Friday, 13 September 2013

The political bubble, froth, foolishness and the price of democracy.

We often hear references on the news to the 'Westminster Bubble' - a less than flattering reference to the arcane world that our national politicians inherit.  Well the last few days and the various goings on at both CWaC and in Frodsham make me realise that we have our own little bubbles here too.

We've had an interesting week at CWaC - with not, one, not two but three special council meetings.  We've debated and agreed unanimously to start the ball rolling on a new prestigious shopping area for Chester which will hopefully see many hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment attracted to our Borough. This was perhaps CWaC at its best.  Whether either of the other two special meetings saw CWaC at its best will depend on your view of what went on.

On Tuesday night we had Labour tabling a motion seeking to provide advice to the Executive to reduce the yearly house-building target included in the just published draft local plan.  Their figures were constructed so as to be able to claim that two sites suggested for housing and presently in the green belt - Westminster Road in Chester and Ledsham Road in Ellesmere Port could be removed.  They also sought to adjust downwards the housing allocation for Winsford.

Other than the political capital which Labour was seeking to generate - this was amongst the most pointless meetings imaginable.  First the Executive had already published the draft local plan.  In that sense the train had already left the station!  No matter what the decision by council the plan was already out for public consultation - and will remain open to consultation until 1 November 2013.  Do please read it and comment on it.  If you don't submit a consultation response you won't have the right to address the Planning Inspector when it comes to the Examination in Public (ie a Public Inquiry) which tests out the draft plan.  Secondly the place for the comments on the plan is through the consultation process and the subsequent Examination in Public.

I have to say I don't agree with everything in the draft plan - but I will be making comments on it, I will be encouraging FTC to review the draft and to comment as well.  I fully intend to address the Examination in Public - and I hope as many people from Frodsham and the Borough as a whole will participate in this process.  This local plan will guide development decisions until 2030 so it is important.

Last night we had a special council to consider whether the council should change its constitution on a one off basis so as to require the planning application for the Chester Student Village to be considered by the council as a whole.  There is a trite and true legal expression - 'hard cases make bad law' - in other words don't use an extreme of anything on which to set precedents or create laws - or in this case make changes to the council's constitution.  This planning application is mired in controversy.  But just because something is controversial doesn't mean it should be handled any differently from any other application.  Lets not forget the council has handled applications for incinerators, windfarms and other equally controversial subjects appropriately so far - so what is different about this case?

The answer it appears is innuendo.  Whispers of skull-duggery.  Questions of perception.  But there is no proof of any wrongdoing...

Well it is on the basis of these perceptions that the council voted 32:30 last night to treat this planning application as exceptional.  A curious alliance of 4 Conservatives, 1 Lib-Dem and the Labour Group decided that full council should decide this application.

What is even more curious is that this application, as it involves green-belt land, will have to be considered by the Secretary of State in any event - so even if there was skull-duggery (which I don't believe there is) there was a check against it in any event.

Deciding planning applications is not as straight forward as you may like to think.  All 75 Councillors are now going to have to be trained in planning law and practice and acting in a quasi judicial fashion.  No-one who has a pre-determined view as to the outcome of the application can take part in the decision making... let alone anyone with an interest.  I suspect that we will have many fewer than 75 Councillors taking the decision if that moment is ever reached.  Will the applicant appeal the matter for non-determination?

Now many will argue that this decision has not set a precedent - it is a one-off.  I have to say that one-offs have a habit of becoming more regular.  Do we really want 75 Cllrs deciding planning applications?  There was all party unanimity when CWaC was created that the more controversial applications would be handled by a Strategic Planning Committee.  On the one hand I can't blame Labour for taking the opportunity to defeat the ruling group for the first (and I hope) only time - although I do wonder just how many of their number really have an appetite for deciding planning applications at full council.  Be careful what you wish for - decisions like this one have a habit of biting others in due time too.

Will Labour be able to resist whipping their members I wonder?  There are strong rumours (originating from within Labour) that Labour did whip its members in advance the last time the student village application was considered.  If they did - that would have been highly inappropriate... or is this just more innuendo ...

And finally - yesterday we had a by-election in Frodsham.  Four candidates contested West Ward where one vacancy was up for grabs.

On a 14% turnout Mike Pusey was elected with 51 votes beating the other 3 candidates.  In other words the now Cllr Mike Pusey was elected by just 4.5% of the electors on the roll or 33% of the votes cast.

This election will have cost the council tax payers of Frodsham around £5,000 to stage.  With 156 being the total number of votes cast each vote could be valued at £32!  An interesting way to judge the price of democracy!

I am pleased the election was contested - it shows on one level the greater interest in FTC than before.   But any democrat has to be concerned that only 14% of the electors bothered to vote.  That said this is the first contested election in West ward in a very, very long time.