Crossing the line: when local politicians go bonkers
12 March 2017
First, an apology. This is a small story. It is about a village, its school, some houses and a white line. It would not be out of place in one of the quieter episodes of The Archers. To some, the fact that I want to write about it may seem like the final, irrefutable evidence that life in the country has finally got to me and brambles have snagged my brain.
My excuse is that sometimes an event which would cause less than the tiniest whisper in the busy outside world can resonate loudly if you are part of a small community. As a result of this little village saga, I look at public life rather differently. For the first time, I understand the cynicism so many would-be voters have towards politics, the grinding rage of those on the outside.
I used to be rather in favour of elites. I thought that what people call ‘the system’, or sometimes ‘the establishment’, worked more or less. Now, whatever it is called, it seems self-serving and inward-looking – broken, in fact.
Here is the set-up. Dickleburgh, near Diss in south Norfolk, is a modern, medium-sized village with its share of the usual rural problems: pressure on housing, traffic difficulties caused by large vehicles on small roads, a once-thriving pub that is now closed and so on.
Five years ago, when asked to chose ‘a preferred site’ for future housing development, the village parish council and residents chose an easily accessible site by the main road into the village. To everyone’s surprise, that decision was over-ruled by a government planning inspector in favour of a field which (complicating matters somewhat) belonged to the family of the local district councillor.
So far, so mildly annoying. The story took a more peculiar turn when the housing developer Hopkins Homes put in their plans for 22 houses, covering about a quarter of the field, making no secret that they hoped to turn the rest of field into a larger housing estate over time.
They were faced with a problem. The site was on a narrow road leading out of the village past the busy and successful village primary school. How were people, notably parents with children, going to get from the new development and existing houses to the school and the village? Extraordinarily – and, at first, hilariously – Hopkins proposed a metre-wide pathway in the road.
It was clear to anyone with a brain and a pair of eyes that this scheme was more than a touch reckless. The road is barely wide enough for two cars to pass and goes around a blind bend. Parents and children were to be asked to walk into traffic which would be unable to see them coming. Their protection, physical and legal, would be a white line.
Developers always win. That was what the old hands told us. The plan may be bonkers and fly in the face of the most basic health and safety guidelines, but if that is what the money wants, that is what it will get.
Briefly there was an outbreak of sanity. The South Norfolk Council planning committee, having seen some hair-raising videos of a mother with two children trying to negotiate the bend, deferred a decision until the developers and the Highways Authority came up with safer scheme. A real pavement could be built on the other side of the road; all that was required was a bit of money. It all seemed straightforward enough.
The parish council offered to help and were summoned to a meeting with interested parties. The results of that consultation were posted online minutes before it had actually happened – an indicator of how seriously it was being taken . The white line, the meeting decided (before it had taken place), would stay.
A new scheme, virtually identical to the old one, returned to the planning committee.
There in the council chambers, where the local councillors debate these matters with their backs to the public, a U-turn was briskly executed. The plan which had caused such concern under three months previously was now just fine. No explanation was given because none was really required. There was mild embarrassment in their discussion and a whiff of political cowardice: if they voted the application down, it would go to appeal and that might cost them money and negative headlines.
What a waste of time it all was. As the charade in the council chamber unfolded, it became clear that nothing said by we hopeless little amateurs was going to change anything.
From the start, the consultations had been a sham. It was the professionals – a cosy huddle of district councillors and their officers with a housing developer – who knew exactly how it was going to end. They existed in their own little bubble.
For me, the saga of the white line has been what the proverbial game-changer. When I think of the languid, bored smile of the developer, the eagerness of the local councillors to get the thing passed, the bewilderment of those who had believed that commonsense – not to mention the safety of children – would play at least a small part in the process, I understand the political disengagement of millions.
Nothing we on the outside could say or do would make a difference. The system – money, self-interest, political expediency – looks after itself. It always wins.