With a weary heart, I embarked upon Susan Murray’s letter about how much she disagrees with the decision of the South Downs National Park Authority to demolish the old Magistrates’ Court in Lewes and to build a hotel.
‘Unfit for purpose!’ the local Green activist declares the Authority to be; why? Oh, because she disagrees with the decision it made. No, Susan, that an authority makes a decision you disagree with does not render it thus (in fact far from it, most of the time).
But reading through the letter I began to wonder if, on this occasion, I could in fact be mistaken. Perhaps she could be onto something.
For Ms Murray has (nearly) made an important point: the planning committee of the South Downs National Park Authority isn’t just made up of ‘people with very little knowledge or experience of Lewes’. It’s worse than that, far worse. It has no democratic mandate.
Could it be argued that it is indeed unfit to be making these types of decisions when none of its members ever have to face the electorate that it makes such significant decisions on behalf of?
The Lewes District Council’s Planning Application Authority, which the National Park has superseded in these larger decisions (and many smaller ones too), is made up of locally elected councillors: Lib Dems, Conservatives and so on – but they all represent areas of the Lewes District, and were elected to do so.
If the electorate decide that the LDC planning committee is unfit, then these councillors can be voted out at the next election. But this is not the case over at the SDNPA, where members are drawn from far and wide and appointments to the committee are made internally.
This is clearly a significant fault line in the fabric of democratic accountability.
To illustrate my point, this is a list of the South Down National Park planning committee: Alun Alesbury – a parish councillor from Stoughton; Jennifer Gray – an East Hampshire district councillor; Neville Harrison (Committee Deputy Chair) – chair of the ‘Southease parish meeting’; Barbara Holyome – a parish councillor Bramdean & Hinton Amper; David Jenkins – a Horsham district councillor; Doug Jones – a Buriton parish councillor; Tom Jones – a Lewes district councillor; Diana Kershaw – Nationally appointed, she was once a planning officer at Newham council; Charles Peck – a Wealden district councillor; Ian Phillips – Nationally appointed, he is a landscape architect; Andrew Shaxson (Committee Chair) – a Chichester district councillor.
Not one of the above were elected to represent this authority and none will ever have to face the electorate to be held to account for their decisions. Yet this group of 11 people were legally charged with the final decision on the fate of the Lewes Magistrates’ Court (and will also decide on Lewes’s North Quarter development). So yes, Susan Murray, I (for once) agree with you: the Planning Committee of the South Downs National Park Authority is unfit for purpose.