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Hastings Country Park: a jewel in the town's crown but source of concern over the council's management6.

Hastings Country Park: a jewel in the town’s crown but source of concern over the council’s management.

Hastings: development or democracy?

How is local democracy bearing up in the face of the development-at-all-costs policy handed down by central government and eagerly embraced by local government? Not very well, in the opinion of Michael Madden, who argues that we must find our way back to a world in which our elected representatives act in our interests.

On 14 November The Independent ran an article which explained that the Behavioural Insights Team, a partly government-owned advisory group, had produced the following startling figures: In the 1950s nearly 60% of British people said they trusted strangers but today only 30% said they did. They then reached an odd conclusion: that this lack of trust was adversely affecting economic growth. What the BIT had failed to see was that it may be this very obsession with growth in certain targeted areas that is behind these low trust levels. Today the Tories make drastic cuts to social welfare in the name of Austerity, supposedly in order to pay off the national debt, yet rely on one industry in particular to create growth: the building industry.

But this is not a building industry that serves the interest of a more equitable democracy as it did after the war by the creation of social housing; this one creates homes for private ownership and by doing so has helped to take the gap between rich and poor back to Edwardian levels. The fact is that not everyone in the country needs to own a home, nor should they even want to. This obsession with private ownership is bound to make people more selfish because it panders to private interests. Britain is the only European country to do this.

So it is hardly surprising that people trust their politicians even less than they do each other. The first step along this path to social discontent was taken when Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government sold the false idea of a “property-owning democracy” to the working class. It was a contradiction in terms: as they were encouraged to buy their council homes and to climb the “property ladder” they were led into a political trap because, once tied to a mortgage, they could no longer afford to go on strike or object to unfair terms and conditions. This adversely affected the workability of democracy and turned property ownership and property development into key political issues.

The Bexhill-Hastings Link Road: soon to open but another controversial project (photo: ESCC).

The Bexhill-Hastings Link Road: soon to open but a controversial project (photo: ESCC).

Today many British people expect to grow wealthy on the back of house prices, rather than by making anything, and some previously ordinary people have gained “portfolios” of hundreds of “buy-to-let” properties while others live in poverty. The result is a divided society of rentiers and rentees, on a scale unseen in living memory. Some pundits predict that very soon the top one per cent of British society will have more money than the other 99% combined. It is obvious that this is a giant step backwards for the cohesion of society, which relies on retaining a far greater proportion of assets in common ownership so as to bind people together

Successive governments have also sold off nearly all of our national assets. In addition the past two have also waived planning controls and obliged councils, whether Labour or Tory, to adopt a pro-development stance, often using the term “regeneration” to add a positive spin. Hastings’ Labour-dominated council has seen its budget cut to the bone and has recently been obliged to raise money by selling off what were previously publicly owned assets. Yet instead of resisting this, they seem to do it with gusto. So many locals conclude that it makes little difference who runs our council and it would be naive to imagine that a Tory-led council will bring more democracy and less development to Hastings. This is a poor town and yet it has had to endure the worst of two worlds: savage cuts to services, but also the council’s often fruitless developments in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Politically we live in times when the line between private and public has become so blurred that some planning officers and councillors may be unaware that their dual roles are what used to be called “conflicts of interest” in more democratic days. Although we can all appreciate how hard it must be to run a council that is subject to savage cuts, this can hardly excuse many of the past and on-going actions of Hastings Borough Council’s planning department. Planners are supposed to be the servants of local people whose taxes pay their wages, yet they act as if the town’s best natural assets are theirs alone and that they can rubber-stamp developments that benefit only developers and their partners. Why is it that HBC councillors have at times gone out of their way to protect planning officers and developers from criticism or blame? Is it because they have common interests? The answer is that, sadly, some find it very hard to resist the conclusion that someone is making money out of these developments.

Protests outside the Town Hall against planning permission for the Queensway Gateway road (photo: CHD).

Protests outside the Town Hall against planning permission for the Queensway Gateway road (photo: CHD).

For instance, the Combe Haven Valley has been ruined to make way for the Bexhill Hastings Link Road, which many feel will do nothing to relieve traffic congestion. It is already clear that it will soon feature other linking roads providing opportunities for many more development opportunities in the spaces in-between. The Queensway Gateway road which links in with the Link Road was sanctioned by means of a third party: the “not-for-profit private company” Sea Change Sussex, which features HBC councillors as co-directors – until recently Cllr Peter Chowney and now Cllr Dawn Poole. In all these instances, Sea Change worked in the interests of the developers whether locals protested or not, and they have – in their hundreds.

What is less commonly known is that the land is owned by a Cambridge college. To quote Andrea Needham, the local Green Party candidate: “Trinity College, Cambridge, the richest Oxbridge college, stands to make a huge profit from the Link Road. It owns much of the land around north east Bexhill which Rother District Council has earmarked for a ‘major urban extension’. Without the Link Road this land could not be developed and would remain the tranquil countryside it is at present. Through one of its development companies, Trinity has aggressively pursued a strategy of trying to persuade the council to allow as much land as possible to be developed.”

The illegitimate development of infrastructure works in the Rocklands Caravan Park and their effect on the Ecclesbourne Glen Site of Special Scientific Interest (namely the catastrophic landslip) is another symbol of the prioritisation of so-called “regeneration” at the expense of unique natural assets. After so many months of campaigning, is the Save Ecclesbourne Glen group finally seeing the bad culture they and others have exposed in the planning department changing for the better? Not at all – in fact the department is going to renew the caravan site licence without any penalties. Peter Chowney, the new council leader, said in a recent meeting that he has full confidence in his department. It has now been confirmed that Ray Crawford, the deputy head of planning, responsible for many of the department’s worst decisions in the Rocklands’ debacle (and elsewhere), is retiring early. This may seem like good news, but in his place HBC have employed an “independent planning adviser” – Tezel Bahcheli – who has already shown that she intends to carry on in the same vein.

No wonder the government’s Planning Advisory Service, which subscribes to the pro-development dogma, recently awarded Hastings’ planning department top ten status. In fact one of the PAS’s critical comments was that Hastings’ “planning officers spend too long talking to pressure groups! It also grumbled that there have been many personal verbal attacks on officers, even though SEG members have always remained professional and have refused to get personal. Such comments seem to be aimed at silencing democratic debate.

We would love to be able to trust our government and our councils, but the reality is that we can’t, and so in Hastings, as in so many other regions of the country, highly motivated campaigns have sprung up to challenge their actions: Save Ecclesbourne Glen, the Combe Haven Defenders, Friends of Speckled Wood and others. Yet HBC are not listening, even though they say that they invite locals to “hold them to account”. They should not be surprised therefore if we do so – after all, we have a democratic right to question them and we must continue to do so until either this Labour council or a Tory-led one begins to act in our interest and starts protecting what one local councillor recently called “Hastings’ jewel in the crown”: its unique areas of outstanding natural beauty.

 

For more on Trinity College’s involvement in the link road see here.

The revised application for the Queensway Gateway Road will be considered by the planning committee at 6pm on Tuesday 15 December at the White Rock Theatre – the hearing is open to all. See New hearing for Queensway Gateway road.

 

This article was amended on 23 January 2016 at the writer’s request.

Posted 18:14 Thursday, Dec 10, 2015 In: Home Ground

2 Comments

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  1. Michael Madden

    Hi Zelly and many thanks for your comments. Everything you have said above confirms that there is a vital need to restore democratic processes and structures that have now been almost completely eroded in GB. We have the appearance of democracy but nothing behind the facade, and that is painful, as you say, for anyone who cares.

    I wrote the article because I am so angry and astonished at what I have seen firstly as a committee member of SEG and more recently as an independent allied observer. All of the brilliant people in these campaigns have the right to expect some good will, backbone and accountability from their elected representatives, but it has become starkly clear that HBC and Labour councillors in general do not feel that it is their job to deliver it. I am a lifelong Labour voter and will vote for Labour nationally but can no longer bring myself to vote for them locally.

    I hope to meet you soon for a chat maybe at the White Rock on Tuesday. Clearly something must be done.

    Best wishes,

    Michael

    Comment by Michael Madden — Saturday, Dec 12, 2015 @ 08:50

  2. Zelly Restorick

    A powerful piece of writing, Michael, expressing what I am sure are the thoughts of many people who actually consider, have awareness of or have been involved in what’s happening in the development of Hastings and St Leonards and the surrounding areas – and possibly nationally. Powerful writing, yet also extremely distressing and painful to read and assimilate.

    When I campaigned about the Bexhill Hastings Link Road and other accompanying developments, I became much more aware of what was happening behind the scenes – and I felt hopeless and powerless. The police involvement, the security companies hired by the local councils, the way I was treated, the meetings I attended led by dominant authoritarians within the council sphere, the physical set up of the meetings, the treatment of the members of the public, the lies I was told direct to my face – and to the faces of local residents I spoke to, the subterfuge, the manipulation, the ignorance of the councillors of the matters they were making decisions about (beyond reading the paperwork provided by the administrators), the power of those pulling the strings of their puppets, the connections, the meetings I attended as a campaigner held separately to those of the ‘general public’, the blockades of silence and non-response, the propaganda, the marketing, the publicity machines.

    I felt despair and desolation.

    I thoroughly and whole heartedly admire and respect the hard work and dedication of time and energy of those who took Hastings Borough Council to court about air pollution levels surrounding the development, causing HBC to withdraw their application. However, as HBC re-submit the planning application, with revised figures, it is clear – as I learned as an undergraduate and from my own varied life experience – that statistics can be manipulated and experts found and employed who will support whatever case one wants to put forward.

    From this, you can see that I am one of those whose trust has been lost – and I know that I do not want to feel this way.

    I spoke to someone a day or so ago, who has worked for many years within the legal system, who spoke of their despair at the rife corruption they are aware of on a daily basis – and how the motivating force is always money.

    I know that my visions clash and oppose those of the current regime – and I was shocked and dismayed at the tactics used against me and those around me, who peacefully disagreed with the decisions made by the authority figures, the powerful and those in control. With the threat of arrest and a criminal record, with talk from the police of anarchy, weighed down by fear and paranoia, my courage failed and I withdrew from the frontline; retired to write, support those with more guts than I and participate in non-violent actions connected to those issues I feel touch my heart.

    From innocence to experience. I saw a whole other side to the United Kingdom’s governance than that of which I had previously been aware – and I felt inexorably uncomfortable.

    This is not to say that I feel the whole system is corrupt, nor that everyone involved is a rotten apple. My father worked for local government in the building sphere – and he was offered bribes along the way and didn’t take them – and there will always be people like him, within every sphere of life, within every aspect of our human community. And I would like to believe that he represented the majority.

    These views only represent my own personal thoughts on this subject – and my own personal experience.

    Comment by Zelly Restorick — Friday, Dec 11, 2015 @ 09:58

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