Democracy – or lack of it?
The cry from government is infrastructure to get the economy going, even more so after lockdown but will it be in such a way as to accord with the need to mitigate against climate change and will it include the people having a voice?
Technology has shown there can be a reduction in the need to travel and renewable energy from wind, tides, hydrogen, geothermal and other sources is pointing the way to zero carbon emissions but will electric cars give the excuse to build a lot more roads rather than putting the funding into public transport?
What we see at local level are wish lists for roads from a Council that thinks of itself as a Highway Authority. Recently Wiltshire Council Cabinet has set up companies, one is called Stone Circle, so that part of the Council can act as developers while the other part retains its role in government. More worrying still is that funding is being used from the capital fund to set up a team of officers to prepare more bids to the Housing Infrastructure Fund (HIF), this at a time when the Council is saying that it has a potential £51.5m shortfall on the budget because of coronavirus. A Councillor, who may be concerned that so much is done by a Cabinet of ten members, is quoted in the Gazette and Herald as asking “What can members do to influence the way the council is operating on behalf of our constituents”
There was hope when the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Economic Partnership produced a rail strategy recently, indicating local stations that could be opened.
Will Swindon and Wiltshire Councils ask for rail to be considered when looking at major north south road routes.
With climate change there is a need to look at trends in the weather. Before the rains of last winter, the trend in the south of England was for much less rain than for the north and midlands. That pattern has re-emerged this spring and causes the water companies to issue warnings. In the light of this, how wise is it to continue to build major developments in the south? What infrastructure is actually needed in the south and how is the north-south divide to be balanced?
Wiltshire Council is fixated on the dream of a north-south route to the coast along the A350. However, this road is already a series of roundabouts serving developments. There is a railway line that is becoming used more. Could this be the answer? Westbury, at a junction of lines, is well placed for long distance freight by rail.
And what of the people’s voice in all this planning. So far it has not been heard. Wiltshire Council made its successful bid to the HIF for £75m for distributor roads to the east and south of Chippenham without public consultation. Their development arm is now preparing a planning application when there will be public consultation even though it may be during lockdown. The Leader saw no difficulty in it being passed, by the planning arm. The roll forward of the Local Plan post 2026 has not yet been released for consultation. If the roads and bridge are built well before the Inquiry on the Local Plan will the place where development is to take place become a fait accompli? It includes two Council owned farms. Will public consultation become a farce?
So yes, CPRE supports the right kind of infrastructure in the right places to get the economy going, but the strong arm of Government must give people a chance to have a say in what they will undoubtedly have to pay for and which will have a great impact on the land where they live, their bit of the planet to look after. The right of democracy must live on.