Is local democracy dead?

Mass march on Sidmouth esplanade. Photo by Peter Nasmyth
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Ever felt powerless to prevent unwanted development? Ever thought you weren’t being heard by your local council? Ever given up in despair? Join the millions across the country who feel that local democracy is dead, that power lies in the hands of a rich elite and their friends and backers, and that “you stand no chance against that”.

But isn’t there hope? Surely there’s a glimmer of this rare commodity somewhere?

In 2012, the Coalition government changed the planning system: the national planning policy framework was based on a “presumption in favour of development” that, especially in the context of the austerity programme, favoured large developers and left councils and local communities vulnerable. A year before this, the government had introduced the Localism Act – its very title a piece of Orwellian newspeak, as what it often turned out to mean was rule by powerful vested interests.

Such a group, unelected and, in the main, representing large property developers, was actually set up at East Devon District Council (EDDC) as early as 2007. Chaired by a leading Conservative councillor and called the East Devon Business Forum (EDBF), it was described by the chief executive as “a joint body with the council”. During this time one Independent councillor, Claire Wright, was elected and bravely tried to call the ruling party to account.

From 2009, many highly contentious planning developments were approved, including Hill Barton Business Park (09/0282/MOUT) and Greendale Business Park (09/1195/MOUT), where the existing business parks were massively enlarged. The owners were the leading members of the EDBF.

From 2010 to 2013, two highly unpopular developments were proposed in the Sidmouth area: one for the sale of part of a public park and council office buildings at Knowle in Sidmouth (16/0872/MFUL), and the other an industrial/business park development on an area of outstanding natural beauty and flood plain between Sidford and Sidbury (18/1094/MOU).

A local campaign, supported by the town’s main community groups and called ‘Save Our Sidmouth’, was formed and in November 2012, there was a march along the esplanade of about 4,000 people, which included many people from other parts of the district who were also affected by harmful developments. The protest even attracted the attention of the Telegraph, which ran a story under the headline Sidmouth mans the barricades.

Photo by Peter Nasmyth

Soon after this, a number of people from across the district formed a campaign group called the East Devon Alliance (EDA). In March 2013, a Telegraph sting exposed the leader of the business forum, Councillor Graham Brown, as a “councillor for hire”. He was quoted as saying: “If I turn a green field into an estate and I’m earning a developer two or three million, then I ain’t doing it for peanuts.” He was forced to resign.

In 2015, the EDA entered candidates in the district elections and won 10 seats; one member of the EDA was also elected at county level in 2017. The EDA campaigned vigorously for transparency, accountability and the reform of local governance. It also championed efforts to save beds in community hospitals, as well as pushing for affordable housing and the adoption of a green agenda.

In the 2019 district elections, disaffection with the Conservatives enabled many other Independent, LibDem and Green candidates across the district to break the massive and long-held Conservative majority on the council: 20 Independents, 8 LibDems and 2 Greens were elected, along with 11 EDA Independent candidates, all of the latter topping the poll in their wards. An initial coalition of Conservatives and others under Ben Ingham (a former Independent who has since returned to the Conservative Party) failed to command support, and earlier this year a majority administration of non-Conservatives, led by Paul Arnott of the EDA, was formed.

One of its first actions has been to recommend the council’s withdrawal from the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan, which has proposed the building of 53,260 houses in the designated area, over 24,000 of them in east Devon. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England had previously commissioned its own independent housing needs report (Devon Housing Needs Evidence 2018 ), which showed that the local plan figures for housing in east Devon had been overestimated by about a third. The new administration has also set up new portfolios (eg of democracy and transparency, and of climate action) which promise a more democratic future.

So it’s a big thank you to those who have given us some hope.

However, local democracy is also under challenge from the business-led quango, the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership. And an even greater threat is posed by the government’s latest planning proposals, already described as a ‘developers’ charter’, under which elected councils’ powers will be significantly reduced. If you live in a ‘growth’ zone, for instance, neither you nor your council will have any say at all over planning. Developers, who as a business group have given more than £11m to the Conservative Party in less than a year, will be free to build as they wish.

Clearly, there is now more need than ever for local people to engage in the democratic process.

Save our Sidmouth protest Photo by Peter Nasmyth