Our democratic life threatened

Friday 15th December 2017 10:11 am

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In a recent letter, Michael Elsmere referred to the “rapid demise of our municipal and democratic life in the South Hams” in regard to the failed merger with West Devon.

A recent meeting on the proposed ‘green energy’ battery storage complex on a site near Staverton would appear to endorse this.

The committee voted in favour of the development, despite objections related to noise, environmental despoilation, threat to habitat, damage to the lives of locals, transport dangers etc. I accept that a full appreciation and understanding of the issues might, nevertheless, have resulted in approval of the scheme. That is democracy.

This meeting, however, showed few signs of democracy, if, by that phrase, one means a full discussion of both sides of the argument followed by a vote based on reason and conscience.

Planning officers clearly took the view it was a ‘good thing’. This meant that in their various contributions they presented a universally favourable view.

There were glaring ambiguities in the scheme which may or may not have been intentional. For example, the developer alleged this was the only site technically compatible with land. Did this mean this was the only technically possible site in the south west and the local organic farmer was happy to profit by leasing out the land? Or does it just mean the latter?

I assumed, in my naivety, that the experts would clarify this in the debate. They did not. I expected some clear comment from the officers about noise increase but instead listened to a contribution from an officer which I found incomprehensible as, I suspect, did most of the councillors.

Many issues raised by objectors in written form were completely ignored by the officers and councillors, except for Cllr Jacqi Hodgson who bravely sought, in the face of bland indifference, to give vent to them. A speaker chosen by the objectors to argue their case was cut short after a pitifully short time, although there was no apparent time limit for councillors to make comments of stunning banality and irrelevance at length.

The meeting was brought forward, presumably to bounce the scheme through before coherent information could be produced on some of the contentious issues. Those affected by the scheme, whose time to prepare their case had already been adversely affected by a complete lack of information and proper notice from the developer about what it was up to, were again manoeuvred into a disadvantageous position.

The planning debate was like a football match which the home team, in favour of the scheme, won. They may well have won anyway but the result was rendered certain by the fact that the referee and linesmen, planning officials, were on the home team and the away side had to play with hands tied behind their backs – lack of prior notice, restricted time to speak, or opportunity to question, being hijacked by last minute deals.

While the consequences for the bat and newt populations were quite rightly discussed at length, that of the homosapien population in the area adversely affected was treated with patronising disdain.

This was not a free and open encounter but a done deal, with most of the councillors acting and voting with all the impartiality, intellectual power and vigour of the sheep in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

I found this even more dispiriting than the prospect of this ‘battery storage facility’ on my doorstep, which will owe its ugly existence in this inappropriate place to a lack of planning by successive central governments over decades.

If serious local democracy is not dead, my undesired close- up view of it for an hour or so suggests it is on a life support machine with few attendants.

Jon Sandham

Bumpston Bridge, Staverton

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