The echo of nearly 700 protesting feet marching up a medieval street had hardly died away before district councillors were dismissing it and a petition with an astonishing 3,500 signatures on it, as hysteria and ‘typical Totnes.
Totnes feels like it is under siege at the moment. We have 1400 houses going up around us, our market square, car parks and garden are under threat of development and now the Duke of Somerset has added to the mix with an opportunistic attempt to force planning permission for 400 houses at the top of town. We have learnt to be very careful when dealing with the duke. His two latest schemes have seen him bullying a local farmer, the last dairy farmer in Totnes off his land to make way for yet more luxury homes and a hated and ugly set of houses right on the Dart, which were got through planning despite the best efforts of our district and town councils with a nasty mix of duplicity and unmet promises. And here he is back again with yet more luxury homes to clog our roads, destroy our wildlife and further the urban corridor forming between Torbay and the A38.
It is so easy for landowners, developers and now our district council to behave badly at the moment. It is the era of the land grab. Recent government changes to the national planning policy framework and the Housing Act have made it very easy for them. There are enormous profits to be made and what does the livelihood and well being of a few country folk matter in the great scheme of things. Well actually it does matter. It matters that Totnes and so many other towns and villages the length and breadth of Britain are being treated like this. We have 1400 houses going up, which roughly equates to about 4000 new people. Our population is only 8000 as it stands. Thats an enormous increase, you’d have thought there would be some concern about our infrastructure – our healthcare, our roads, our schools, but no. There has been almost no improvements whatsoever. The fact that many local hospitals are being closed down around us only adds to the pot. The new homes bonuses that the district council collects have gone into their income and their pension pot. The pittance we were thrown was supposed to go into improving a little square at the top of town and to replace a pitch. Unfortunately the council chose the wrong stones for the square and have had to close it to the public and the new pitch is to be built on a school field earmarked for development. Not brilliant.
In the past when there was a situation like this, the local people would complain, there might be a consultation, people would put forward arguments and the council would have to listen. Not any more. The situation now is that the district council put the central area of Totnes into the new Local Plan hoping to make a fortune from the sale of the car parks and garden and market square which they own. By law they have to do a consultation, so they did one online with almost no publicity in the school holidays and hoped nobody would notice. Luckily people did notice and even though most people were on holiday, a lot wrote in to the consultation including our Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston demanding that the car parks, garden and market square were removed from the Joint Plan. So many in fact that there were more comments on this than on the rest of West Devon, Plymouth and the South Hams combined. Its a consultation, you’d have thought that anyone seeing the depth of feeling and concern shown by the people of Totnes to the plan would take that into consideration and do something about it. Not in this particular political climate. The council are looking to push their plans to build 50 houses on our car park, 20 houses on the back of the market and commercial units on the front of the market through the Plan. What kind of consultation directly ignores the overwhelming view expressed by those writing in?
They say that the final decision will be made by an independent planning inspector. A planning inspector does not judge the views or feelings of local people, he judges on procedure; have the council ticked all the right boxes and done everything in accordance with law, if they have then the Plan will be adopted. A planning inspector does not decide on whether or not a particular development will have such an appalling impact on a town that it might never recover. They do not consider the merits of building on a square that has hosted a market since early medieval times. They do not consider the foolhardiness of compromising the parking of a town choked by traffic and struggling to find enough parking anyway. They do not consider the livelihoods and wellbeing of the people who live here, many of whom depend on tourism to survive. They do not consider the destruction of a heritage area and the ruination of one of the last unspoilt towns in Devon – they only make sure the council have followed procedure. It is up to our council to decide whether or not they put the town centre into the Joint Plan and if they do it is to make money at our expense; they have no other justification or argument to put forward. They say that they need to do it in order to enhance the area. This is nonsense of course, you can enhance an area without building on it – the Joint Plan is only about building and development, we already have plans in place to improve it without building on it. They say that it is in the Joint Plan because it was in the last one – that is not an argument; many, many things have changed in the last five years especially in the centre of Totnes and the last plan for the centre of Totnes is hopelessly out of date and no longer has any bearing on the situation. That’s the extent of their argument. We have been told that if they take the central area out, we would have to find space for another 70 houses somewhere else. Well most people would say, ‘anywhere else’ and also we don’t actually need to have those 70 houses as we have enough for our 5 year supply anyway, but if we do, we have already earmarked a number of possible sites, including Follaton car park, which is large, often empty and could take the type of multi-storey car park that the council have ear marked for central Totnes. We could fit about 20 affordable homes in there, or on the industrial estate. The council owns these areas and could make up their shortfall in this way. We are working on getting an alternative proposal ready.
It is situations like this though, that have lead so many of us to despair of local democracy. Our voices are ignored, our feelings manipulated and the wellbeing of our towns, our countryside, our wildlife and our ancient villages, that have survived so much, are only seen through the prism of profit and business. Its all about the almighty dollar and the quick buck. Recognising this and despairing of this has led a large and growing group of people to challenge how politics works here. We have formed a group to facilitate an alliance of people from across the political spectrum to challenge the status quo at the county elections next May. In order to join this alliance, the Independents, or Lib Dems, Labour or Greens, whoever wants to stand, must sign up to a set of principles designed to bring some level of confidence back between us and those who represent us. It will focus on transparency, accountability and availability of councillors and will be a contract between them and us. Of course the contract can be in more detail depending on which area a councillor lives in; whether they choose to make themselves available by having a surgery once a week or publishing details of all meetings they attend, but the principles will hold.
Its worked successfully as a method of reinventing politics in many countries, not least with the Alternativ group in Denmark, but this will be our own homegrown Devon version.
The group is called Devon Utd and our inaugural meeting is at the Racecourse in Newton Abbot on October 4th at 6pm – all welcome.
We will be joined by Paul Hilder of Avaaz and OpenDemocracy and Crowdpac and by Indra Adnan of Compass and Soft Power. Its a chance to reinvent the way things work down here and insist on democracy being open for all, join us, its bound to be very interesting.
You can book free tickets through eventbrite – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/devon-united-doing-democracy-differently-tickets-27679676658?aff=ehomecard