Village Politics: The Proximity Problem
For much of my working life I was what you might call a political analyst. I worked in TV current affairs. I liked that work and it was good to see results from it if it got noticed. I fully retired 18 months ago.
So I thought it might be interesting to take that approach to village life.
First question: what is special about village politics? My view might surprise. Extreme Proximity: we know each other, we live in the same place. Most politicians are very glad to get away to their own private circle when they can. It's difficult in a village.
Another basic: villages (or parishes) are the lowest tier of UK government. Above them: a Local Authority with its own priorities and plans. Above that: the national government which makes policies which both have to obey (though they often leave a lot of flexibility). But villages have very limited autonomy.
In popular culture villages are portrayed as living an isolated life in a narrow frame. Comics have often made fun of parish councils. In fact we interact with other tiers and have to negotiate with them all the time. (That’s negotiation in the largest sense of the word. It includes demos outside the local council offices!)
What do we know about villages? We know a lot of people want to live in them. West Somerset and Taunton has had one of the steepest house price rises in the country. But another slightly contradictory piece of data: there’s fairly frequent movement in and out of villages.
That takes us to Planning, one of the hottest issues in villages and one that exemplifies the problems of village decision making.
Nationally there is a housing shortage. At the same time, climate policy is pressing for higher building standards and self-sufficiency. (“Resilience” is a vogue word referring to the need for community resources that help reduce emissions from travel, for instance or heating).
That is probably why there are a series of inducements to communities like villages to open up. For example there is the Community Infrastructure Levy. This gives the village money to fund public facilities which it could not otherwise afford, more if there is a Neighbourhood Plan in place.
The Government also supports affordable housing, subsidised housing for rent or purchase at prices lower than the market. One benefit is that as prices go up, some families have a better chance of staying in the parish they live and grew up in.
Only a very small proportions of homes are self-build. House building relies on developers and housing associations. A developer can tailor a development to make it attractive. In the case of the Station Road site the developer is offering a fully funded shop premises to be owned by the village. (And some planted-up green space). A shop is something we have missed in recent years and a recent survey suggests we would like one back.
In a village there are always likely to be objections to home developments. People live in villages for a reason: they like the close-to-the-countryside feeling and the sense of community, often missing from towns and suburbs. And the building of even small housing estates is disruptive. Householders in the vicinity of the site often object, understandably.
That leads us back into the proximity problem. You don’t want to disagree with your neighbour. So it’s hard for a parish council, as it was when a decision was needed on September 23rd. Two thirds of the council voted against the proposal but a third were in favour of keeping the issue open.
Democracy relies on open debate and, nationally, has access to experts to inform the issues. A village does not have those. I guess the message then has to be: don’t be afraid to say what you think and encourage discussion. Your community relies on you to help inform its decisions.
PS: I have not gone into the pros and cons of a specific planning proposal here. But you can Comment. And there are other forums like our village Facebook site if you wish to use them.
David Graham. Wednesday November 9th 2022
Picture: Image by HANSUAN FABREGAS from Pixabay