Friday, September 21, 2007

Supporting our Armed Services

I was delighted that the Lib Dems this week backed calls for our armed service personnel to be looked after better when they are injured. Not a moment too soon. Earlier in the year, I blogged about how more former Falklands conflict soliders had killed themselves than were killed in actual fighting in 1982. I was also disgusted to read about the awful conditions for our soliders in hospital when back from Iraq; and more recently about the low compensation to a soldier who lost his limbs.

So at Lib Dem conference on Wednesday, I was pleased to hand out leaflets from the Royal British Legion for the Honour the Covenant campaign. The Lib Dems were the only major party to oppose the war in Iraq but we nevertheless support our troops, who have been betrayed by politicians of the other parties. Backing our troops is high on the agenda of my colleague Bob Russell, MP for Colchester, the garrison town up the A12. He spoke out at the Lib Dem conference fringe meeting on Wednesday, and most recently he has called for parcels to service personnel to be free.

Lib Dem MP Mark Hunter has also backed The Covenant campaign.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

London matters to us too

With nearly 20% of Chelmsford's population heading into London for work every day, what happens there (particularly with transport) matters to us too. So, though I cannot vote to choose the Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor, I will be taking a keen interest in who is finally selected.

There is an excellent shortlist from which London members can choose - former 'top cop' Brian Paddick clearly knows how to really cut crime - from a liberal perspective; Fiyaz Mughal has loads of experience as a councillor and campaigner; and Chamali Fernando brings her experience as a London barrister.

Any one of them would be a real match for the two comedians likely to be fielded by the other parties.

London Lib Dem Alex Wilcock writes, engagingly as ever, about the contest here.

The official selection News Release from Lib Dem HQ is here.

The inquiry ploughs on regardless...

Today (Wednesday) at the local plan inquiry I and my fellow Lib Dem Cllr. Chris Rycroft explained WHY (not just how) we differ from Chelmsford council's views about where to place new houses. But, in general, the day's activity largely confirmed my view that this month-long exercise at taxpayer's expense is really just a rubber-stamping exercise of the council proposals.

Key issues of today were:

Is the evidence for the council's proposals credible?

Some concerns expressed that information is being brought forwards late in the day to justify the council's policy, rather than having the evidence first and then determining policy. The Lib Dems expressed surprise that the council's preferred option was to put the houses north of Boreham until July 2003 and then suddenly that option is not on the table at all, despite the council's environmental consultants finding many positive elements, in fact more than for the council's current proposals.

A discussion ensued on whether there was any evidence supporting the alternative site of Boreham gravel pit and airfield (see PDF map). Reference was made to the strong support amongst the comments made. The council said that, because many of the comments in favour were on pre-prepared postcards, this invalidated the comments – conveniently forgetting that is almost exactly what the council itself did when consulting the public.

Is the new housing too reliant on new infrastructure being delivered?

For the Lib Dems I noted that it is deeply reliant on new infrastructure, particularly the station. Without a new station neither the council's proposals or the Lib Dem alternative would be sustainable. Any new development should be based around the concept of easy access to public transport.

Should the Green Belt be reviewed?

It only runs around the south and south west of Chelmsford. Common consent that the public are often confused between the phrases 'green field' sites and 'green belt' sites. When people call for the protection of the green belt in many cases they mean "all green sites".

The Lib Dems confirmed their support for keeping the Green Belt as it is. However, we also made the point that, if the Council does that, there are consequences, and they are housing mainly in one corner of Chelmsford. Big danger of this being urban sprawl unless strong new communities are built. Beaulieu Park is already remote from the centre of Chelmsford (it is quicker to drive north east to Witham). The Council propose 10 more Beaulieu Parks – effectively a new community not an extension of a current one.

Are the housing policies too site-specific?

The Lib Dems and many others drew the stark contrast between the Council's proposals for "North West Chelmsford", which cover a very broad area (in line with Government policy), and "North East of Springfield/Chelmsford", which covers a very narrow area and only one possible location for houses. Despite sustained questioning from various people, the Inspector clearly did not worry much about the apparent inconsistency.

The Agenda for the inquiry is here but that is it from me for now. I am not a highly-paid consultant who can sit there every day for four weeks, but will be back later in the process.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Chelmsford's democracy gains a bit but loses a lot

Democracy in Chelmsford gained and lost yesterday. First of all, the public inquiry kicked off into the Chelmsford Borough Development Plan – and later the electorate delivered a major shock by electing a Lib Dem in a by-election.

In the morning, the Inquiry Inspector made it quite clear that he was operating under the new Government rules designed to push things through as quickly as possible. We must not stand in the way of progress, must we? Whitehall knows best, as always, whether it is Labour or the Conservatives running it.

The Inspector stated that, provided the council could show it had followed all the correct procedures, he was unlikely to amend the Development Plan, let alone stop it going ahead. The fact that the procedures had produced an illogical mass of contradictions was not going to trouble the inspector much. After all, there are all those thousands of houses that have just GOT to be built; no time to lose – there's green fields out there just waiting to be bulldozed. Grade 1 listed building (used by King Henry VIII) in the way? Well, says the Conservative-run council, cannot demolish it but let's build the houses all around it instead. New station needed? Yes, we mostly agree with the Lib Dems on that, but of course it should go in the more expensive location.

The Council made much of the fact that it had public support for its proposals. But then it had asked probably the most loaded questions ever asked in a consultation. It gave the public one viable option for where to put new houses; one option that NO-ONE thought was a serious option (merely there to make the others look better) and a variant of the first option that included a bit of the second.

It was a bit like asking the public whether they would like haggis and chips or mushy peas and chips for lunch at 11.00am. If you said "well, actually I would like something else please" the Council's response was quite simply "tough - that is all that is on the menu; you have to choose one of them". And that's how they arrived at claiming over 50% support for their preferred option – the haggis and chips option of 4-5,000 houses in one place and three lumps of 250 houses elsewhere.

As if that was not bad enough, the Inspector decided he had to ignore one of the elephants in the room – an extra 2,000 houses almost certain to be forced onto the Borough by the Government, on top of the 14,000 it already knows it has to take.

So Day 1 over. Later today the small group of 'Davids' to which I belong (local residents) take on the Goliaths of the property world, with their ranks of highly-paid advisers when we debate the details of the housing allocations.

Then it was off to help the Liberal Democrat campaign in the by-election for the vacant Broomfield & The Walthams seat borough council seat. Broomfield is where the council wants to put the three lumps of 250 houses. Needless to say, this was the main issue in the campaign. We had an excellent candidate in Malcolm Taylor, who stood down from the parish council in May after many years as chairman. And he won, on a 29% swing compared to last May!

The 1198 votes that Malcolm won is rather more than the total of individual members of the public who responded to the public consultation. But I wonder which will carry most weight in the housing allocation discussions?

You can read more about the Chelmsford Development plans here and about the by-election win here. See also the webpage of the Chelmsford North Action Group, who are campaigning against the council proposals.