Sunday, 12 October 2014

Independent politicians and the greenbelt ............ ............ ............ and corruption in UK local government

We seem to be witnessing high politics over the issue of building on greenfield sites:
Futures Forum: UKIP and the greenbelt

In fact, it is often independent politicians - independent of interest groups and not tied to the majority party's realpolitik - who will voice concerns about building on greenbelt - because they are able to voice the concerns of their electorate with little hindrance:

Stapleford and Trowell Rural Action Group member and independent town councillor Richard MacRae said the group was "fuming" at the latest news. "Most people do not want this to happen but they are going to go ahead and do it anyway. There are other areas where they should be building first. I do not see why we should stop protesting and we will continue to fight till the very end."

Battle to save Nottinghamshire's green belt is lost | Nottingham Post

Indeed, these battles are happening all over the country - and it's not just in the 'rural' areas:
Green Belt Issues : Canvey Island Independent Party
The Rochford Independent - Rochford & Hawkwell News
By-election Called In Lovelace Ward – Debates on Green Belt Issue Expected | The Guildford Dragon
Independent Party's First Birthday

In the SouthWest it's a big issue:
Campaigners protest against green belt housing plans in Bath | Bath Chronicle

And in East Devon it has primarily been independent councillors who have voiced concerns about plans for development on greenfield sites:
Appeal decision in brief, Feniton Super Inquiry | Susie Bond
Public speaking restrictions at planning committee meetings kick off this month - Claire Wright

There has been particular concern voiced about the undue influence of interest groups - as represented by the now-defunct and still-to-be-scrutinised East Devon Business Forum:
Inquiry into controversial East Devon business forum | Western Morning News
East Devon Up For Sale | Sidmouth Independent News
Councillors for hire who give firms planning advice - Telegraph

The investigations into former Cllr Brown, who was narrowly defeated for the majority party leadership in 2011 but went on to lead the Local Plan process, are taking their time:
Police confirm they are still investigating East Devon councillor Graham Brown | Exeter Express and Echo
Pressure heaped on East Devon District Council to discuss controversial Graham Brown in public | Exeter Express and Echo
‘Deep frustration’ over ex-councillor probe - News - Sidmouth Herald

The point is that when any party gains control over a council or government, its members have access to power - and power can corrupt:
The Effect of Holding Office on the Behavior of Politicians

This is from the report by Transparency International - 'Corruption in UK local government' - highlighting the 'bribery' case which allegedly happened in East Devon - and analysing where the problems may lie: 

How corrupt is local government in the UK?
On the one hand, the conditions are present in which corruption is likely to thrive – low levels of transparency, poor external scrutiny, networks of cronyism, reluctance or lack of resource to investigate, outsourcing of public services, significant sums of money at play and perhaps a denial that corruption is an issue at all. 
On the other hand, the system of checks and balances that previously existed to limit corruption has been eroded or deliberately removed. These changes include the removal of independent public audit of local authorities, the withdrawal of a universal national code of conduct, the reduced capacity of the local press and a reduced potential scope to apply for freedom of information requests. 

While the ultimate source of accountability in local government is the ballot box, an informed choice requires both information on the issues, which is reduced under the new arrangements, and genuine choice among candidates, which does not exist in a number of local authorities given the prevalence of one-party councils and uncontested seats. 
One-party councils: 
There are a number of councils in the United Kingdom where only one political party is represented on the council or is highly dominant – such as Newham in East London and Mosley in Merseyside are 100% Labour, while Bracknell 
Forest has 40 out of 42 councillors from the Conservative Party. 
This creates a situation where there is much reduced accountability: the actions of councillors are not subject to the degree of scrutiny and criticism that would otherwise be provided by the opposition party. 
Uncontested seats:
Electoral accountability is unlikely to be effective in situations where there is no competition for a particular seat; when the seat is uncontested. 
In the 2011 local elections, this was common in local government in England and Wales. In 24 local authorities, at least one in 10 councillors were elected unopposed. 
Such a lack of accountability provides ideal conditions for corruption. 
Moreover, some argue that the pattern may be the result of corrupt collusion among candidates from different parties to distribute the wards among themselves.

CORRUPTION IN UK LOCAL GOVERNMENT - Transparency International

To conclude, here is part of a letter to the Express & Echo last month, urging more independents to come forward for election:

The general consensus of opinion in East Devon seems to be that the democratic process has been abandoned and we are at the mercy of a group that is totally out of touch with the wishes and needs of its electors, but totally in touch with the wishes and needs of its developers.

How can we get out of this mess? By standing for election as truly independent district councillors (and not the paper independence of some who will shrug off party loyalty to get elected again this time and support that party thereafter), by voting in May 2015 for truly independent district councillors and by voting for a truly independent MP who will represent the district 100 per cent of the time and with 100 per cent of their commitment.

And here is comment following on from the letter which highlights many of the issues - including building on greenfield sites:

And let us not forget the other pledge made by Paul Diviani when he was elected Leader of East Devon District Council which was "The cynical view of the last Government – decide, consult, do it all anyway – is not my approach." 
Yet we have a multitude of examples where this is not the case: 
1. The Knowle move has been characterised by a culture of secrecy...
2. The ability for the public to give their input has recently been curtailed by a set of public speaking restrictions... 
In fact, EDDC's recent record on consultation appears practically non-existent... 
Looking at the wider EDDC Tory leadership is not really much different. Here are a few examples of EDDC's economy with the truth: 
1. An article in another newspaper published on a Tuesday where an EDDC spokesperson was quoted as saying that the lack of a Local Plan didn't matter because inappropriate development could be prevented because most settlements were adjacent to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) - but it only took until the following Friday for this to be disproved when EDDC approved an application for 300 houses in Gittisham parish on the edge of not one, but two AONBs!! 

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