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Wincanton's Crisis is Somerset's Crisis

Friday 27 February 2015, 19:01
By Theo Simon

[EDITOR:] Theo Simon is the Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Somerset & Frome. Opinions expressed are his own. Scroll to the bottom of this article for details of a public meeting to take place in the King Arthur's School Performance Enhancement Centre, at which several Green Party representatives will speak on their approach to this matter.

Theo Simon, Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Somerset & FromePeople across our Somerton & Frome constituency have been showing me how, and where, our County and District Councils are pushing through inappropriate developments against the wishes of local communities.

Whether it's in Wincanton, Castle Cary or Somerton, it's the same story - the wrong houses are being built in the wrong places, without local consent, and ignoring local knowledge and expertise. So, in each town, local people are organising to resist rapacious and careless developments - doing the job that their elected political representatives should be doing on their behalves.

The details may differ slightly from town to town, but one thread unites all. This development crisis is directly driven by national and county austerity cuts, coupled with a breakdown of local democracy.

Our Councils receive a bribe from the Coalition Government to build new homes, called the ‘New Homes Bonus’. Industry magazine Inside Housing reported on 2nd February that, for 2015/16:

  • Conservative Somerset County Council will receive a ‘New Homes Bonus’ of £3.5 million
  • LibDem South Somerset District Council will receive a ‘New Homes Bonus’ of £4.0 million

This is against a backdrop of the national Coalition Government imposing far greater pain on local Councils than its own central departments. Somerset County Council has seen its Central Revenue Support grant cut from £100 million to £60 million over the past four years, without a squeak from Councillors. If austerity continues, the Conservatives plan to completely phase out the Central Revenue Support grant by 2020/21. Somerset County Council is already hungrily making plans for further £32m of cuts to Somerset services by 2017/18, laid out in its ironically titled 2020 Vision document.

So, our local Conservative Lib Dem Council Coalition is happily pocketing ‘New Homes Bonus’, a combined £7.5 million for forcing through inappropriate developments against the wishes of local communities – while hungrily taking the axe to local services to support an unnecessary austerity programme. Needless to say, none of this ‘New Homes Bonus’ money is finding its way through to communities that so urgently need it, like Wincanton.

Developers are able to exploit this situation without any loyalty to the towns, or any real consideration of actual local needs – and with disproportionate powers to appeal if decisions still go against them. We have just seen this again in Wincanton, with the planning inspector overturning a previous refusal of another 44 new homes at Bayford Hill.

Save Our Green Spaces poster outside a residence on Dancing Lane, Wincanton

Wincanton is the largest and most heavily front-loaded local victim of this national building bulldozer. All the failings of other, smaller schemes are on show. Green-field land is being lost, while brown-field sites and empty properties remain in the hands of speculators. Plans take little account of flooding and future resilience. There is no integrated planning for long-term sustainability. Hundreds of new homes have been built before there is even sufficient health care, school, work, transport, amenity or infrastructure provision for the people already living here. And social and affordable housing, which should be the absolute priority if we want to keep our young people and support our low-earners, is seen as no more than an ‘ethical wash’ bargaining chip.

The people who give up their spare time and energy to contradict the evidence of more-distant ‘experts’ and to strengthen the resolve of local councillors, are hardly ‘NIMBYs’. Whether they are from Save Our Somerton, Care4Cary or Wincanton In Crisis, these are the people who care about their towns and environment enough to act.

I haven't met anyone who doesn't recognise the need for more housing – they just want development to be carried out in a rational and a phased way that relates to local conditions.

This doesn't seem to be happening at the moment. Many aspects of the area are booming – but there is no joined-up-thinking in planning. The long term result will be to further undermine the health and cohesion of our communities.

It has to stop, but ending it will require a more fundamental, political change. The last 4 years of the Lib Dem/Conservative Coalition's austerity politics has left our cash-strapped Councils in a hard place. For all the box-ticking on ‘localism’, ‘sustainability’, ‘consultation’ etc., it seems that the system has been rigged to favour big private property developers. They can wave the carrot of cash on the one hand, while brandishing the stick of a costly appeal on the other.

The ruthless way the situation is being exploited to push through random, over-sized developments, is just another way that austerity is making our communities pay for some one else's profits. The £1.2 trillion that has been paid to the banks since the 2008 crisis amounts to £15,600 given by each and every Wincanton citizen - or £37,400 from each Wincanton household.

Wincanton in Crisis march proceeding down South Street

If we are going to keep our communities together, to invest in meeting local needs and plan for future resilience to meet the challenges ahead, we need a redistribution of wealth and power in the other direction. More revenue has to stay with the local Council, and decision-making powers need to be devolved to the ground level. That would mean that Wincanton had the leading role in deciding what Wincanton needs and planning future developments. It also means having power to direct public funding to meet those needs, rather than being driven by financial insecurity further along the road of community disintegration.

Wincanton's crisis is Somerset's crisis. People in Wincanton have been willing to stand up and be heard and to put their energy into protecting their future. We need representatives who will do the same on our behalf at the national level. That means more than expressing sympathy and concern, or criticising this or that development. It means bringing an end to the Lib Dem/Conservative austerity, and restoring local power and local budgets to local government.

Meeting at King Arthur’s Community School

If you care about this issue, and would like to discuss it and hear more, please do come along to King Arthur’s Community School next Tuesday, 3rd March, at 7:30 pm, where I will speaking alongside Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for South West England and Green Economy spokesperson, and Chuck Downton of Wincanton in Crisis’ Campaign Committee.

Theo Simon, East Pennard
Green Party Parliamentary candidate, Somerton and Frome.


Posts: 1
Housing in Wincanton
Reply #1 on : Sun March 29, 2015, 08:54:48
I read through Theo Simon blurb on this take of the housing situation here in Wincanton, like the curate's egg it's ok in parts and the rest nonsense or out of date! To be fair since his story was printed, the Law has changed on 'Brown-field' sites, local Councils are now obliged to provide the Government an up to date record of suitable Brown-field sites for future housing developments. Although there was a protest march through the Town earlier this year, nevertheless the 44 homes located on Bayford Hill has got the green light, no pun intended! What's more events only a couple of weeks back in Central London saw tens of thousands demonstrating for new homes to be built and affordable. Problem is where? Our problem here in Wincanton is that we have limited employment opportunities for all ages. But as a shop owner in the High street it appears to me people simply aren't spending their money, so the problem is more about the economy. Savings are hit hardest, Interest rates held too low. Another point that Mr Simon either doesn't know or forgot to mention is that Developers pay what are called 106 agreement payments that often result in providing 'extras' on new housing sites, sadly this money should go to Wincanton but the LibDems have funnel the funds into Yeovil, figures! We need new homes whatever the outcome of these elections, it's important that the New Plan agreed reflex a fair situation for new house build here in Wincanton with all that is required to take the strain of existing services, schools, roads etc. We in UKIP propose the introduction of a binding local Planning referendums on all major Housing and similar developments, let the people have the final word.

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