Getting off the road to nowhere

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This site began as a place to discuss a curious and troubling development proposal in a small and lovely corner of Kent. Subtly, without our noticing, it has turned into something else, a discussion about the nature of power and politics, and how the relationship between the governors and the governed has become perilously fractured along the way.

When I say politics, I don’t mean, ‘vote this way or that’. This is, as one has to point out regularly, the 21st century. We no longer inhabit an island split down the middle between them and us, Labour and Tories, right and left. Though the parties themselves have yet to appreciate this, most of the electorate think outside the dogmatic boundaries which — on paper anyway — still appear to entrap those in Parliament, and perhaps even county and town halls.

For example, I quite like the idea of grammar schools, but I think the privatisation of British Rail was one of the most stupid government acts of the last twenty years (and that’s saying something). I think the war in Iraq was pretty idiotic too, and very possibly criminal, but I also happen to believe we pay for too much in the way of tax, often invisibly, using sleights of hand designed to disguise the astonishing amount of our earned income finding its way into the pockets of the state.

Does that make me a left-leaning, liberal Conservative? No. It makes me ‘me’, just as your thoughts make you ‘you’. As individuals, we are temperamentally much more sophisticated than any rigid, didactic conventional political party can ever be, because they — through their very organisational genes — will seek to stifle individual opinion in pursuit of the collective whole. This is why scarcely a single voice has been heard at borough or county council level about Wye Park, a project which, as KCC’s own planning officer says, could be the biggest development project in Kent in 20 years after the Channel Tunnel rail link.

We may have entered the new century, but politics in this country hasn’t. It is still, in England, horribly focussed on Westminster, run from London, often for organisations based in London. Anyone who has followed the Wye story on this site knows full well that the head of Imperial College, Sir Richard Sykes, is a familiar figure in the Labour hierarchy, who has sat on some of the most important good and great committees in the land. He has the ear of those in power. And should David Cameron walk into Downing Street at some stage, Sir Richard will have his ear, and sit on his committees too. That is the way things work, because they always have.

Whichever way you vote, the government still gets in

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You don’t honestly think it makes a difference to Wye which one wins, do you?

It is, of course, democracy in name only. We elect councillors and MPs to represent us, not the interests of their own parties or their political masters. Yet this simple bond clearly no longer exists. We know, from hints and nods and winks, that Damian Green, Ashford’s MP, is far from happy with several aspects of the Imperial plan. But nods and winks seem to be all we are getting. We know, too, that there are many borough and county councillors who are fed up with the whole thing. Can you blame them? Service in local government is a thankless task, time-consuming, often boring, with many long hours spent in service to an electorate who wouldn’t dream of doing such a job themselves — and nor, under any circumstances, would I.

What happens when a big plan breaks on your own doorstep? Answer: the council leaders carve it all up among themselves in private, making a real hash of the thing, then whip their hapless foot soldiers into obedience to make sure no-one breaks rank in public. Ashford’s Independents apart, the silence on Wye is simply astonishing, and extends to both Labour and the Lib Dems, who don’t even seem to have the wherewithal to understand there is quick political capital to be made here.

Why? We’re back to politics again; they see themselves as part of a national machine and need to check with head office before they open their mouths. And there you have democracy in England in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s different in the devolved regions, I simply don’t know, but for us free government means the ability to argue for hours over the colour and siting of a bus stop, but a gag on free thought and comment on a plan that will spell the death of an entire village, and the loss of some of the finest countryside remaining in the south east.

A special problem for Kent

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Wye Park could be as big as the Channel Tunnel rail link. So why the silence?

Are we alone here? In general no, in specific ways, undoubtedly. Kent is the private fiefdom of the Conservative party, and that is a great, great shame, just as it would be in it were the private fiefdom of Labour or the Lib Dems. So great and seeming unassailable is the Tory majority at county hall, they feel they can do whatever they like, and will. The whole Concordat saga could never have occurred under a system in which the majority party was clinging on to power with a slender majority. They simply wouldn’t have dared risk the chance of their scandalous machinations being discovered.

If you want to know what Kent’s county Conservatives really think of us, just ask anyone who was at the infamous parish council meeting at which local councillor Charles Findlay swamped an entire evening with his smugness and arrogance, while failing to answer a single pertinent question on the huge threat to the community he is meant to represent. Most of those there were outraged; personally I think it was a fantastic performance. If you didn’t understand where you stood before, surely you do now. Thanks a million, Cllr Findlay. You did us all a wonderful favour, though I imagine it wasn’t intended that way.

It’s a special problem for another reason too. With the construction of the Channel Tunnel and the decision by central government to expand the county through an enormous programme of housing and commercial development, this home of ours has suddenly become rich pickings for outsiders. Thirty years ago no-one north of Maidstone had heard of Ashford; now we have property speculators from all over the world eyeing our verdant landscape and dreaming of converting it into filthy lucre.

Kent sits there like some unpolished green diamond between the UK and the Continent, slavered over by hordes of planners and property developers willing to sacrifice every last blade of grass for a quick buck. And what do our neutered, emasculated, one party-dominated councils do? Cower meekly under the onslaught, and whimper, ‘Please be gentle.’

So do we just go independent?

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The 1980s model for alternative politics… not for now

In a creaking, antiquated three-party system, there’s a conversation you can find in any front room or any pub every night of the week. It goes, ‘But I don’t want to vote for any of them.’ Nor do I frankly. So what’s left? Answer: the fringe parties, such as the Greens or the fruitcakes of UKIP, who seem much too single issue to be of serious consideration by most English voters. Or, at a local level, the infinitely more attractive route of the Independents, who are frankly the only serious contenders.

Except in extraordinary circumstances, the electorate tends to stay within the three main parties most of the time. The reason for this is ‘I don’t want to waste my vote’, and it is entirely spurious. As anyone in Wye surely knows by now, a vote for the Conservative party is a complete waste, unless you are convinced the individual concerned is willing to buck the dreary, overwhelming Tory whip and think differently on key local issues. Voting for Labour or the Lib Dems will simply give you one councillor in a minority grouping that has scarcely squeaked on Wye since day one.

The Independents have at least made their concerns public, and currently form the largest single opposition grouping in Ashford council. The big problem for me is this: they bang on about ‘keeping politics out of local government’. And that, in itself, is contradictory. Pure 21st century politics — not dogma, but the rational exercise of power on behalf of the community — is central to the running of society. Without it, you get governance by nice people, which is what local council independents usually are, genuine individuals offering benevolence instead of planning, a sense of well meaning instead of hard, fast policies.

This can start to sound too much like the kind of compromise some people are starting to talk about over Wye Park now. Why not sit down with Imperial and see if we can work it out? Well… I can think of several good reasons for not doing that, not least that they have deceived this community wilfully over several months, and played fast and loose with the facts time and time again. But I’d sit down with them all the same, though only with a few firm policies hammered out beforehand, one of the most important being: touch the AONB and you die.

The problem with the Independents is they are a collection of like-minded local individuals who want to do the right thing. And Kent, as a whole, is beyond that kind of approach. I want to vote for someone with a county-wide view, someone who’s part of an organisation that can turn on the army of hungry developers waiting to consume us and face them with facts, not genuine heart-felt opposition. And I want someone who is aware that Kent is more than green farm land, but also deprived urban communities too, ones that would welcome a development such as Wye Park with open arms, because they, unlike us, need the jobs and the money. The Independents, as they stand, can’t deliver.

We need to think bigger

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The Kent economy is larger than that of many countries, including Luxembourg

Kent is more than a county; it’s a region. Our gross domestic product when last counted was £18.2bn, 2.5 per cent of the entire UK’s. To put that into context, go here and start counting from country number 93. You will see that in GDP terms we are bigger than everything from Paraguay down, economically bigger than Zimbabwe, Tanzania or Luxembourg to name a few. In many parts of Europe, a region of this size would have some kind of local political organisation, one dedicated to looking after provincial interests, and dealing with national government, openly and frankly, as needed.

The Tories, Labour and Lib Dems won’t do that on our behalf; we’ve seen that already. What if something else emerged — let’s call it the Kent Party — and tried to do the job? It would, you’d hope, appeal to many of those already in local government and fed up with being impotent. It would seek support from all those disenchanted Conservatives who’ve spent years being ignored by their party bosses. And it would be a banner for like-minded Independents and forward-looking Labour and Lib Dem members too. This organisation would need guiding principals that said, for example, on development, ‘This far, and no further.’ But it wouldn’t be a political party based on 19th century theory, nor one bound by the rigid, autocratic structure of modern Labour and Conservatives. Individuals would be encouraged to be individuals, not bound by strict whips and dogma.

And when it came to something like Wye Park, what would matter, above all else, would be the well-being of the existing community in the area, not kow-towing to some distant Whitehall masterplan, or the whims of a London academic turned property developer. Its unique selling point, to use the marketing jargon, would be something that anyone could understand. It would exist to defend and develop Kent on behalf of those of us who live here, as a pragmatic organisation, open to new ideas and development, but aware that, at the core of this county, lies something worth defending against the rampant bulldozer which other parties seem to view as an inevitability. If I wanted to live in south London I’d move there; I’d like the opportunity to vote for someone who would stop south London coming to me.

Pipe dreams occasionally happen

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In 2001 Martin Bell announced his candidacy for Parliament 24 days before the election, and turned a safe Tory majority of 22,000 into an 11,000 one for him.

Would anyone else vote for it? Well, only if it had the right candidates and the right policies, naturally. And if you look at the way things have panned out over Wye in recent months, you realise that would be a turn up for the books. Of late we’ve just been voting on the basis of the party, and nothing else.

I’ve no idea whether Ashford’s Independents would be interested in taking part. But if they did, with some work and some organisation, they could surely hope to play a bigger part in the council than they do at the moment. It would also provide a banner under which others might run at county level, as a group, not as lone warriors trying to do a quick Don Quixote act.

And dream on… Just imagine if there were a Martin Bell moment, a campaign so well organised, and so in tune with local thinking, that it actually unseated a standing local MP and sent someone to Parliament. A wasted vote? Oh no… Can’t you see the national headlines? Couldn’t you imagine the attention we’d get from the rest of the country, envious that someone has finally turned round on the lazy, self-satisfied dinosaurs of Westminster?

If there is one thing we can surely guess about the coming general election, it’s that it will be close. Every MP has a vote… and a canny operator ought to know how to use it. The three main parties have failed us all horribly over the years. Anything that sent a warning shot across their bows would surely be most welcome. And, to repeat myself, this is a new century. If the old parties fail us — and they surely do — why not invent a new one to tackle the job? It happens all the time abroad. He may not be the best role model, but Silvio Berlusconi just got booted out of government in Italy heading a party that only got invented in the early 1990s. Given the shenanigans that have gone over Wye this past year, do you really think we still have the right to turn round to the rest of Europe and boast that we are the ‘home of democracy’?

This is a pipe dream — and will probably remain so. What matters most are the local elections twelve months from now. There is a year in which this area could start planning to send a small shockwave through Kent, and remind our current masters we are not mere polling booth fodder, to be ignored between elections.

It would require organisation, policies and, above all, the right local candidates. But sometimes big things can emerge from small moments, and let’s face it: as things stand at the moment, with the present lot, we’re on the road to nowhere. And what wouldn’t you give to be there on polling night to see a result like that?

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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2 Responses to Getting off the road to nowhere

  1. Jack Woodford says:

    I would hope that the above article written by David Hewson, is read by every resident of the County of Kent, and not just the concerned local resident of Wye, and surrounding districts, it sums up very clearly the present problem in local and national politics.The present Wye Parish Council,who are fortunate to have an outstanding Chairman, are a microcosom of the way local affairs should be conducted, and hopefully help and aid the Village in which we live…it is strictly non political, and maybe could be used as a template for other groups and organisations who would attempt to change the current political landscape.Until people raise themselves out of lethargy, and take an interest in what is occuring around them, and its consequences, we will continue to have the same old Political Parties jostling for position in either Westminster, County Hall, or Town Hall.

  2. Doris says:

    Here are some more conundrums. Yesterday I was listening to a radio programme examining the ways in which children are being educated about the food they eat and in particular where it comes from. One school had turned part of its grounds into a vegetable garden and planted an orchard and there were other avenues being explored, such as inviting farmers in to tell the pupils about potato growing and milk production. Yet, here in the Garden of England Imperial College is proposing to plant houses on farmland and destroy the fundamental resource in this food chain.

    Buy locally, in season, and reduce air mile pollution is today’s environmental message and which the village of Wye pioneers with its regular Farmers Market. But the Imperial philistines propose pouring concrete over, by their own admission, productive and profitable local farmland.

    We have a Nature Reserve on our doorsteps rich in orchids and other chalk down land flowers and rare butterflies and moths, with open countryside all around. Imperial appear to see no value in this beautiful pastoral landscape and want to colonise it with buildings and roads; and so commit vandalism on a colossal scale in pursuit of the developer’s gold – houses. The proposed, Imperial City at Wye, a 300 acre housing estate of a minimum of 3,000 homes, plus High Streets, community centres, a school and a supermarket – just look at what is planned around Ashford to see how it might be – would not only annihilate Wye Village but severely erode the Downs. Could the Nature Reserve survive the ravages of 4,000 – 6,000 people using it as their ‘park’ – probably not .

    Is there no one in the Imperial machine with a soul – perhaps a governor with a conscience concerned about what is being planned in their name?

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