Postcard from the edge of democracy

This month, two towns in Britain were engaged in a fierce battle to keep the corporate chain, Costa Coffee out of their high streets, Southwold in the East and Totnes in the West. A hundred people were thrown out of the council chamber in the normally quiet sea-town of Southwold as the local council voted in favour of the chainstore (following Tesco and WH Smith earlier in the year). Here Transition social reporter Jay Tompt in Totnes, looks at the process whereby outside developers and corporate interests outweigh the interests of local people and businesses, a pattern than prevails thoughout the modern world.

All politics is local but not all local politics is democratic. This fact hit home on Wednesday when over 100 Totnesians marched through the centre of town up to the local seat of power to demonstrate loud and clear that the town of Totnes overwhelmingly opposes the economic invasion by a large corporate coffee chain.

Follaton House sits just a mile outside the town centre and is the home of the South Hams District Council. The Totnes Town Council is virtually powerless. All decisions of any import concerning Totnes, as well as all other towns and villages in the district, are made here by councillors and bureaucrats, the vast majority of whom commute to this comfortable, self-contained estate, surrounded by arboretum and parkland. These commuters have little reason to visit the town and, for the most part, they don’t. If they had, they wouldn’t have been surprised to see their council chamber fill with citizens determined to make their collective voice heard. But actually, they weren’t surprised, just dismissive.

For three months, independent shop owners, community leaders, and citizens have built a strong case for keeping our local economy independent, resilient, and sustainable. They collected over 5,700 signatures from people opposing corporate coffee chains and in favour of supporting the over 41 independent coffee outlets in the town. They sought guidance from planning experts who found that several aspects of the Localism Bill and the new National Planning Policy Framework heavily supported local decision-making power on matters concerning sustainable development and the character of the town.

Strangely, even David Cameron is on our side: “For our high streets to thrive they must offer something new and different. But for this to happen it is local people who must take control, developing the vision for the future of their high streets and putting their energy and enthusiasm into making it a reality.“
Even more strangely, the South Hams District Council’s own development and strategic planning policy documents clearly spell out the strategic vision aimed at promoting locally-directed sustainable development and community vibrancy.

So, where’s the disconnect?

About 30 marchers were allowed in to witness how the wheels of local democratic government turn. The chamber is officious with judicial-style dais, the chairman of the Development Management Committee presiding in the centre just below, and above him hangs the obligatory still life with queen and consort. He was immediately flanked by the clerk and head planning officer, and on a lower level by the solicitor, secretary and the youngish planning officer, sporting sharkfin haircut and stylish suit, who would present his recommendation in favour of Costa’s application. The next three rows supported the councillors, their backs to the audience. All in all, a scene that’s probably repeated hundreds of times a week in council chambers across Britain for those charged with conducting the people’s business.

The planning officer made his case making slowly and methodically, making it clear in his first-person testimony – “I surveyed…I decided…in my judgement…I recommend.” He pointed out several times that regardless of the change in use of the property, the fact that it was Costa Coffee makes no difference, it’s not material, it’s not part of planning procedure, and not covered in planning policy.

Speaking on behalf of the people of Totnes, town councillor and community leader, Jill Tomalin, spoke eloquently for the need to reject the application on several material grounds, referencing current planning policy, as well as new NPPF guideline and the Localism agenda. After the Costa representative made his case, claiming that Costa Coffee outlets add to local character, generate more footfall, and give a boost to local shops, the floor was opened to the councillors. Local district councillors and allies then spoke forcefully for the application to be denied, citing the language in NPPF, Localism Bill and SHDC’s own strategy and development documents. Repeatedly, the planning officer and his boss made the point that the fact that it was Costa was not material and could not be considered. The council solicitor also weighed in to remind the councillors that the fact that the applicant was Costa could not be considered.

Comments from those who would in moments vote in favour of Costa reflected party ideology and a pre-agreed message strategy. Nearly every one began with the reminder that “as the Development Management Committee we’re bound to consider each case … blah … blah … irrespective … blah… blah…blah”. Some asked for further clarification from the planning officer, his boss, the solicitor – “we can’t tell someone consider who owns the business, can we?” A measure or two feigned angst: “I don’t like it anymore than you do, but our hands are tied.” One councillor pulled a Marie Antoinnette: “Over five thousand signatures in a town of six thousand? That’s …uh…um. Well, I don’t see why so much fuss over a cup of coffee. Humph.” And finally, an absurdly sarcastic councillor predicted that once it was in, Totnes would be thrilled with their new Costa. The entire chamber erupted with laughter.

The final vote was 17-6 in favour of Costa, who will soon move into the largest retail space in the lower part of the town, across the street from the Old Bakery. They’ll have 70 covers and will be in prime position to intercept plenty of tourist footfall. The landlord is based in London and refuses to lease the space to a local shop even through there have been three who wanted it and could afford the high rent. And now, apparently, the landlord is evicting a family who have lived above the shop for the last 20 years. But the No to Costa in Totnes campaign has not given up the fight, not by a long shot.

Fair enough some might say. Diving into the arcane “discipline” of planning policy is not for the easily bored. That’s part of its purpose, as is much in the way local regulations are developed, consulted, and propagated. But diving in might reveal that, in fact, the nameless, faceless bureaucrats were just doing their jobs, that the councillors hands were tied, that the system worked just as it was designed to do, minimising the fallible human element and maximising the smooth function of the free market.

But nameless, faceless bureaucrats and managers do make fallible human decisions without regard to justice, democracy, economic fairness, wisdom, compassion, collateral damage. It happens in every state government, in every multinational corporation, in every large organisation of just about every type, basically decent human beings, who love their families and want better lives for their kids, fill out the forms, tick the boxes, processing the inputs and outputs that keep the big machine running and the fortnightly direct deposits flowing. In their cubicles or corner offices, the ends of the chain of events in which they participate are perhaps so removed they’re not real, abstractions from a different department or continent, tangibly delinked from this pencil pressed to paper marking X in this box. And it’s in this incredibly innocuous harmless anonymity where it’s just a job and a cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee where anything is possible. Anything.

— Jay Tompt

Posted in One World Column.

What this illustrates is a complete and utter failure of local democracy. Thick councillors spouting what they are told to spout, failing to look at the evidence laid before them. Council jobsworth dictating to to councillors how to vote.

If local councils are simply going to rubber-stamp what is placed before them, what is the purpose of a local planning committee?

It is local people who are best placed to decide what is best for their locality, their community, the local economy, not councillors and not planners.

Look around the country and see how many town centres have been destroyed by local councils in the pocket of developers and Big Business.

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