John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history or writing and spelling.
After so long writing here on education, I have become a candidate for the Linton division of Cambridgeshire County Council.
It is a target seat, and redrawn boundaries give us a fighting chance of holding it. The main obstacles are, this year as last, errors in the budget, and the presumption in favour of consent to planning applications, which is leading to widespread abuse. The electorate does not usually discriminate between one group of Conservatives and another, and we have our work cut out.
Linton Parish Council, of which my wife is chairman of planning, has worked hard with our district council, South Cambridgeshire, to promote sensible development that meets the pressing local need for affordable housing in an area of relatively high prices. We have some new council houses, and infill developments that provide a mix of affordable and more expensive houses. Some affordable houses – not so affordable in real terms – have been bought up and rented out, but we have had success in relocating older people into smaller social housing.
Like everyone else, we want development, but we do not want the village wrecked. We have a steeply sloping site leading to the river Granta, and have had flooding from both the river and from the runoff of surface water from higher ground that is currently farmland. Our services are at or over capacity. Our schools are full, though partly because many pupils come from outside the village so that, legally speaking, there is not a problem. The sewage system is just about adequate. We also have a minor A road, the A1307, that is doing inadequate service as a trunk road following the location of a major haulage company to our neighbours in Haverhill.
Until recently, we were very well served by our health centre, but it has been amalgamated with that of the larger village of Sawston, and people are having to wait three weeks for an appointment, sometimes at a surgery that has no public transport. The ambulance service is inadequate, and a lady in her nineties complained to me about having had to lie on the floor for over five hours waiting for one after a fall in the middle of the night. Current planning applications for around 250 houses, with the certainty of more to come, would tip us over the edge, to the benefit of the Lib Dems.
I was therefore delighted on Thursday, when the district council refused an application from the diocese of Ely to build fifty houses on a small and steeply sloping site just outside the village boundary, overlooking existing homes and with a strong risk of flooding from surface water in the event of heavy rain. The application was poorly designed, with houses jammed together and affordable houses in a separate, small group, and offered engineering evidence that convinced no-one that any serious attempt had been made to address the risk of flooding. The scheme, in the view of dissenting councillors, was simply not viable. One councillor said that it was “a site we don’t want”.
And yet this councillor, and most of his Conservative colleagues, felt they had to vote for the application purely because it would almost certainly succeed at appeal, whatever its faults. Councillors were, in short, being coerced to vote against their judgement, their conscience, and the interests of their electors, purely and simply because the Secretary of State and his inspectors were determined to approve applications to build anything, anywhere, irrespective of risk or consequences. It might be added that permissions currently outstanding in South Cambridgeshire amount to 10,000 houses, and are a blatant example of land banking.
Electors had told me on the doorstep that this was “a done deal”, and that they had no voice. Fortunately, two Conservative councillors joined the feisty Independent, Deborah Roberts, and the effective – much as I hate to say it – Lib Dems, and voted the application down.
As candidate for the division, I was relieved. A senior member, though, told me on the way out that we would be shot down in flames on the appeal, so the relief may be short lived. Similar applications are being submitted all over the South, some of them churned out by specialist application companies with a computer, a map, and no knowledge of, or interest in, local communities. It is not development, but ignorant profiteering, with the added irony this time of having the local diocese as the would-be profiteer. There are no winners. Or, at least, no Conservative winners.