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countering the spin and providing the balance


 Wesham Stirs

Wesham StirsThey're a gentle lot in Medlar with Wesham. But then, it is a predominantly agricultural, or at least rural, community which, driving into it from Kirkham, probably isn't the first impression you get. But seventy or eighty of their disgruntled souls had gathered together at the invitation of the local Town Council at a public meeting called mostly to consider plans, or rather the possibility of plans, that would see a large swathe of green agricultural land off Mowbreck Lane changed to housing.

There was talk of it stretching right the way down to Treales.

We highlighted this in our 'August snippets' edition, where we showed that Metacre, a company within the Trevor Hemmings empire, was working up a development scheme for potentially large number of houses.

In essence it seems quite a bit of the land is owned by the Church Commissioners, and parts of that land are let to tenant farmers in Wesham and beyond. Their livelihoods - as with generations before them - are tied to the land they farm. But if that land is sold from under them - making the Church richer and them poorer - we suspect things could get a whole lot less placid.

The meeting opened with Councillor Linda Nulty explaining that although plans had not yet been submitted to Fylde council, drawings were circulating. She and Councillor Simon Renwick had some copies that were made available to the meeting. Cllr Nulty said as a member of FBC Development Control Committee she was not in a position to offer a view at this stage, but the Town Council had called the meeting to solicit the views of the community and to help the Town Council form its own response to a planning application if one were to arise. She asked for views from the floor.

One of the first speakers was a farmer who said this was good land and shouldn't be built on. A farmers wife took up the theme and said it was good grade agricultural land and this scheme was taking their land and their livelihood. It was also important land that the community used for informal recreation.

One chap said he though the concern was because it was houses. He thought that a doctors surgery or school wouldn't raise as much objection.

Several speakers said they thought this plan was the thin end of a big wedge. Councillor Renwick seemed to agree, he said he had heard the same person owned 150 acres, and he didn't want to see the land swamped with houses.

There were also concerns with transport and local infrastructure. Councillor Liz Oades of Kirkham said the problems with the railway station, and especially the facilities for the disabled were a good reason to object. Councillor Alan Clayton said they wanted people's views so they could pass them to Fylde Council.

Another speaker mentioned the wildlife of the area and said this plan would put houses right up to the edge of Wesham Moss and that would cause the wildlife to leave.

Don Moore from the Campaign to Protect Rural England summarised the grounds that people could use to object, saying the Council would only be able to consider planning policy objections.

Councillor David Chedd said he had been at a similar meeting few weeks ago where Queensway Environmental Defenders had set up as a group to oppose a massive development on the edge of St Annes. He said such groups needed to work together.

Councillor Oades said Wesham had seen a disproportionate amount of development in recent years, and the figures showed the greatest demand for housing was in Lytham and St Annes.

Councillor Renwick agreed, saying the whole of Fylde was getting full and they needed to join with groups like Defend Lytham and Queensway Environmental Defenders to share best practice. He said he was against development in principle, and that Wesham was already full.

Cllr Trevor Fiddler addresses the meetingThen Councillor Trevor Fiddler of Freckleton spoke. He agreed with the disproportionate housing argument, but said it stemmed from a fundamental change in planning that people had not yet latched onto.  At this we pricked up our ears because we heard him argue concern over housing numbers at Cabinet the week before. He was chairman of the Planning (now called Development Control) Committee and currently chairs Fylde's Planning Policy Scrutiny Committee.

He went on to describe what he called the 'Alice in Wonderland' planning system that is operating now. (At that rate he can start writing for counterbalance soon)

He said under the old system, local people would use local needs and local circumstances to decide how much housing was needed and where it should go, but that has been changed by Government.

He said the modern way was that Government would decide how much economic growth they wanted the country to produce and they would assess the workforce that was needed, and thus the housing that was needed to accommodate that workforce. They would then divide that up across the country, saying to particular councils you will build XX of the houses that are needed.

He went on to say that in the real world you wouldn't build houses on good agricultural land, but the Government has said they are essential. He said he too went to the Queensway meeting and felt universal resentment against the plan for more houses - just as he feels the same resentment at similar meetings throughout Fylde. He urged people to continue having public meetings and to keep up the pressure in the hope that the message might get through to Government, and electors might take advantage of the ballot box to make their views known.

He said that the shadow planning minister had recently announced that a Conservative Government would scrap regional planning and the Local Development Framework that is a bureaucratic nightmare. He said this LDF system was so bad that it would take until 2012 for Fylde to produce the new plan that Government has outlined, and then it would only say the same thing that the old one said anyway. It was a huge waste of money and a bureaucratic nightmare.

At this point we wanted to cheer. It's rare to see this sort of honesty from a politician these days - even if some of it was attached to a fairly thinly disguised advert for the Conservative Party. He referred to the shambles that regional planning is, and said it was nothing more than a sham of democracy. The decisions were being made by Government Office and the Councillors were just there to give the process a cloak of apparent democratic legitimacy .

He is absolutely right . Fylde's planning system - especially the local plans part of it - is close to meltdown caused by the demands of new system being rolled out nationally. In our view this new system is as complex as the tax credit system and will be as disastrous and stupid as the Child Support Agency has been.

Then another speaker took to the floor and said the development was on the periphery of the town, it was not for local people, and it would predominantly cater for incomers and boost the fortunes of out of town stores such as Tesco or Asda on a fast road system. It would damage local businesses, not make it better for them.

The item closed with a show of hands for or against the principle of the development. Almost every hand went up against it and none went up for it - and that's when the good people of Wesham were hampered by a lack of detailed plans. We think counterbalance will be back at Wesham soon - The Town Council said it planned to have more public meetings.

The Town Council has also completed a Parish Plan recently - these are being widely encouraged at the moment. The best process to create them provides opportunity for the views of all local residents to be sought - typically by a village questionnaire, and the better ones of those provide ample opportunity for freeform comments to be made by residents. That is, they don't simply provide a set of pre-determined options and allow residents so express a view on what other people have already decided what should happen. That sort are nothing more than an exercise in consultation to appear to give legitimacy to the results.

Happily we can report Wesham's survey was one of the better sorts and, whilst it could be argued that many of the results could probably have been anticipated by a Town Council that understands, and appears so in tune with, its electorate, it nevertheless provides a formal basis, and establishes a democratic legitimacy for the direction the Town Council to follow as it represents the wishes of its community.

We say well done Medlar with Wesham Town Council. No party political stuff. No spin. Lots of listening, and at least an apparent willingness to act on what they heard.

That is democracy.

We note that Medlar with Wesham Town Council hasn't adopted a Leader and Cabinet system to manage itself.

Dated:  3 December 2008


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