulnerable to creeping development, if Whitehall’s boxes in the South East Plan are not ticked. The local residents I spoke to were understandably concerned.

The second answer is to curtail the ability of non-elected planning inspectors to trump the decisions of elected councillors on specific planning proposals. These rulings are often haphazard or arbitrary. Take the decision this year to allow travellers to live on greenbelt land in Hersham. The council rejected the application, but was overruled on human rights grounds. But why is an unaccountable planning inspector a better judge (than elected councillors) of the delicate balance between different groups in a community, not to mention the wider collective interest in preserving the greenbelt? Not only does this conflict with the democratic prerogatives of local councillors, it is a good illustration of the failings of the Human Rights Act. Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights says nothing about travellers having privileged rights of this kind. The architects of the Convention never dreamt of expanding the right to private, family and home life to create such a special interest. Pernickety lawyers can read the negotiating history of Article 8 for themselves here ! This novel ‘human right’ has been conjured up through a mix of judicial legislation and political correctness – one more reason to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights.

Finally, we need a bit more carrot, and a bit less stick, from central government. If local authorities were given a greater share of the tax revenue derived from the sale of new houses, they would have a greater local incentive to work with residents to fill housing shortages.

This is just one of the many examples of how local democracy would directly benefit Esher and Walton. I believe in defending the freedom to run our own lives from authoritarian government, bureaucratic regional quangos and the steady stream of edicts from Brussels. As your candidate, I would champion the case for giving local people a stronger say over the decisions that affect their lives.


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