LETTER: Democracy in action. Or is it?

On 12th November eligible residents will be able to vote on Ringmer’s Neighbourhood Plan. The vote, of course, is a fine example of Western democracy in action. Or is it?

The Neighbourhood Planning process had, at its core, the empowerment of local people to be involved in decisions about what housing was needed and where it should go. Indeed, from the outset, Ringmer Parish Council held consultations to garner public opinion. The Preface to the Neighbourhood Plan document trumpets that it has been “developed by the people of Ringmer” and that it has a “bottom-up perspective”. This accords with the Parish Council’s pronouncement that “under the principle of Localism, the choice of [new housing] sites should be made by local people through [the] Neighbourhood Plan, not imposed from above”.

All of this, of course, sounds admirable. But has Ringmer’s Neighbourhood Plan actually delivered on this in reality? Has the Plan really been developed by the people of Ringmer? Have your views been taken into account? Or have the Parish Council merely paid lip service to the concept of ‘localism’?

We are aware that, within the Plan, sites allocated for new housing have been “imposed from above” without prior consultation with local residents. Other sites have not been included despite local people stating that they would support such development.

Where we have attempted to contribute to the development of the Neighbourhood Plan – eg, via the formal Regulation 14 and 16 consultation processes – our comments have been completely disregarded. None of this seems to us like a document “developed by local people”.

Furthermore, since the independent examination of the Plan at the beginning of this year, a number of not-insignificant modifications have been made to the Plan for which there has been NO consultation with local residents whatsoever!

When the Parish Council held its public consultations in 2012, almost ⅔ of Ringmer residents who completed a questionnaire (incidentally, a mere 197 people) expressed a preference for less than 150 new homes in Ringmer; 95 per cent thought the number should not exceed 200.

The Parish Council itself subsequently asserted that the “correct number” of new homes for this planning period was 131. Lewes DC ultimately targeted Ringmer with finding 220. Ostensibly ‘concerned’ about this higher number, the Parish Council stated that “no Neighbourhood Plan that proposed 200 or more new houses for Ringmer would have the slightest chance of being approved in the Parish referendum…”.

Regardless of its own prognostication, the Parish Council now expects – or at least hopes – that local residents will vote in favour of a Neighbourhood Plan which proposes a minimum of 240 new homes in Ringmer. This, they claim – disregarding their own earlier consultation exercise – is a level “acceptable to Ringmer residents”. It would be interesting to understand how they came to this conclusion in the light of evidence against it, let alone how proposing a minimum number would be acceptable to anyone! Ultimately, there seems to have been little point in gauging the views of residents on such a key planning issue, as the views expressed have been completely usurped. Note also that, within the Plan, the Parish Council has allocated housing to various sites amounting to 315 new homes, with further development not included in the Plan numbers also highly probable.

Furthermore, if the referendum were to result in an overall ‘NO’ vote (ie, more than 50 per cent against), we are advised that housing development decisions would rest entirely with the folks at Lewes DC who would, in all probability, approve even more house builds Ringmer than might otherwise be the case – although given that the Neighbourhood Plan has no upper limit, it is unclear what this might mean in practice.

Effectively, the democratic process that we have been afforded is, at best, subterfuge and, at worst, a threat: “vote in favour of the Plan…or else!” And therein lies the rub. Whilst having a plan to control housing development is theoretically a sound idea, one has to question whether this document that we have the opportunity to vote on is what it purports to be and whether the democratic process, which was supposed to have been at its heart, has any merit whatsoever.

Martin Weld and Jenny Barrett, Ringmer

on behalf of the Westbourne Action Group