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Protect the Green Wedge: bungalows are not what Seaton needs

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My column in today’s Midweek Herald:

It is now official – East Devon is one of the top eight districts in the country for rising population (up 13 per cent up in a decade). The further you go from Exeter, the more the new arrivals are retirees. In town after town and village after village, housing estates catering partly for middle-aged incomers are changing the landscape. In Seaton this month, a developer has showcased a new scheme to build 130 dwellings, many of them bungalows, on the town’s outskirts.

Seaton Wetlands – increasingly surrounded by housing?

Urban growth is not necessarily a bad thing. Towns change and growing populations need housing. The shortage of housing for local people is one of our biggest scandals, made worse by the Conservatives’ low priority for social housing, the poor quality of some private rented accommodation, landlords switching to holiday lets, and the house price boom – artificially stimulated by the government – which prices younger people out of the market to buy while simultaneously pushing up rents.

More housing, but not any old housing – or any old place

So we need more housing, but not any old housing as the government believes. A town like Seaton with one of the most elderly populations in the country – 45 per cent are over 65 – needs more retirement bungalows like a hole in the head. We’ve already had one revolt over this issue, when developers wanted to divert a site earmarked for a hotel to build more retirement flats. The community stood firm and in due course the hotel was built. The developers making the current proposal, Baker Estates, say that bungalows will facilitate downsizing freeing up family homes ‘elsewhere’. It’s little consolation for Seaton to know that houses will be available in the Midlands or the Home Counties! 

The housing we need also can’t be in any old place. Planning policies exist for a reason – if they didn’t, the whole of the Devon coast would have wall-to-wall development, ruining the very beauty which draws people to the area. ‘Green wedges’ between towns and villages is another key policy, maintaining a rural edge for urban areas as well as the identities of distinct communities. People in Seaton and Colyford have shown over the last decade that they value the Green Wedge between the two, and have twice fought off attempts to build it over. The proposed development will further surround the precious Seaton Wetlands with housing, and threatens the bat and bird life which are so important to them.  

Baker Estates promise up to 25 per cent ‘affordable homes’, although even with shared ownership, properties at around £300,000 are hardly affordable for many, and these dwellings (if built) will doubtless end up in the least desirable corner of the estate, with the smallest gardens. I say ‘if built’ because Seatonians are familiar with the ‘vanishing affordable homes’ trick, since what is now the Pebble Beach estate was supposed to have 40 per cent of them, then 25 per cent, and ended up with precisely none. 

Mandatory targets for houses, but not services

East Devon’s planning policies are robust but the council is under the constant pressure of the government’s housing targets and its penalties for not meeting them. It’s noticeable that the government doesn’t enforce targets for social health provision with the same rigour, so if we accept scores more bungalows our extremely stretched health and social care services won’t automatically expand to match.

We cannot keep building over our countryside and allowing our communities to become more and more unbalanced in age terms. We don’t need a nationally imposed target for new dwellings, to be supplied in whichever form the developers find most profitable. We need more good quality social housing, fewer second homes (we should restrict those to the areas where there isn’t acute housing pressure), and a better balance between holiday lets (desirable for tourism) and private rentals (which are essential housing). Not everyone will like this, but we also need house prices to fall, to let young people back into the housing market.

Leading questions in developers’ ‘consultation’ about Green Wedge housing scheme

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On Wednesday, I attended Baker Estates’ exhibition about their proposed scheme for a housing development in the Seaton-Colyton Green Wedge. Following the exhibition, a Facebook group OPPOSE Baker Estates Building on the green wedge between Seaton & Colyford has been set up and already has over 250 members.

Exhibition stand showing sports pitch to west of Harepath Road, possible commercial area (in grey) to east, and housing between Harepath Road and Colyford Road (photo from OPPOSE Baker Estates Building on the green wedge between Seaton & Colyford)

Baker Estates has acquired an interest in the land shown on their map and proposes to build up to 130 homes, a large proportion of them bungalows with a possible 25 per cent ‘affordable housing’. The majority of the houses are proposed to be built outside the Seaton Built Up Area Boundary and inside the protected Green Wedge, as defined by the current East Devon Local Plan (go to the interactive map to compare the plan to the Baker Estates proposals).

Baker Estates were giving out a questionnaire for a ‘consultation’, which is also available on their site. As a social scientist who knows something about questionnaire design, I can confirm that it is so poorly designed and and misleading as to be worthless as an expression of public opinion (but which Baker Estates will doubtless seek to use if they get ‘results’ helpful to their cause):

  1. The first question asks about the proposal to build bungalows, ‘addressing an unmet need and providing downsizing opportunities that free up family home elsewhere’. Giving the alleged benefits of this in the question, but with no mention of the downsides (e.g. a massive increase in Seaton’s already huge pensioner population with all the knock-on effects for local services) makes this a leading question.
  2. The second asks about whether there should be a through link for pedestrians/cyclists/buses only between Harepath Road and Colyford Road, or a road connection, but then says ‘do you agree, yes or no?’, rather than providing boxes for the two alternatives. So this question is so poorly designed as to be meaningless.
  3. The third asks if people support the provision of a new sports pitch ‘to enhance local facilities’. This is like asking people if they like sunny weather, but there is no indication that the scheme will not actually construct this pitch and its associated facilities.
  4. The fourth asks if people support the provision of 25% ‘affordable homes’. No mention of the fact that a scheme that overrides the local plan would normally be expected to have a much higher proportion (as much as 66%). Why no alternative percentages – 50, 66, 75 – for people to tick?
  5. The fifth question asks if housing similar in style to their other Seaton developments would be suitable.
  6. The sixth is the most outrageously leading question: ‘Given that the emerging local plan identifies a need for more homes at Seaton and a need for sports facilities, do you support the proposals? (1) The ’emerging’ plan is not in force yet and will not be when Baker Estates submit their application later this year; it is the existing Local Plan which matters. (2) Both the existing and emerging plans include a policy on Green Wedges, as well as other policies which this proposal will violate. (3) Just because extra homes are needed does not mean that this is the right place to build them – there are other options, as people are pointing out on Facebook.

I will be writing about the wider context of this in a forthcoming column in the Midweek Herald. Sign up for updates to this blog to get notified of this and other comments on these issues.

New Seaton plan proposes to bring housing into the Green Wedge and up to the Wetlands

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Baker Estates have acquired an interest in land either side of Harepath Road and have a new plan which seems more ambitious than those which were successfully opposed by the local community in the past. Plans have not yet been submitted but will be available to view on Tuesday 12th July in the United Reformed Church Hall (Cross St) from 3pm to 7.30pm.

Together we won the by-election, but we need even greater unity to consolidate the victory

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My column which should have appeared in today’s Midweek Herald

The Liberal Democrats have achieved an historic victory in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election. I warmly congratulate Richard Foord and wish him the very best as the area’s first non-Conservative MP for over a century. The result shows, as he says, that we have spoken for the country and told our disgraced prime minister, Boris Johnson, to go and to go now. 

But it is more than that. It is a rejection of twelve wasted years of Conservative government which have left Britain diminished by Brexit, our NHS and public services starved, and many people facing hardship this coming winter. Voters have recognised that far from being ‘levelled up’, the South West has been left further and further behind. People agree that the Tories have ‘taken Devon for granted’ as the Lib Dem leaflets rightly put it.

One of the good things for me about the by-election campaign was the chance it gave me to meet more readers of this column. One man I spoke to thought it was too anti-Tory. But now we know the result, it appears that my criticisms are in tune with what many residents are thinking. Previous Conservative voters are themselves becoming ‘anti-Tory’, because the party is no longer ‘conservative’ in the traditional sense. No wonder the three openly far-right candidates did so poorly – the extreme right is now represented by the Conservatives!

A grassroots progressive alliance

The result was the result of an impressively professional Lib Dem campaign but also of a genuine progressive alliance at the grass roots. Moderate former Conservatives, Labour and Green voters all joined together to prevent Boris Johnson’s candidate winning. Many activists from other parties including the East Devon Alliance of Independents joined the Lib Dem campaign. 

My Independent colleague Claire Wright ruled herself out to avoid splitting the Lib Dem vote, when it became clear that they had the best chance of winning. It has to be said that the Labour Party did themselves no favours by campaigning so vigorously only to lose their deposit. The Greens got almost as many votes without campaigning and their candidate wisely acknowledged that tactical voting was necessary.

Richard’s task is our task

Richard Foord faces a formidable task. He must speak up on all the issues he picked up in his campaign and address the consequences of decades of government neglect. While bedding in at Westminster, he also needs to make himself much more available and better known to voters than Neil Parish was, perhaps through public meetings and monthly surgeries in each of the area’s towns. 

These are not just Richard’s problems, however. The by-election campaign mobilised voters with the help of Lib Dem activists from all over the country, but the new progressive majority in the area is not strongly enough organised in our local communities. Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and EDA need to find ways of working together to build a support base which can make this week’s historic change permanent.

The challenge of consolidating the victory

The size of Richard’s victory gives me hope that it is more than a flash in the pan. Hard though it was, it could prove however to have been the easy bit. The Tories will try to sneak back in at the general election when boundaries change, presumably with a less hapless candidate. In this context, Richard’s majority will probably be squeezed. The votes ‘wasted’ on Labour and the Greens could be the difference between success and failure.

This takes us back to the national crisis. Johnson intends to defy the voters and cling on. To be sure of getting rid of him in the next election, the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens need to come together at the national level. The crisis in our country is enormous and it requires a new kind of cooperative politics. Together we have won the by-election battle, but we need even greater unity to win the bigger prize.

Congratulations to Richard Foord, the Lib Dems and progressive voters on a fantastic victory!

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I’ve issued the following statement as Chair of the East Devon Alliance:

‘The East Devon Alliance of Independents warmly congratulates Richard Foord on his election as Tiverton and Honiton’s new MP and the Liberal Democrats on their excellent campaign. This historic victory results from a progressive alliance among voters this part of Devon which has seen many Labour, Green and Independent voters backing Richard. I and other members of the East Devon Alliance of Independents are proud to have played a part in his success and look forward to working with the Lib Dems and all opposition forces in the new era for Devon politics which it opens up.’

Richard Foord, our new MP

Inspector dismisses appeal against field planning refusal

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A Planning Inspector has strongly rejected the applicants’ appeal against EDDC’s decision to refuse planning permission to build a house in the field at the top of Beer Road, Seaton. The grounds are very solid: the location of the site outside the Built Up Area Boundary, the effects on the character and appearance of the Coastal Protection Area, and the effects on the Beer Quarry Caves Special Area of Conservation and biodiversity. The full judgement can be seen on the EDDC planning portal, reference 20/1775/OUT.

Tomorrow is decision-day for Tiverton & Honiton: united we can win

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‘In this election, many will find tactical voting the only way forward.’
– Gill Westcott, Green candidate

Tomorrow we, the voters of Tiverton & Honiton, choose our MP. We have a unique opportunity, in the face of the most deceitful, corrupt and authoritarian Tory government in living memory, to get a decent, honest MP who will oppose its mounting crimes against democracy.

Richard Foord is not just the Liberal Democrat candidate. He is the candidate of all Labour, Green and independent voters who wish for change in this election.

UNITED we can defeat the dismally ignorant Conservative candidate who will simply be a tool of Boris Johnson and his party machine.

As Gill Westcott, the Green Party candidate, says in today’s Midweek Herald: ‘In this election, many will find tactical voting the only way forward.’

This is grown-up politics. In other words, don’t vote for me, but vote Liberal Democrat because they can WIN!

Time to end decades of being taken for granted by complacent Tory MPs

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My latest column in today’s Midweek Herald.

I imagine that most readers are simply exasperated that Boris Johnson, despite being so comprehensively disgraced, has still not gone. He has lost the confidence of the public in Devon and across the country, but he continues to cling to power. Finally, his MPs managed to hold a vote of no confidence and many of them voted against him. But it seems that still the majority will back him come what may.

In their party best: Hurford and Johnson hiding from the public together for a photo-opportunity in a supporter’s garden.

The spinelessness of East Devon’s Conservatives

It is sadly no surprise to find that our local Conservative representatives appear to be among these. Simon Jupp, the MP for the East Devon constituency, had said he was waiting for the Sue Gray report to make up his mind. Well the Metropolitan Police issued Johnson with a fixed penalty, Gray issued a damning report, and still Mr Jupp had nothing to say. We must assume he’s one of the MPs who backed Johnson but was too ashamed of it to let his constituents know. Maybe Johnson promised to make him a junior minister for paper clips next time round?

What is it with the East Devon Conservatives? Having produced over the last decade one councillor, Graham Brown, who was caught offering to fix planning for large sums of money, an Alderman, John Humphreys, who was convicted of appalling rapes, and now an MP, Neil Parish, who had to resign for watching porn in the House of Commons, the rest of them just seem to be particularly spineless.

Certainly their by-election candidate in the Tiverton and Honiton constituency, Helen Hurford, is in no hurry to break the rule. Still silent on virtually all the issues of the day, Ms Hurford sat out the Johnson confidence vote and waited until the prime minister had won before making a comment, to the effect that she gave him her support. If voters are misguided enough to return her to Parliament on June 23rd, don’t expect her to be outspoken about East Devon’s interests –  or anything else.

A captive of the party machine

We only have to look at Ms Hurford’s campaign literature to see that this very inexperienced politician – she only recently became a town councillor – has already become captive to her party machine. How else to explain that she put out a leaflet addressed to the voters of ‘Tiverton, Honiton and the surrounding villages’, seemingly unaware that Seaton, Axminster and Cullompton are substantial towns? The leaflet was clearly written by some advertising person from London, but why didn’t the candidate put them right?

More serious was the leaflet on yellow paper which contained a collection of smears and distortions about the Liberal Democrats. The leaflet had Ms Hurford’s name in tiny print at the bottom but no indication at all that it was produced by the Conservatives. This leaflet has now attracted national notoriety – why didn’t the candidate veto it?

Most concerning of all to me was that she used Seaton’s community hospital for a photo opportunity, claiming that there are hundreds of new nurses ‘in our area’. This is the hospital that lost its beds and was almost demolished for housing development because of her government’s policies and the refusal of Devon Conservative councillors to block the closures. Given the national shortage of beds, the hospital ward could be put back to use – but the shortage of nurses is so chronic that it probably couldn’t be staffed as things stand.

Support Richard Foord on the 23rd

This is my last column before the by-election, in which we have the chance to end decades of being taken for granted by complacent Conservative MPs. Richard Foord, the Liberal Democrat candidate, has been on the doorsteps in Seaton and Axminster and is running an honest – and vocal – campaign. I will not be going as far as my East Devon Alliance colleague, Paul Arnott, and actually joining the Liberal Democrats. I intend to remain independent of any national party. But I urge all my readers to support Mr Foord on the 23rd.

Tactical voting is the authentic choice for Labour supporters

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Labour candidate, Liz Pole, has told Labour supporters that tactical voting is ‘inauthentic’ and even ‘a Tory strategy’. However I would argue that tactical voting is the authentic choice for Labour supporters in the Tiverton & Honiton by-election.

Under a proportional voting system, that would not be true. But under First Past the Post, which we have, when there is a chance of an opposition candidate ousting the Conservatives, you have to choose the best-placed candidate. And everyone in Labour, from Keir Starmer downwards, knows that – as Exeter’s Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said – the Lib Dems could win this by-election. Labour can’t.

Liz and local Labour really can’t complain. Labour, from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn, has helped to maintain First Past the Post knowing that it makes Labour voting in areas this an ineffective gesture at best.

I have a Labour-inclined friend who’s over 90 years old. He’s lived all his life in this area, wasting his vote. Now he, like the rest of us, has the opportunity to cast an authentic vote for change. Not for Labour it is true, but for a Liberal Democrat candidate who agrees with most of the things that Labour agrees with and is determined to remove Boris Johnson’s far-right-leaning Tory government.

Sure, the Lib Dems are not perfect – the Coalition and all that. Nor are Labour – the Iraq War, Brexit, etc, etc. But we face a binary choice: the Lib Dems’ Richard Foord or the Tory yes-woman.

Tactical voting a Tory strategy? No, they’re scared as hell that we’ll all coalesce around the Lib Dems. They’d like nothing better than for people to vote Labour and help them to squeeze the Lib Dems out.

In my next post, I’ll put a way Labour supporters can help Labour at the same time as voting to get the Tories out here – it’s called Vote Swap.