Our ramble takes us to the rolling country near Parkway, down the hill and along the river, up to the old fort at Wall Hills, out along the Hereford Road and into the back lanes looping over to Wellington Heath, an arc of unspoilt Herefordshire at its most gloriously ignored. Until now.
Leading our way with a spring in his step is Councillor Bob Barnes; it’s early spring 2015. He’s visiting the various farmers and landowners whose holdings fringe our town. He’s checking out the lie of the land for development purposes. Bob is quite an important person. Not only is he Mayor of Ledbury, but he is also chairman of the all-important Neighbourhood Plan. He has to taken on the onerous job of chatting informally about whether any of the landowners might be interested in selling their fields for building, or if not actually that, having them zoned for future development.
Gosh, it would be a wrench wouldn’t it? Farming is all very well, but having your acres slated for housing or industry would suddenly turn them into gold. You and your family would have hit the jackpot.
Let’s imagine the conversation. “Really Bob, could you get these fields designated for building plots?” you say keenly.
“Well”, says friendly Bob, “all options are open. Ledbury doesn’t have to stick to the 800 houses that the Core Strategy has allocated for us. We could build a lot more if we wanted… Anything’s possible, now that the National Planning regulations have been so relaxed and the Localism Act has handed towns like ours the chance to decide what gets built and where. It's all up to us now.”
“Whoah”, you say, pound signs flashing like disco lights. “Could you make that happen for us Bob? Seriously?”
Such conversations are imaginary of course. We have no way of knowing what Bob discussed with his potentially super-rich acquaintances. Bob has refused to say who he has spoken to, and what he talked about. All our imaginings, as so often is the case when Cllr Barnes is involved, are in the realms of fancy.
What we do know for certain is that Cllr Barnes, on his own, and against the advice of the Neighbourhood Plan Working Group, has ‘spoken to 5 landowners, in person, face to face, no secret phone calls’ (as he says).
The curiously troubling thing is that he has refused point blank over the last twelve months to disclose who these landowners are, or what they talked about. He says it is ‘commercially sensitive and should be treated as confidential.’ You said the word Bob: secret.
I do get confidential. When business deals are being made, it’s essential that you are able negotiate without outside influence. Discussions themselves can have dramatic impacts on prices – it’s all about supply and demand. Business is like poker, and just like the game, whether you’ve got a straight flush or fistful of junk, you keep a straight face, and act confident.
This is fine for business people and card players. But local councillors? Public servants who are involved in drawing up far-reaching development plans, where millions might be at stake? Town mayors? Not really.
Wouldn’t it be a temptation? How would anyone ever find out? A helpful word here, a nudge and a wink there.
I am sure this isn't the case with our old friend bare-faced Bob Barnes. His record for telling the truth is, after all, unimpeachable. See here and here. As it has been said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. How about you make a clean break Bob and tell us exactly who you’ve been talking to and what you talked about, every word of it? You are an elected politician. You owe it to your electors.
Never mind commercial confidence, what about community confidence that everything's above board, beyond suspicion, legal, decent and honest?
If there's nothing to hide, why should anyone be worried?