One of our aims at West Country Voices is to stand up for the rights of citizens against the abuse of power, whether by government or private interests. In recent weeks we have sought to spell out the threats to democracy enshrined in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, highlighted the demonisation of migrants by some sections of the press, and exposed the real risks to public health from privatisation of the NHS.
The consequence, however, is that at times our publication can make for rather depressing reading, as there is no shortage of sleaze, scandal and downright corruption to report and the massive government majority means that even the most ugly bills are sailing through parliament. The risk is that it might induce despair rather than act as a call to arms. It is important to remind ourselves, therefore, that citizens’ action can still make a difference, and that shining a light on practices the powerful would prefer to hide can bring about welcome change.
Here are a few examples of stories we have reported on recently where there have since been positive developments as a result of public pressure. We are not claiming that our journalism is responsible for the change; simply that it may have helped, and in some more local examples, helped considerably.
On 7 October we wrote about the strike at Clarks Distribution Centre in Street, Somerset. The takeover of the family-owned business by a foreign private equity group had resulted in the warehouse staff being dismissed and offered their jobs back on lower pay and inferior conditions – the increasingly common practice of ‘fire and rehire’. The Clarks workers attracted support nationally and considerable sympathy in the local community.
On 1 December it was reported that the strike had ended with an agreement that protected existing workers’ pay and gave an improved offer for new employees. The strength of local support for the strikers was undoubtedly a factor in encouraging them to hold out, and the thousands of views of our article may well have helped build that support.
On 6 September Tom Scott wrote about some serious conflicts of interest connected with a contentious development in Helston, Cornwall. The issue involved the sale by a local charity of a greenfield site to developers to build a new supermarket, a fast-food outlet and a drive-through coffee shop. Some locals felt that the development was contrary to the aims of the trust. They were also alarmed at suggestions that town councillors, being automatically appointed as trustees, were not able independently to scrutinise the deal.
The West Country Voices article helped bring the affair out into the open. As a consequence the council has now received a large number of objections to the proposed development from the public, and the trust is being forced to review its constitution and relationship with the council. The town council has decided that it can take no further part in the planning process because of the conflict of interest which Tom exposed. Whether or not this development goes ahead as planned, local accountability will have been strengthened for the future.
On 29 June we wrote about the bureaucratic obstacles blocking the development of a new stretch of off-road cyclepath near Wells, Somerset. Action on plans developed by the cycling charity ‘Greenways and Cycleroutes’ and approved by the local planning authority had stalled because of the apparent refusal of Somerset Highways department to engage with the process. In this instance it was clear from comments by local activists that publicity by West Country Voices shamed the County Council into action. The path is now open and well-used.
Small victories matter. If further evidence were needed, look no further than the frantic attempts by this government to stifle any form of opposition to its action: the attack on judicial review; attempts to censor charities; moves to criminalise protest, threats to independent broadcasters. If people speaking out worries them this much, it should really encourage us.