Wednesday, 14 September 2016

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.…

One moment…, above all, had characterized my ascent. As I closed the gate behind me… I glanced backward…. All I could think was how magnificent this view is; how wonderful it is to live here; and how miraculous it was that previous generations had allowed the place to evolve – that glorious medley of stone and brick; of slate and tile – without damaging the heavenly spirit of our miraculous haven.
     But then doubt seized me as hard as any physical pain: and I wondered if this majesty could last; if our children will be the last to see, to enjoy, Tysoe at its best…. I see the prevalence of money (and its cousin greed) beginning to prevail again: dividing, destroying, dominating. I see equality dissolving; monopolies of wealth domineering and discriminating – …and with the power not just to rend the social paradise asunder, but the village’s physical existence, too. Not only that: but those who would fight such change are being quashed methodically and cruelly. What I saw was entropy made manifest… – and made by man.
     Of course, I could thrill in the current material resplendence, and ignore the political shenanigans; roam these splendid pastures, blinkered to their travails, for as long as I am able. But I am not the sort of person who – intellectually – can stand idly by….

A study of 120 neighbourhood forums and plans completed in 2014 by Locality and the University of Reading was not reassuring. Amongst its key findings were that many participants feel oversold on the plenipotentiary powers of neighbourhood planning and that participants do not see neighbourhood plans as radically changing the culture of [the] planning system.

There are many reasons why I no longer get excited (well, not in a positive way) about the prospect of Tysoe possibly/finally – after years of squabbling; misdirection; bullying; sniping; lack of democratic involvement; character assassination; lack of understanding… – developing/finalizing its own (chimerical) Neighbourhood Plan; and, sadly, many of those “reasons” have been readily rehearsed on this blog. But, in the end (if this is such), there are three main questions to be answered. [My worry being that we will be given the ‘wrong’ responses (again): because, of course, in today’s political climate, we are not meant to (know enough to) actively challenge; just passively and dumbly do what we are told.]

1. Who is it (really) for?
After all this time – probably because no real effort was made to educate (ha!) residents on the back of the stunning enthusiasm that was corralled (mainly by one man) for the original Gladman rejection in Kineton (an easy advantage that was left to rot: principally, from my perspective, as part of a huge stinking pile of arrogance) – I don’t believe many in the three villages know or care what the heck such a beast is; what it should look like; what it can (and, more importantly, cannot) do. Consultations have been tokenistic (even though “meaningful” public engagement is a legal requirement); and no effort has been made – seemingly deliberately (if you can do nothing “deliberately”: which, of course, you can… it is indeed at the core of the majority of such political decisions) – to discover why the Village Hall hasn’t regularly had a queue outside it stretching all the way back to Oxhill Road. Villagers therefore feel utterly excluded; that it (whatever “it” is) is the preserve of a strangely invisible cabal; and do not – like myself – know (as they should do) if it is ‘owned’ (as it should be) by their elected representatives: either at Parish, District or County level. (The obvious response, here, is that it should belong to each and every resident: but, considering many of the previous sentences, this soon ‘resolves’ itself into a circular and pointless argument… – which of course, has become the plan’s unremitting methodology.)

Under the [Government’s] localism agenda, the wheels for private-sector encroachment into public planning have been further oiled, with the introduction of neighbourhood plans. Presented as a means of empowering communities, they have in fact left the door wide open for canny developers to move in, host a few community coffee mornings with felt-tips and post-it notes, and engineer a plan to their own advantage. There is no requirement for those who draw up the plan to even reside in the neighbourhood and, although they need a 50% “yes” vote at referendum, there is no requisite minimum turnout.

2. What is it (good) for?
Fundamentally, Tysoe’s Neighbourhood Plan is unnecessary. It is also irrelevant in its constrained, required form; and useless in the form it last appeared in. Two large proposals – for that field again [if we keep on fighting over this tiny patch of land – and once really should have been enough… – it will soon be as blood-soaked as that at Edgehill (if not the room where Parish Councillors are taken to be unceremoniously knifed in the back)]; and for land above Middleton Close (incidentally, initiated by a local resident, for goodness’ sake) have been, respectively, withdrawn, and (I am told) rejected, on rather simple grounds: that there is enough housing stock in the pipeline. [Whether or not this has anything to do with the Lack-of-Foresight Saga that is the adoption of the Core Strategy, I really do not know… – and, to be blunt, really don’t give a tinker’s wotsit about: apart from the fact that we seem to be replicating its power-skewed process within this very parish. (What I do care about is the spirit of many selfless locals – which manifests itself in a repetitive slog of objections… – and the spirit of the place I live in: which, thankfully, being relatively intangible, cannot easily be bought, sold, or conquered (although I am beginning to have my doubts…).)]

Powers to allow communities to draw up Neighbourhood Plans (NPs) are one of the new “community rights” promoted in the Localism Act. At one level this looks like a welcome development – but it comes from a Conservative-led [Government] bent on austerity and privatisation. We need to ask what exactly is going on, and who will benefit?
     By emphasising communities and neighbourhood organisation, Neighbourhood Plans are part of the ‘big society’ agenda. Following disputes over planning policy, they are a government response to rebellious rural parishes and shire counties opposing urban sprawl and top-down government housing targets….
     However, Neighbourhood Plans… are not an open-ended community right; the right depends upon conditions set down by government and local authorities. For example, the government has bowed to pressure from the house building industry and has said that NPs cannot be used to oppose new development – much to the disappointment of many (mainly rural) communities who want to use the power to block new housing schemes they don’t want in their back yard.
     NPs must also conform to the National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] recently announced by government, and also to local authority approved plans; they cannot buck approved planning policy…. This means that administering the NP process will be highly political….
– Bob Colenutt, Northampton Institute for Urban Affairs: A conditional right: the Localism Act and Neighbourhood Plans

3. Why is it (even) necessary?
If there truly is “enough housing stock in the pipeline” – and, although, once upon a time, I would have been the go‑to guy for the answer, I do not know… – then why are we being asked to nominate parcels of land for developers to cherry-pick? Or, as I wrote sixteen months ago:

We do not need a shopping list of fields for developers to target. What we need is a Tysoe which develops – as much as it can: as much as any “precious stone set in the silver sea” – in a way that we all recognize and wish for; and which does not lead our children and grandchildren continually to curse us for bequeathing them a village that is sterile through repetitious housing developments; even more isolated than now, because we did not grasp the chance to become subsistent in non-fossil-fuel-based power and motivation; or that has crumbled into a hollow, unrecognizable ghost and an uncomfortable locale to inhabit… because all we cared about was now, was instant gratification, was ourselves.

During the last Parish Council meeting I went to – which, for many reasons (health and accessibility being concrete ones; a lack of faith being, well, not theoretical as such, just in line with my fellow villagers’ disregard, disbelief, and dissatisfaction), was quite a long time ago – one of the councillors actually said, confidently, that “having a Neighbourhood Plan will protect the village”. (Perhaps they had imagined building a high Trumptonesque wall out of the rejected drafts…?) Whether this was ignorance, or evidence of subscription to a mis-sold view, or simply political disingenuousness (or even a weirdly-coloured cocktail of all three), I actually could not work out. (The only result, really, was that this was the moment when I had confirmed to me the tenet that if codswallop is repeated often enough, it soon gains, in some people’s wrong-heads, a palpable veneer of authenticity.) At least I knew, in my ultra-puzzled state, that it was blatantly wrong.

Firstly, because, at the time, the Core Strategy was just a fluffy cloud floating above Chris Saint’s head (rather than in his back pocket) – and therefore, even if we had accepted the mess then on the table, it would just have been an inconsequential piece of paper, as waved by Neville Chamberlain. And, secondly… because that is not what it does, or can do, at all. All it is, is another “piece of paper” to be added to the administrative burden of the rapidly shrinking Stratford-on-Avon District Council Planning department, when someone tries it on again with yet another time-wasting, ridiculous proposal. [Have we really got the resources – time, people, expertise, huge wads of cash… – to endlessly take developers to court to enforce a rethink each time they propose something that whoever is ‘in charge’ of Tysoe dislikes? (Oh, and don’t be surprised if they do the same to us – permanently and repeatedly challenging whatever it is we end up with – when they don’t like the look of what we have idealized…!)]

And, yes, I know we can “say” (to quote the latest glossy missive) what we would like such “ridiculous proposals” to look like, once built somewhere inappropriate. But that can also/similarly be ignored and challenged, of course… – and, as I have asked before (two blummin’ years ago), do we really want to stamp our unimaginative Country Life-reading mark all over centuries of beautiful, charming, sporadic and spontaneous architectural evolution with identical clusters of identical ironstone ‘cottages’? (Our parish truly does not need designing: it just needs to evolve – as it has done for millennia.)

If the answer to the previous (admittedly rhetorical) question, though, is “yes” – from those that have (or think, ahem, they have) power (and possibly taste: whichever end it sits on that particular spectrum) – then, the “backward glance” (and its associated deep love for the place I live), as I hauled myself past Old Lodge Farm, that simultaneously lifted my heart and prompted this rant, has absolutely no value. (And this, of course, needs to be multiplied by the number of all those who similarly “love” this place….)

All we want is something simple, that we all can understand:
Nothing complex or beyond us; notions rooted in the land;
A village with a future; where each to each is known;
A place which folk find welcoming; that is everybody’s own;
Where, gradually, in union, with corresponding power,
We spread this presence evenly, and remember well that our
Stay upon this well-tilled soil means little to time’s sprawl;
Though man is one of many visitors whose impact may be small
Next to heaven’s mighty globes and the voyages they’ve turned;
But that yet we must be wary of the furrows that we’ve churned.

And, what is worse (and so much worse): this means that my worry that Tysoe has just become a ‘condensation’, an enclave, a miniature representation of prevalent national right-wing attitudes, government, power – where the proletariat are ignored; ‘otherness’ is actively reviled; and everything is decided by the privileged few for that few… – has in fact become reality: whilst we were cleverly being distracted by the beauty that currently surrounds us; instead of watching out for Boojums with attitudes that you (once?) thought only existed in public school quadrangles. Farewell, democracy.

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