I remember the time, way back, when the school RI syllabus changed from (Christian) Bible Study to Comparative Religion – a far more interesting, more-inclusive, approach that opened our young minds to a world we would not have encountered.
Ever since, I’ve approached any challenging study by standing back and surveying the wider scene. The thorny topic of how we are, or perhaps could be, governed is a classic case. How often do we recall the theme tune of The Magic Roundabout, and Dougal, shaking his head sorrowfully and muttering, ‘ What a way to run a railway ’.
The governance question is particularly relevant at this Covid time. The downsides of a highly centralised regime are only too apparent. But alternatives are difficult to imagine. We have a complex mix of Metro, County and Local bodies, with competing tensions, widely different community needs, vested interests, and arcane budget formulae whose rationale seems lost in ancient history – as we call last year.
So I found myself listening to Bo Frank – not least because, back in 2010, I led a Scottish delegation to Sweden in search of Full Fibre futures. Bo was Mayor of a town we didn’t visit, but one that seems typical of the many places we explored.
Växjö’s overall population is comparable to Fareham, and similarly spread over several communities. Bo Frank was Mayor or deputy mayor from 1991-2016 and is now president of the council. The place also has a strong boating community – albeit an inland lake rather than the Solent or Portsmouth harbour. It was that lake, or rather its pollution, that in 1996 set the communities on a determined environmental mission to become fossil free by 2030 – and there the similarities end.
There is no substitute for listening to this 22-minute podcast via Spotify. Settle down and absorb the many differences between Fareham and Växjö. Then ask yourself what Fareham Borough Council would do if it had the same sense of responsibility and authority as Växjö. Suggestions welcome in the comments section below.
Don’t be daft. Whoever heard of ‘Fareham’ at the G20? Or the World Trade Organisation?
Why not? You may not have traveled much, but have you never thought you might be part of a bigger picture?
But hang on, surely isn’t that why we’ve got all those clever clogs at the Foreign Office?
Precisely. Clever clogs. Thousands of them, mostly caught up in the complex cogwheels of trade agreements and international affairs – all desperately leaning on giant levers in some superior signal box (Grade II listed) hoping to divert the next train crash.
So, your point is?
My point, Sir, is that them up there do far less than half the job, and the rest is down to us – not that they’d admit it. They do what they think is the hard stuff. But none of that works out if we don’t deliver the soft power.
Foreign Policy has two elements – hard and soft. They – that lot up in London – are the hard power merchants, all carrots and sticks, negotiating bribes and sanctions. But we, all of us, have the soft power – the WD40 willpower that eases the rust, bolsters the trust, and keeps the show on the road.
But what’s all that to do with Fareham? And how can anyone talk about refining something that isn’t very obvious? And, anyway, who gave us permission to do any of this?
Stop scratching your head. Go ask your children. Ask them what languages they’re learning at school. Ask them if they’ve seen any foreign films recently or played any games made in Japan or China or India. Ask if they have any mates in Sweden, or Scotland, or wherever. Ask them where on this planet they will choose to study. Ask if they’ve read any international best sellers written by authors from Portchester, or streamed music on their smartphones.
And ask yourself how many friends you know around the world, or where you went on holiday, or what sort of cookbooks are on your kitchen shelf, or where your car was made. Where are the boundaries of your worlds? The other side of Southampton or Portsmouth? Are there dragons over there? Does your Far North start at Winchester or Reading?
Soft Power is all the stuff that the central government doesn’t get. The value of trusted reputations and informal connections. The need to work with neighbours. The value of a critical (and trusted) BBC. Taking a tough line on tax evasion and offshore fiddling. The vital necessity of giving Covid-19 vaccines to impoverished countries not blessed with an NHS. The mind-stretching value of public libraries. The entire point of Overseas Aid. The need to be seen leading responses to the climate crisis – and not just by stopping pollution of the Solent. The value of cutting corruption and sharing our good fortune to help those less fortunate – not least asylum seekers.
So how do we invest in this extraordinary Soft Power of our communities?
It is not that unusual for UK Local Governments to have Foreign Policies. Anyone who has ever thought for a nanosecond about our local economy will know the massive importance of pan-European and wider global connections for inward investment. Some communities (for example, Bristol) have a dedicated senior director of international relations.
Here in Fareham we don’t fare too badly – we have biennial cultural exchanges with a distant part of Brittany, and a not-so-small small town in Germany, and very strong links through the maritime, aerospace and education sectors – but there is so much more that we could be doing, and (this is important) not just for ourselves.
And so much more we could be doing to help the central government with Foreign Policy priorities. Have they not thought about getting the G20 to sort out a global rescue plan to offset Covid-19 damage like the UK did for the 2008 banking bother? Do they not understand that the climate cannot be bribed or sanctioned?
In retrospect, those 1980s privatisations were not, perhaps, such a very good idea – and that’s something we can track and trace through the Covid-19 experience. But that market fad for demutualisation was even worse – particularly now the value of sticking together is blown and we urgently need to rebuild well-regulated cooperative relationships.
Suggestions for refining Fareham’s Foreign Policy are always welcome. Especially as most of our communities may not even realise we’ve ever had such a thing.
Gosport MP Caroline Dinenage recently called for decisions on two proposed housing developments in Fareham’s Strategic Gap to be taken away from the Planning Inspectorate, and ruled on instead by the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick.
Yes, that Robert Jenrick! The Minister many say should resign because of his part in giving newspaper tycoon Richard Desmond permission for a huge London property development the day before it would have become liable to a £50million Community Infrastructure Levy.
(Community Infrastructure Levy – CIL – is not some obscure, punitive tax imposed at the whim of a Council which Mr Desmond described as “Marxists”. It’s the contribution developers all over the country pay to councils to provide facilities like schools, clinics, road improvements and play areas – the infrastructure put under strain by new housing developments.)
As it happens, Fareham’s Planning Committee this week voted unanimously against the two proposed developments, totalling 190 homes in the countryside between Newgate Lane and the new relief road. (Full story here). But the developers had already appealed because of delay in considering them, so they will go to the Planning Inspectorate.
Fareham’s planning officers cited 14 issues on which the proposals conflict with the Borough’s adopted policy, and elected planning councillors voted 8-0 to back their recommendation of refusal.
It’s disappointing that this clear local consensus should have to be re-examined by an outside official. But at least we have the comfort that HM Planning Inspectors have made several recent rulings protecting Fareham’s Strategic Gap, which benefits Gosport as well as Fareham.
It’s hard to see why Gosport’s MP believes that Robert Jenrick would be a better friend to our countryside. And indeed, any Housing Minister appointed by Boris Johnson should be regarded with suspicion. Johnson’s henchman – some say puppet-master – Dominic Cummings is said to believe that MORE planning decisions should be taken away from local councils and given to Whitehall.
Fareham’s Conservative councillors blame central government for the increasing demands for more house-building. But it’s not so long since those same Tory councillors were standing outside polling stations urging us to vote for – you’ve guessed it – THIS government.
With the long lockdown, the calamities and the clapping, the confusions and cracks exposed, some things became blindingly obvious. These things may well have been obvious before – but only with Covid 19 did we really ‘get it’. Now we have a list of urgent actions. Stuff that must not be forgotten. Stuff that must be remedied.
I wonder what’s top of your list. Hands up if you found working from home easy? Keep them up if your broadband was brilliant – no lag on the line, rapid downloads and uploads, smooth video calls with great audio – and the doctor available for remote consultation at the touch of a button.
TV news may well have done more than anyone to show up the weaknesses in the UK’s broadband – the oddly distorted voices, the long gaps and nodding heads, the sudden picture freezing, the collapsing conference call – but, when they got their act together, the brilliant multi-player synchronised productions.
To work properly the networks need fibre – but we knew that back in 1990 when the Tory government barred BT’s plan so as to not queer the pitch for CableTV providers from the USA or Murdoch’s SatelliteTV. Most of the UK’s franchises for Cable have now ended up with Virgin Media (VM). Meanwhile BT has soldiered on with its old copper network. Both BT and VM have done their best to deliver broadband – but both now recognise that taking fibre only as far as their street cabinets is nowhere near broadband enough.
BT’s Superfast fibre was never super, fast, or fibre if the signals must be squeezed through old copper pairs to reach your home. VM faired only slightly better because their copper coaxial cables from the cabinets were a little shorter and able to carry faster signals, leastways in one direction. But both BT’s FTTC and VM’s Cable are still outpaced by ‘Full Fibre’ to your home or office.
The good news is that it can be found. The bad news is that it cannot be found everywhere – and it costs a lot. If you really want Full Fibre broadband at a reasonable price, you should move to villages in rural Lancashire where properly engineered very fast 2-way 1000Mb/s low latency services will cost just £30 per month.
So why not here? Because we’ve not been bothered to demand better. Because it’s not been a priority. Because we left it to the market. Because we didn’t think it important – until we really desperately needed it. But we are not alone. The UK’s fibre network is way behind others because of a lack of investment. Far better, they thought, to squeeze that last drop of profit from old copper cables before giving customers a really useful service.
As in so many Covidised quarters, the time for excuses is over. The time for being led by markets that have only short-term profit interests has passed. The time for sleeping on the job and not being fully aware of citizen and business needs has ended. Top of my list is a campaign to bring Full Fibre investment to Fareham without any further delay.
The laser light of Covid-19 has pinpoint accuracy. It also has a surprisingly therapeutic effect – it stimulates imaginations.
For decades now we have looked with envy at modern parliamentary design and the transforming impact of digital technologies. Electronic voting, presentation facilities, scope for remote inputs, easier debate management and greater citizen engagement – all these capacities serve democracy well but they shine particularly brightly under the spotlight of the current crisis.
Even in Westminster, a rapid fix to allow MPs to work from home showed what might be possible with a digital makeover. It was, of course, far from perfect and exposed many weaknesses – chiefly poor connectivity and a lack of digital dexterity. But it also exposed a harsher truth. The normal reliance on the baying mob to drown voices of opposition was briefly absent and may perhaps have raised the level of debate. This digital dalliance has been all too brief. Having demonstrated what might be possible, the Tory Leader of the House wants the bear pit to return, bringing back oral conflict and amateur dramatics in the cause of misrepresentation of the people.
Meanwhile locally, here in Fareham, the democratic response to Covid-19 has been muted. There was never much debate and even less engagement with community members. Decisions were never exactly behind closed doors but discussed by very few voices. Who knew that we could now all watch the debate and see the planners’ slides at last week’s Planning Committee meeting? And residents making deputations about particular plans were not able to speak, but had their statements read out by a member of staff.
Council officers worked hard to enable even that limited debate when physical meetings are impossible – but they had been let down before they started by years of failure to invest in digital democracy.
Ten-year old children online to their teachers might have fared better than their digitally disconnected parents – but also, for far too many, the complexity, quality and costs of decent broadband have also been barriers to engagement in a town that used to be in the forefront of technical developemnts.. Fortunately the spotlight of imagination is not only highlighting our failures but also giving us a glimpse of a brighter future, which we’ll discuss in a later article..
The Solent is polluted and local councils have a legal obligation to improve the quality of it.
The level of nitrates is one pollutant which causes an algal bloom on mud which suffocates worms and other invertebrates which are an important source of food for wildlife. The main sources of nitrates are fertiliser run off from farms and human wastewater from houses.
People do need new homes but house building around the Solent is on hold as this would increase the amount of nitrate entering the Solent.
There is no government strategy in place to resolve this impasse. Although I wouldn’t put it past them to relax the rules and sacrifice the environment even more.
Options include reducing farming activity. But as we are leaving the EU and we already grow less than half of the food we eat, this does not look like a good long term option.
This is however the approach not only supported by Fareham MP (and Attorney General) Suella Braverman, but also by Cllr.Woodward, leader of Fareham council.
He would like to see the fines imposed on Southern Water for failures of its pollution control, to be used to buy farmland and stop farming. This would allow houses to be built using up the “nitrate credit” from reduced farming. In effect, subsidising rich builders to get even richer.
But this approach does not meet the legal requirement to IMPROVE the bad environment. Commenting on a recent planning appeal in Warsash, the inspector said he was not convinced that this mitigation of nitrate levels would work in “perpetuity”. My interpretation of his words is that he thinks once houses are built the nitrate issue may be quietly brushed under the carpet.
A better approach would be to invest in removing the nitrates from the waste water (both human and farm). The recovered nitrate could be recycled back into fertiliser and sold. The environment improves and everyone is happy. Pie in the sky? Why not? I’ve seen more difficult pies than this baked.
One thing we now know without a doubt, is that the environment needs care. It’s the only one we’ve got.
The timetable for approving Fareham’s Local Plan will have to be re-assessed. With most of life and endeavour currently on hold, the only certainty is that plans will change once the plague has passed.
The urgent and very necessary responses needed to combat COVID-19 have ensured that there will be no ‘getting back to normal’ – leastways, it will be some new kind of normality.
I believe the pre-pandemic timetable for our Local Plan must be changed for three reasons.
Firstly, the priorities demanded by Westminster will, inevitably, be changed. Almost certainly priorities for Health, Housing, Education and Economic reconstruction will need to be reviewed. It may be expected that infrastructure priorities will be redefined, with Roads and Rail investments seeming less vital than transition to full fibre connectivity.
Secondly, the case for greener planning has shifted beyond debate. The pattern of economic stimulus applied after the 2008 global crash cannot be replicated. Public investments will, this time around, demand public return – and that means far more than job recreation. The investment justifications must also demand pro-active support for commercial efforts to combat climate change.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the Local Plan as it stands has no democratic mandate. If the May 2020 local elections had gone ahead our communities would have known exactly what they were voting for. In earlier commentary we had questioned the adequacy of Local Plan consultation. In the post-pandemic rebuilding of the UK we will campaign for far greater devolution of authority to Local Authorities – a shift away from the over-centralisation of recent decades.
It will take some time for our country and communities to recover. We should certainly not crash on with any Local Plan based on old ideas without the support of local people.
Land has been earmarked alongside the Fareham-Eastleigh railway line for a station to serve the planned 6,000-home garden village at Welborne. Fareham Lib Dems strongly support the idea – our Planning and Development spokesman Cllr Jim Forrest has convened meetings between Council officers and rail chiefs to advance the project.
Fareham Council has put the case for a Welborne station in its response to a consultation by Transport for the South East. However, the Council quotes a cost of £68-78million, based on a study by Network Rail. That figure assumes “maximum risk” for all aspects of the project, with provision of station buildings from the outset. The pressure group Railfuture estimates a basic station could be provided at much lower cost in the early stages of Welborne. See details here.
A single-platform station at Cranbrook, Devon, a similar development to Welborne, opened in 2015 at a cost of £5million.
Giving residents access to a rail link from the start would encourage rail travel rather than car use, building a customer base which would enable a more elaborate station to be developed as the village grows.
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