There was a searing moment in last week's town council meeting (18.1.17) when wide eyed Liz Harvey, town and county councillor, looked around with her hands outstretched and asked if anyone was going to answer her questions. The tension and embarrassment in the ensuing silence, as well as the realisation of a long buried truth, froze that crowded room. See 1.07 in the video below.
It came down to this. The months and years of bickering and bluster, all the outbursts of anger, the denunciations, the contemptuous asides and tortuous complaints, they were all distilled into a single dizzying moment of collective insight.
For Ledbury's troubled Neighbourhood Plan, there seems to be no real reason why things have happened as they have, why money was spent on this or that, why moves were made or not, who was in charge or ultimately should be responsible. At the heart of it all, the project is aimless and inchoate. There is a void. The only imperative is to get the bloody thing done - or be done with the bloody thing. Anything will do.
At this special town council meeting to examine progress on the town's Neighbourhood Plan and plot a future course, it was clear that events are unfolding in a way that is dislocated from detailed planning, informed discussion or the application of available professional expertise. There is no project manager it emerges. Financial forecasts of income and expenditure don't exist. Records of key discussions are not being kept. The town council which bears legal and financial responsibility, is in ignorance, nor has it been consulted at critical moments as laid down in its own rules. Nobody is in charge. The buck stops nowhere and with no-one.
Most damning of all, Ledbury's residents either do not know about the Neighbourhood Plan and what it means for their future, or don't care. Either way, the efforts at communication and interaction with local people have failed miserably.
Non Erit Sollicitum
The evening started well enough. There had been an upbeat and informative progress report from consultant Sally Tagg, followed by an impassioned defence of the project by local resident Phillip Howells. He carefully rebutted criticisms that levels of community engagement were poor, saying that Ledbury's apathy was normal in these situations. Equally, costs were nothing extraordinary, given the complexity of the task, and the size of the town. He said everything was open, above board and fully accountable. He appealed to commonsense, as a good citizen, an ex-soldier, and a professional. Really?
Things began to unravel. There was no round of applause. Liz Harvey got to her feet and after thanking Mrs Tagg and Mr Howells, asked the same questions she had been asking for the last twelve months.
The technicalities of planning policy are never rivetting. But the impact of planning decisions on people's lives is immeasurable: where a road should go, whether a view is ruined, if a school is built, or a supermarket allowed. In planning matters there are always winners - usually property developers - and losers, usually the neighbours. We elect local councillors largely to oversee a legal and fair planning process, to call decision-makers to account. In planning matters, scrutiny and 'due process' matter.
Over the months and years, Harvey and others (including me) have been branded trouble-makers for asking awkward, potentially embarrassing questions about the way the Neighbourhood Plan was being handled. Nor are the worries and concerns diminishing, but acquiring greater urgency as more money is spent, as the intellectual gaps are widening, and the inconsistencies becoming more egregious.
And so once again as she ran the script, sought to get answers, the town council hierarchy and their hangers-on, sighed and shifted impatiently. After ten minutes by the clock, the mayor, Debbie Baker had had enough and told Harvey to stop talking as she'd had fifteen minutes 'from what we timed it'.
Why had there been a 'call for sites' while a planning appeal for new housing in Ledbury was underway? Did not the NP group think it was a risky move to invite local landowners to offer up their land for building at the same moment as barristers for a predatory development company were arguing the case in a planning court that Herefordshire needed to allow more house-building?
Even though there had been a call for development sites, Harvey noted that at least two landowners had been ignored by the Neighbourhood Plan after proposing seemingly viable schemes for housing and transport infrastructure.
Why had housebuilder Bovis been rebuffed when it sought a meeting with the NP group to discuss its plans south of the by-pass? Why had the Neighbourhood Plan not undertaken a public consultation on 'Development Options' as it is required to do in the official guidance? Who is project-managing the process? And so on.
New councillor Nina Shields lamented the poor response rates to the costly consultation events overseen by the consultants. Cllr Andrew Warmington wondered why the town council was not being kept better informed. Cllr Nick Morris wanted to know whether the key officer for Neighbourhood Planning at Herefordshire Council was being consulted. Cllr Andrew Harrison asked if the town council could have a monthly financial and project report. Liz Harvey questioned whether the NP group was acting in line with its terms of reference as decided by the Town Council in October 2015, particularly in sanctioning consultation events.
Well? Is anyone going to answer my questions, she said again. Silence.
To be continued...
Cato the Younger: a fascinating life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_the_Younger
Liz Harvey's written questions on the Neighbourhood Plan to Ledbury mayor, Debbie Baker 20 January 2017. Click file here.
Liz Harvey's covering email to Debbie Baker. Click file here.
Video of LTC meeting, 18 January 2017 to discuss Neighbourhood Plan.