The tragedy of Ledbury’s Neighbourhood Plan is its epic, mind-boggling vacuity.
Five long, painful years have passed since Ledbury began its Neighbourhood Plan. Tens of thousands of pounds have been spent on consultants. Four chairmen, dozens of volunteers and scores of meetings have come and gone. There have been leaflets and consultations, exhibitions and questionnaires. Has Ledbury ever witnessed such a calamitous flop?
Despite rampant building works disfiguring its outskirts, with more planning applications in prospect, the town still seems no nearer having a neighbourhood plan than it did two and half years ago. This was when the Town Council sacked the community-led group and took over its management, supposedly to get the job done quickly.
Building developers are having a free-for-all in the rolling countryside to the south of Ledbury. If they get their way, about two thousand new houses are expected in the next couple of years. Many local people think this will be a catastrophic shock to the town, especially as few extra resources like doctors, schools and car-parks are being built to cope with the influx of the six thousand extra people.
There are worries too about the ugly impact of all that building on the landscape of Ledbury, not to mention all the extra cars, the demand on water and sewerage facilities, and the short supply of leisure amenities which a town of fifteen thousand people might expect.
Back in October 2015, ex-councillor Rob Yeoman said that the old Neighbourhood Planning working group wasn’t delivering, that the plan was taking too long, that Ledbury was being failed. He claimed that by dissolving the community-led group and moving the project under the direct control of the Council, progress would be hastened so that a Plan could be completed within a matter of months; if only.
Yeoman bemoaned the bitter personality conflicts and what he alleged was political chicanery (got up cynically by Liz Harvey and her party, It’s Our County). He complained that she stared at him menacingly. He said that the new ‘Neighbourhood Development Plan Group’ (note the subtle name-change) would achieve in a few months what the community volunteers had failed to deliver in two years. To roars of ironic laughter from the public, he said the group was dysfunctional, ineffective and amateurish, incapable of making progress due to ‘infighting and bad behaviour’. Yeoman’s scornful claims were wrong and flew in the face of all the evidence, but a gullible majority of the town council supported his proposal and down came the shutters. Thus began Ledbury Town Council’s time of ruination.
At that fateful Town Council meeting, it was pointed out that the Council would be ‘dissolving’ a vast pool of knowledge, experience and skills, not to mention commitment and energy, the very thing which should be harnessed, not cast aside, to bring the project to rapid fruition. Councillors and members of the public argued passionately that having to start again with a new group, and losing so much valuable expertise, would cause immeasurably more delay.
The Neighbourhood Plan group’s dissolution was not so much the act of cutting off Ledbury’s nose, as kicking its face to pulp in a fit of vengeful spite. The consequences were clear to everyone, except the Town Council’s Jacobin tendency. And so all our worst fears have come to pass: two and half years later, Ledbury is still an eternity away from a plan that is adequate. Now the grimly optimistic talk is that ‘a bad plan is better than no plan’. At this point, the smart money is on no plan.
After Yeoman’s coup d’etat, it fell to the Mayor Annette Crowe, to cobble things back together and form a new project group. This she did by bringing in several of her very good friends and some of their family members, none of whom had any background knowledge of planning or community engagement, much less awareness of the intensive work that had been completed already.
Under Crowe’s dubious leadership, meetings of the new group were rarely, if ever advertised, even though it was claimed they were ‘open and inclusive’ to the community. After a decent interval, the mendacious Bob Barnes (who had presided shambolically over the group’s previous incarnation and was responsible for so much of the conflict) came in from the cold. Meanwhile, Cllr Rob Yeoman, having wielded the axe, promptly resigned from the Council and henceforth absented himself from NDP meetings. Thanks Rob! Fresh from the acquisition of his prized new cricket pitch, all that ostentatious enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning and doing the best for Ledbury suddenly evaporated; make of this what you will.
Throughout the pantomime, the fragrant Sally Tagg continues to do what she likes to do, and collect her handsome consultancy pay cheques. How much are we up to so far? £60 thousand?
Don’t Question Us.
Over a year later (January 2017), there was another bitter town council meeting to discuss the clearly faltering progress on the Neighbourhood Plan. Crowe, Barnes and Fieldhouse, aided by their loyal dupes, huffed and bluffed. Everything was on track they claimed. According to their tired narrative, the only problem was the trouble-makers.
Seemingly any feedback or criticism, however legitimate, was branded ‘political’ or vexatious.
What about the disappointingly poor response rates to public consultations? ‘Community apathy’ is normal and expected, they explained. How could the spiralling costs be justified, with so little to see for the money? Rubbish they said: the £70 thousand budget is in line with other comparable towns. To charges of lack of accountability, they claimed that all the NDP meetings are open and ‘above board’, everyone was welcome (despite never being advertised). In other words, shut up and leave us alone.
We were reassured that the Group was ‘almost ready’ to go to the next important phase, which was the official major consultation stage called Regulation 14. At this point, the draft final plan would be released for public scrutiny. All being well, it would sail through to independent examination (by a planning inspector) and a referendum, job done by the autumn.
The ‘Reg 14’ consultation did happen, but not for another nine months in September 2017. Since then, having been deluged with critical feedback from organisations and individuals in Ledbury, four months have passed and there has been silence. There is surprise and consternation that none of the submissions from this consultation have been made public as is normal practice. There continues to be minimal contact between Ledbury Town Council and Herefordshire Council. The Plan as published, is potentially in conflict with aspects of the County’s ‘core strategy’, a fatal legal impediment. It certainly does not meet the policy threshold set out in the latest ministerial guidance to Parliament. This does not bode well for a successful resolution.
When the draft plan was finally released for consultation at ‘Reg 14’, former members of the dissolved Neighbourhood Plan group were dismayed that so little had been contributed since they had left it in October 2015, two years before. More than this, vital elements which were being worked on at that stage, had simply been left out.
Where was the land for business and employment? Sports pitches and playing fields? Town centre economic development? Community venues? Medical and educational facilities? Nowhere to be seen. Traffic management and parking had not been considered. Habitat creation, green spaces and other natural environmental resources were left fallow. Just about all the most pressing questions for Ledbury’s future as a thriving, prosperous, happy place to live, were ignored.
Perhaps most damningly, the Plan delineated a ‘settlement boundary’ for Ledbury which flew in the face of all logic. This is not surprising since it was apparently crayoned in by Bob Barnes (who else?) one random evening. The settlement boundary is important since it defines the outer extent of building and other development in the town. By creating a larger settlement boundary, with space allocated for business parks, playing fields and open green space as well as housing, Ledbury would be able to prevent the kind of unplanned, predatory development which is currently taking place beyond the Leadon Way by-pass between the town and Parkway.
The whole point of a Neighbourhood Plan is that it sets out a framework for planned development based on the views of local residents. The tragedy of Ledbury’s is its epic, mind-boggling vacuity. It has cost a fortune and taken years, and yet it still manages to contribute almost nothing of value to our townscape. It is a dullard’s vision of Ledbury’s future: not so much wrong, as simply lacking any horizon beyond the obvious, the banal and the mundane. Like its authors, the plan is horribly platitudinous and patronising. This is a typical sentence: “There can be much confusion, concern and worry when people hear about a pending housing development. Well, with the right objectives and policies in the NP, there needn’t be.”
Those people who look with dismay and sorrow at the churned up meadows and monstrous earthworks on Leadon Way, will no doubt be grateful for Mrs Tagg’s emollient words. They will sleep easier at night as three more predatory planning applications for many hundreds more houses land in Herefordshire Council’s planners’ in-tray. They will wave aside as scaremongering or mischief-making, claims that the town’s infrastructure won’t be able to cope.
What is even more galling, is that Ledbury is now being softened up for failure at official inspection of its Neighbourhood Plan - and they are already finding scapegoats. There are reports that crispy new councillor Jean Simpson, new best friend of Crowe and Fieldhouse, declared at a Ledbury Civic Society meeting that ‘if the Neighbourhood Plan fails, you know whose fault it will be: Liz Harvey’s’.
This outrageous statement isn’t entirely surprising, since Ms Simpson is well known for her waspish tongue and brittle personality. The shocking thing is how readily she and her malevolent gang of confederates are prepared to offload blame for all their mistakes and shortcomings onto the very people who forewarned them. Even now, after two and half years when Liz Harvey et al (including me) have had no input to the Neighbourhood Plan, they are being fingered. Do we have mystical powers?
There is a school of thought which believes that certain town councillors have deliberately hobbled the progress of the Neighbourhood Plan. By holding it back to the last possible moment, landowning friends (and brothers) around the town have been helped in the meantime to get ahead with building development plans, to pitch their pre-emptive housing proposals before Ledbury’s Neighbourhood Planning window bangs shut, and decimates the potential value of their fields. As building plots those acres are worth millions and millions; as grazing or arable land they aren’t worth tuppence. Some people would hate to see their friends (and brothers) lose out so unfairly, so the conspiracy theory runs.
I take a more charitable view. Stupidity. Apart from Bob Barnes’ serpentine foray around the local landowners during 2016 to explore their building intentions, the possibility of an organised conspiracy of corruption is fairly low, and even harder to prove.
The more likely explanation is that Ledbury has been mostly in the grip of a bunch of foolish bullshitters who couldn’t plan their way out of a sick bag. Like characters out of a Grimms’ fairy tale, the twain sisters Crowe and Fieldhouse might radiate bonhomie, but on the inside theirs is an ugly power trip. More than any other people presiding over the failed Neighbourhood Planning process and the chaotic Town Council, it is they who have brought civic life to its knees. By their errors of judgement and vainglorious ambition, they have allowed Ledbury’s future to be stolen by a few self-interested miscreants variously motivated by personal advantage, employment security and social status. They know who they are, and so do we.
And herein lies the kernel of the matter: Ledbury’s Town Council’s judicial woes, the tens of thousands it has spent on legal fees, the paralysis and isolation, the opportunities lost and hopes unfulfilled, the councillor bans, the abuse, harassment and intimidation, the suppression of information, and the dismal perversion of the public record: all these failures spring from the impulses of a closed group intent on covering up its misdeeds and hanging on to its power. In that sense, many town councillors are guilty, not just the nasty junta at the centre, but the credulous fools who go along with it all.
Corruption and personal enrichment is always a possibility in any closed organisation that shuns external scrutiny and refuses to be accountable.