Sunday, 8 May 2011

Who Really Runs the Country

This is the text of a letter I have recently written to my local paper. The City of Truro seems to be scheduled for major development over the next 15 or 20 years, and the local residents and local councillors seem powerless to stop it!

I am the first to admit that when it comes to the workings of government, both local and national, I am pretty na├»ve. But I am beginning to understand what the present Government means by ‘localism’. They are like the grown-up at the Christmas party who says, “I will decide where to put the Christmas tree, and how big it will be; and you, my children, may put the fairy on the top!”

The letter from Caroline Jones about the proposed Duchy/Waitrose development resonated very strongly with me, and strengthened my conviction that we are being governed not by elected politicians but by the mass retail industry.

Permissions will soon be sought for developments along the A390. These are the sites chosen by developers as being suitable for housing and supermarkets (i.e. showing the greatest potential for profit). Other sites are available, but the developers are not interested in these.

The only ‘defense’ which the Local Authority has is to provide a brief for developers to follow, thus retaining a little control – the fairy on the Christmas tree.

If the Council had the temerity to refuse permission for these sites to be developed, there would be a public inquiry, and the Secretary of State would find in favour of the developers, in the interests of that myth, economic growth.

Why these sites? Because there needs to be enough housing to accommodate the residents needed to service the supermarkets – to work in them, but more importantly to shop in them. And there lies the irony! I am old enough to remember when big business was there to service the population, but now it’s the other way round!

Never mind that we might prefer to move away from the superstore model, and encourage locally owned retail units processing and selling local goods – although this would provide more local employment. The unfortunate fact is that we do not have the clout or the cash that the Tescos and Asdas of this world have, who continue to suck the money out of the local economy and channel it out of the County, or even the Country.

These large transnational chains are able to buy the developers, who in turn are able to buy the land for eye-watering sums even before a planning application is made, secure in the knowledge that with the Westminster Government’s agenda behind them, the Local Authority doesn’t stand a chance. Thus local residents are reduced to a shopping statistic.

Meanwhile, what of the Core Strategy Document? Although the initial consultation period has only just finished, it seems to have become irrelevant! It appears to have already been superseded by these proposals.

So localism does not mean local decision-making. It does not mean either National Government or developers accepting the views of local communities, how ever much they pretend.

And while ‘consultation’ may mean Cornwall Council listening to the views of residents and parish and town councils, it does not mean that National Government will put the views and interests of local communities above its own. And, let’s be honest, we know who carries more weight with the Government – you only have to note that occasionally a Councillor may get an MBE, while supermarket bosses get knighthoods!

Every supermarket that gets built reduces the viability of small customer-friendly shops, not just in the City, but also in surrounding communities where local shops are not just a convenience but a point of social contact. As these shops lose custom to supermarkets, and as village residents are more inclined to shop away from their village because the small shop can no longer afford to stock a wide range of goods, the village itself slowly withers. An increasing proportion of residents work and shop away from the village, then start to send their children to the bright new school in the new development, as promised by the developer; the village becomes a dormitory and loses any chance it might have had to become a sustainable community with some measure of self sufficiency.

I don’t know what measures our elected Councillors could take to protect us from the destructive power of these retail giants, but I wish I could feel that they are all on our side (as I know that some are). Of course there is a need for more housing. But it should be up to us where it goes and how many there should be – just as Councillor Kaczmarek’s Core Strategy Document suggested. Was that document just another PR exercise? Do we have to continue to give in to blackmail – no Park and Ride without Waitrose?

So while I am deeply sympathetic to demonstrations and campaigns against cuts, or student fees, what would really get me marching is a campaign, led by our Councillors, in favour of genuine localism, as against the sham policies of this Coalition and its Big Society.

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