Zacís Questions, Debates and EDMs
The Constant Economy
Where do I Stand?
25 May 2007 by Zac Goldsmith for Daily Telegraph
Locals should have power over developersThink local: Who should run Britain? Your view: How can we return local issues to a local level?
Nothing upsets people more than the realisation that they have no influence over the decisions that affect their lives. That sense of powerlessness leads to despair and apathy: nowadays the electorate are more likely to vote in the final of Big Brother than they are in a general election. But, if felt collectively, it's a feeling that can lead to revolutions.
I see the stirrings of such a revolution in Britain. This week, we have seen uproar at the grotesque unfairness of our planning laws, which give remote and unaccountable figures the power to impose major developments on communities that do not want them. Even where residents, local councillors and elected MPs are united in determined opposition, their wishes can be brushed aside by a planning bureaucrat, a high court judge or, ultimately, by the Department of Communities and Local Government. And I have first-hand knowledge of just how frustrating this is.
Earlier this year, I was selected at a public meeting to be the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Richmond Park in south-west London. I was thrilled, not least because it is where I was brought up and where much of my family still live. I have always believed the role of an MP is to be a local champion.
Richmond Park constituency is also one of the nicest places in Britain to live. It remains distinctive. Barnes has manage d to stay much like a village, with a pond, well-protected green spaces and, above all, distinctive, often family-owned, small shops that have resisted the pressures of excessive development.
It is this sense of community, defined by these small shops, that makes Barnes special - and there are plenty of other places just as distinctive around the country. But these shops are now under threat from a planning decision so perverse that it seems almost calculated to destroy one's faith in democracy. There are several large supermarkets within easy reach of Barnes, but they have always been kept on the periphery. Recently, a site fell vacant on White Hart Lane and Sainsbury's, ever eager to expand, snapped it up. Local people were enraged. The last thing they wanted was a large new store bringing more traffic into a residential area, large delivery lorries rumbling up and down the street and the bland corporate uniformity of the Sainsbury's brand imposed on their neighbourhood.
They had also seen what happened in other areas where large supermarkets opened. Their formula is well-tried and well-tested: they open with fanfare and enticing offers, and with ruthlessly low prices lure customers away from small local shops, which are eventually driven out of business.
Richmond Council refused consent to the proposal for a large store. And that should have been the end of that. But a well-funded appeal was launched, and the decision of the elected representatives of the people of Barnes was cast aside by an unelected planning inspector. Far too many decisions are made in this way in 21st-century Britain.
To Sainsbury's, it must have seemed like just one more victory on the road to supermarket dominance. Fortunately, the residents saw things differently and formed an action group to fight the decision all the way. When a meeting was called to protest about the planned store, there were more people outside than could fit inside the hall.
I have rarely experienced such raw anger. This was not a rent-a-mob. It was Middle England: ordinary men and women, livid that their desire to preserve the special character of their neighbourhood counted for nothing in the face of a powerful corporate steamroller.
The remedy I suggested that night was the calling of a local referendum. I have been very impressed by the way that Switzerland handles these sorts of problems. If enough citizens sign a petition within an allotted period of time, then a referendum is called, and the local authorities abide by the result. It's eminently sensible. Everyone has a vote, all sides get the chance to put their case and those who don't get their way have the consolation of knowing that they lost the argument fairly, not because of some high-handed diktat.
Currently, Britain doesn't have anything like the Swiss system, although David Cameron is considering introducing something similar. I'm convinced it would do an enormous amount to restore people's faith in politics if they knew that they had real control over decisions in their localities. It would encourage a greater sense of ownership and social responsibility. It would also make it harder for distant authorities to impose unwelcome initiatives on unwilling communities.
Of course, not everyone approves. There have been some commentators who believe it is up to consumers to "vote with their feet". But by the time residents can do such a thing, the supermarket will have been built. Besides, when a supermarket becomes entrenched, local businesses inevitably dwindle, and a community becomes dependent on the new store. Few people disapprove of competition. But the retail sector is concentrated in so few hands that competition is becoming an illusion. Look at the facts: we've lost 60 per cent of our butchers in 20 years. It's a similar story with chemists. In 2003, we lost a newsagent every single day.
But what's at stake in Barnes is more than the high street. It's an issue of democracy. And I've never heard an argument against these kinds of referendums that isn't an argument against democracy itself.
In the absence of an official mechanism, the action group raised funds locally and is organising a plebiscite to be conducted by the experienced and impartial Electoral Reform Society. The 8,500 Barnes residents who live in the vicinity of the proposed Sainsbury's will be polled, and although the results won't be legally binding, the pressure on the company will be immense. The big supermarkets like to present an image of themselves as socially responsible corporate citizens, rather than greedy and arrogant predators. By respecting the result of the vote, Sainsbury's would open a new chapter in the relationship between big business and the public.
The Barnes referendum is not just a local issue. If it works, it will inspire communities around the country to follow its example - to take the power to initiate or prevent projects and to use democracy to assert the rights of ordinary people against over-mighty corporations, unaccountable quangos and unelected bureaucrats. Let the revolution begin.