As we knew it would, and as we knew it must: the proposed large urban development to the west of Stevenage is again a ‘hot topic’ –at least where Stevenage Borough and North Herts. District Councils are concerned. But in reality, the issue goes much, much wider than that.
Perhaps it is helpful to remember that the boundaries of the local Authorities mentioned, as indeed those of any other District Authority you care to name, are, when it comes down to it, to a large extent arbitrary and a matter of convenience only. The setting of the boundaries has a history, of course, but they are basically only there for administrative purposes. Excepting perhaps an obvious distinction between (say) a built-up area and a more pastoral setting, those boundaries are invisible on the ground. Fundamental “conditions” existing either side of them do not conveniently begin or end on one side or the other.
Few of the people who live within such boundaries arrived as a result of conscious choice as to County, District, Parish or other administrative line on some map. Their choices relate to things like agriculture, local industry and commerce, employment prospects, geography, topography, highways, railways or other travel links, family history and current issues, good educational facilities, and to a very large extent the availability of affordable housing to buy or to rent locally.
Those respective personal ‘mixes’ of requirements and their availability form a complex patchwork, with concentrations of some and relative scarcities of others all overlapping one another more or less randomly. They totally override Authority boundaries as such. Meeting satisfactorily the legitimate local requirements of the British taxpayers can be achieved in only one or two broadly different ways:
- Provide or augment what is needed where people currently live and (hopefully) work.
- Encourage or facilitate the movement of the people to where their particular needs can better be met.
Principle influences upon which choice is made in any particular setting are things like land or space being available or not, and capital / revenue being available or not.
How much scope is there really at present for growth within the notoriously tight administrative and revenue-raising boundaries of a town like Stevenage?
See what I mean?
Whilst I served as a Stevenage Borough Councillor in Chells from 2004 to 2008 I also served for almost three of those years as an elected Member of the Eastern Region Housing & Sustainable Communities Panel. Let me tell you something of the Regional organisation about which it suits some people –Members of Parliament included- to be dismissive and even to try and deceive the electorate.
The first (entirely false) claim made has been:
The Regional set-up constitutes a third layer (or tier) of Government.
It cannot and does not.
The second (also false) charge levelled is that:
Regional Assemblies are unelected and unrepresentative / unaccountable.
In fact they are all elected.
Whether or not entirely due to such lies I do not know, but Central Government has decided in its ‘wisdom’ to disband the Regions. It is as if by some authoritative fiat whole ‘Regions’ of the country can somehow cease to exist.
And when their, Assemblies are gone, with what are we to be left? Small parochial District Authorities, blinkered, inward-looking, financially starved and, as we observe locally, bickering in futility with one another about issues that neither of them alone can even fully comprehend!
And of course ruling in majestic isolation above their heads is “Big Government” obliged to try somehow, with no suitable mechanism for the purpose, to make sense of the plethora of mutually hostile local factions, and to try to formulate some sensible pattern for meeting at least the most pressing needs of communities that differ so much in detail from place to place.
Housing is not, nor should any attempt be made to turn Affordable Housing into, a Party political football. No one Party has a monopoly upon compassion, understanding or intellect and ideas. On the Regional Assembly all the Parties were fairly represented. And every one involved had a solid mandate, gained through the ballot-box, from their own respective local Authorities. So they were elected, and they were accountable and they were representative.
I was there among others as a Liberal Democrat. Councillor Sharon Taylor for Labour was there as also Councillor John Gardner, to name but a few. With our local knowledge and experience we were able to meet together and formulate “the larger picture” but also with a detailed knowledge of the local variance of need and provision. In broad terms only it is true, but the “Regions” as delineated really do have features specific to themselves which differ from those of other Regions. With close links to the Office of The Deputy Prime Minister, it was possible to assemble Region-wide data, and to formulate a meaningful representation of what was needed, and where. Remember these were all-Party co-operations. Having local accountability but being regionally oriented, it became possible to arrive at clear pictures of provision needed, and to be able to map it over the region to show focuses of special local requirement.
The West of Stevenage Housing and Community Development
That is where the West Of Stevenage Development Plan came from, and it is NOT the business or prerogative now of the pettifogging Local politicos to squabble over it, nor claim either credit or special entitlement. Significant provision of affordable housing in those quantities in that location and for accurately identified reasons is highly relevant to what British Tax-payers need, and are entitled to. I personally and roundly condemn all the NIMBYs. and self-interested, self-important, and blindly ‘conservationist’ (given all the powerful and overriding factors involved) who want to deny that basic human right!
On a calmer, more reflective note, let me make mention of the real economic and social advantages that will flow to both Stevenage AND North Herts. as a direct result of such a strategy. Stevenage has already with considerable foresight, energy and vision created the basic foundation for a booming commercial and manufacturing centre within easy reach of three major airports, a singularly conveniently placed motorway network, good rail links into London and the North. We have an unemployment challenge which can be met when we can attract serious Business and Manufacture back to this locality once more. We have the opportunity -not to create random urban sprawl but- well thought-out communities with the full range of services in a style and to a standard not governed by trying to fit a quart into a pint pot, or to shoehorn big athletic feet into gym slippers.
To whatever Party you may give your allegiance, this issue is much bigger than Party ideologies. This is at least in part about the kind of Britain we want to pass on to our children and their heirs also. This is real need, and no pipe-dream. Let’s get together and go for it
Leonard Lambert is a Stevenage resident and formaer Stevenage Borough councillor.