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Sold Down the River

Sold Down the RiverThere are big plans afoot along the Ribble. Preston City Council has designs on damming the Ribble downstream of the River Douglas to create a multimillion pound development of 4,000 houses built from London Road to Preston Dock, and the creation of water-based leisure facilities stretching from Preston to (presumably) the dam.

There are lots of details at Save the Ribble  with contributions from 'Riversider', and his friends 'Atlantic Salmon' and the gloriously named 'Allotment Plotter' - whose veg garden is likely to be built on if the scheme goes ahead. 

We recognise a kindred spirit in the author, to whose elbow we wish all power. So we're not going to rehearse the environmental issues here, we leave that in his - or her - capable hands. 

What we will focus on here, is the sort of secrecy, deception, and delusion of grandeur that is such a feature of modern Local Authorities when they forget their place and are no longer driven by their electorate, but who assume the role of 'leading' their community. 

As you might expect, counterbalance has no intention of being led by anyone, let alone those who - in comparative terms - are only just out of civic city nappies. We're old-fashioned enough to expect to be represented.

And when you sniff at the arrangements that have been put in place to progress this scheme, the first thing you can't avoid noticing is that, like nappies,  it stinks.

For our usual biased and cynical view, try this perspective.

You've just been made a City and, (even though you know Lancaster is the real capital of Lancashire), the civic testosterone is flowing free. Because of your immature inadequacy, like a delinquent adolescent, you can't resist the desperate need to prove your manhood with a show of force.

What better way to do this than to annexe one or more of the neighbouring areas, say, South Ribble and maybe Chorley, giving you an area and population up there with the big boys. 

What you need is Unitary Status. 

Rid yourself of the yolk of the County Council and take over responsibility for all service delivery in an enlarged area. 

Loadsamoney and no interference. That's the way to display your civic manhood.

So how to go bout it? 

How can you convince your neighbouring Council to give up their identity and their right to self-determination? 

The answer is that you hatch a scheme and say that the river (the present boundary) should not divide us, it should unite us. 

Throw in the possibility of oodles of development south of the border to give the junior partner the prospect of granting themselves unopposed planning permission for their playing fields and open spaces, (changing their value from something in the order of £4,000 an acre - that's an old money measurement - up to £1 million or more an acre, literally overnight), and you're cooking with gas.

Never mind that it would be building on the Ribble floodplain, risking misery to those who take up the new property, you just dream up the scheme that will deliver what you want. 

Never mind about the loss of public open space, and the football pitches at Lower Penwortham that provide healthy active pursuits for youngsters and the nearby allotments for those a bit longer in the tooth.

Give this process of stealing vital open spaces from the public a euphemism such as "Strategic Greenfield Release" and it starts to sound positively attractive - you're thinking strategically and actually releasing something that sounds to have been held captive, so it's got to be a good thing.

This is your 'Naked Emperor' moment, but you keep going.

Put in a big leisure development to offset the unpalatable housing, and make it so big - say £800 million or so, and no one will have the nerve to object, and you're on the way. 

The only thing now is to keep the detailed planning of this scheme in the dark, so the chattering classes are also kept in the dark until it's too late for them to stop the scheme or change anything.

To do that, you set up a quango organisation, let's call it "Preston Vision." Something that operates on a quasi-commercial footing and is not democratically accountable. 

Populate it with, say, council officials, media types, big money people (and they don't get that much bigger than Grosvenor Estates, the Duke of Westminster's outfit) and developers.

 Fund it from public money that becomes unaccountable once it is paid over, and you have a perfect recipe for high-level decisions made out of the public gaze.

A group like this has been meeting in Preston since 2003, and they who have come up with this scheme to damn (sic) the Ribble. 

They have already been promised £300,000  of our taxes by the North West Development Agency (this is a quango that uses a financial megaphone to making Councils listen to Government rather than their electorate), and they have also agreed in principle to stump up another £18 million (yes, that was million) toward the housing and barrage scheme. 

Quite why they should use our money to support the anything-but-ailing economy of people like the Duke of Westminster is beyond us, but that's today's realpolitik for you.

Their own blurb describes it as "A purpose driven vision for the people of Preston, delivered by a powerful working partnership, providing opportunities for new prestigious waterfront developments" 

See what we mean? Note the opening words "A purpose driven vision...."   that is, a vision which is driven by a purpose - unification. 

Quite.

You can follow this link to see an outline of the 'composite masterplan."

counterbalance has a few friends south of the Ribble, who tell us that the rush (apparently promoted enthusiastically by South Ribble BC) to unitary status with Preston was angrily refuted at several public meetings that SRBC had called with the intention of softening up the populace.

So if our friends are correct, it seems the idea didn't originate from massive public concern in South Ribble.

We've also looked at the minutes of several Neighbourhood Forums in Preston going back to 2003, and established that aspects of the Riverworks Project has been trotted out regularly at these meetings. 

Without wishing to be offensive to any of Preston's Neighbourhood Forums, releasing the information this way has allowed Preston to claim they have been undertaking 'public consultation' whilst at the same time minimising the risk of any real public understanding of what was really going on.

This is evident from the minutes recording the exchanges that took place at the meetings between a hostile or sceptic public and a Council seeking to limit the information it had to provide.

So it looks as though the impetus for this project didn't come from Preston's residents either.

Now, you might wonder why counterbalance is interested in what's going on in Preston. 

The answer is twofold. Firstly it demonstrates the problems when a council gets the delusion that it can lead and 'manage' its community, and we can all learn from that.

Secondly, the plans being advocated will undoubtedly have an impact on the wider Fylde. Just ask yourselves why Barton Grange Garden Centre is relocating to a site on the A6 just north of Bilsborrow, moving its garden centre and opening up a whole new hotel,  marina and canal boat centre on the Lancaster Canal? (See Item No 3, Page 20 of Wyre's DC agenda for 20 Jan 06) (pdf file).

The plans will also have an effect on the mouth of the river and St Annes.

It wouldn't be the first time this has happened. Back in early 1906 engineers from Preston decided to create the south training wall by dumping large volumes of clay behind these walls in a bid to narrow and straighten the river, increase the flow and reduce the need for dredging to keep the way clear to the Preston docks. 

At this stage the V wall or church scar which diverted some of the Ribble flow in front of Lytham St Annes was left in place. Then this was blocked to increase the main channel flow. 

At that time, St Annes complained to Preston about the dramatic changes this work would cause in the estuary. Preston ignored these complaints, saying, "All will be well". 

Subsequently they said "Unfortunately the wall did not have the effect desired by St Annes of directing part of the current along the North shore." 

The rest, as they say, is history. 

The North Channel has vanished, beach levels have risen by more than 20 feet of sand, and most damaging of all, the silt settling out of the slower moving water has contaminated the sand particles on the foreshore, allowing water retention in areas of the 'beach' sufficient to support the growth of plants like Spartina grass and thus the subsequent development of marsh at the expense of what had been beach.

So in modern parlance St Annes had been stuffed by Preston's engineers.

Now they are set to stuff St Annes again. 

You'll hear arguments that Preston's plan will make no difference and "all will be well" for St Annes. You'll also hear that the barrage is essential to Preston so as to counter the effects of sea-level rises due to global warming. If you believe this, you'll believe anything.

We think nowhere near enough is known about the effects this plan will have on the mouth of the river. There is a serious risk that it could destroy the local shrimping industry, adulterate the upriver scents that guide migratory fish back to their river of birth, and spread the very dangerous blue-green algae that routinely inhabits Preston Dock further down the river, threatening fish and other water-life.

You will hear that nothing will change. The water will simply be held up temporarily, before resuming its seaward path as normal over the top of the dam, so what's the worry? 

Well, think about the slowing water near the dam that will cause more silt to settle out. 

In order to clear this, it is likely that, as in other areas, the dam will be opened periodically to flush out the accumulated silt. That itself will settle somewhere, and the slower waterflow of the rivermouth will be an ideal spot, quite possibly turning it into a delta. 

With over £300,000 already committed and another £18 million "on a promise", you might think there would have been public debate and discussion about this in Fylde. After all, the barrage is planned to be opposite the runways at Warton. (See picture). 

Farmland upstream is likely to be waterlogged if not actually flooded, and the impact on Lytham & St Annes is likely to be significant. But there hasn't been any public discourse.

You can bet the Commissar and the Politburo know about it though. He has been dropping hints that something big is going on in the background for quite some time. Why hasn't he been telling us about it? 

The silence is deafening, and when that happens, you can be sure they don't want you to know what's going on.

He of the "press release at the drop of a hat" system of management has been remarkably silent. We wonder if he has been sucked into the conspiracy of silence emanating from Preston.

We know he is aware of some of the plans at least, including a huge area of flooding that is currently planned for the Tarleton and Hesketh Bank area just across the river from Lytham. 

Here, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is reported to have paid (or at least is ready to pay) around £3 million for farmland that us taxpayers paid the Ministry of Agriculture shedloads of money to reclaim for farming in the 1980's - only to destroy all that reclamation work (and thus waste the millions spent on it just a couple of decades) when they re-flood it to create a massive wetland bird reserve on the Southport side of the river.

At least this will be less damaging than the Preston developments, but you can't help thinking that if there is that sort of money available to Local Government, whether some of it is channeled through the RSPB's worthwhile causes or not, there are far better ways of spending it.

We can think of loos that have been closed, parts of our gardens that have been sold off, parking fascists employed to screw money (and shoppers) out of town centres, public assets that are falling apart for want of a bit of maintenance, playgrounds where the swings or the roundabouts fall to bits and are not replaced, the filching of money from OAP bus passes, ghastly developments where the Council has been too fearful of the depth of developers pockets to say no, and..... we could go on (and probably will)

It's all being done in your name, by people who are now intent on leading, rather than representing, you.

Dated: 7 April 2007


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