Most of us live where we live in North Wiltshire because we like it like it is. Or at least I presume that if we did not - if, for example, we craved the hustle and bustle of the city - then we would go and live in Bristol or Swindon. The reality is actually the opposite - more and more people want to live like we do and would give anything to come and live in North Wiltshire. The moral question at the heart of all planning is: “Do we have some kind of obligation to allow them to do so?”
Wiltshire Council are starting the long and tortuous process of trying to decide what the County will look like through until 2036. It’s what is known as the Local Plan, and it lays out the broad parameters of planning into the future. For reasons known only to themselves, the County are proposing to provide some 5000 more homes by 2036 than the Government is asking for. That will mean a real change in the way a large part of our area will look. It will mean houses, roads, infrastructure, employment land. Do we really want it?
Wiltshire has concluded that Chippenham, Trowbridge and Salisbury should take most of the extra housing needed (Swindon is done separately), so I guess that we should be glad that Malmesbury, Royal Wootton Bassett, Purton, Calne and Box will be relatively spared unreasonable over-development as a result. The first step towards achieving their housing targets looks like a new by-pass to the East of Chippenham, swathing through unspoiled countryside. Do we need a new bypass? Not really - there’s a perfectly good one to the West of the town. Nor must we be bribed by the £75 million the good old Government is shelling out for this road. It’s a bribe, because with it comes 7500 houses. That’s a new town the size of Calne, double the size of Malmesbury. It will mean 20,000 or so extra citizens of Chippenham; it will mean 10 or 15,000 more cars trying to weave their way to the supermarkets to the west of the town as well as to the station and motorway.
Now we do need some low-cost housing for local people. And no doubt some will be rather reluctantly provided by the profiteering developers. But most of the houses will be lovely three and four bed houses designed to attract well paid commuters. Our population and employment is currently more or less in balance, so why do we need all these extra houses? They are houses for people who do not presently live here. So why, you may well ask, are we planning to wreck a great patch of countryside in order to block up our roads with thousands of cars, overstretch our schools and surgeries and infrastructure, in order to provide nice houses for people from elsewhere? There’s no reason that I can think of.
The new road will sweep down from the Wavin roundabout (its already more or less completed from the Morrisons roundabout), round Abbeyfield School and the football ground, then across the meadows to the Lackham roundabout. Any land inside that curve will then be fair game for the developers - including large amounts of unspoiled farming and recreation ground.
Add to that a wholly unnecessary and hideous solar farm down beyond where the road will cross the A-4, and you land up with significant urbanisation half the way to Calne. If we allow either we will risk ruining the very fine environment which all of us who live here love so much.
So now is the time for action. Take up cudgels on behalf of our countryside, our quiet market towns and villages and stop the onward march of philistine developers. Letters, petitions, protests, judicial reviews. Let’s go for it. Let’s keep North Wiltshire how we like it - green and pleasant.
What do Ted Heath, Theresa May and Donald Trump have in common? Their reluctance to give up the levers of power and influence with a good grace must be just about the only thing.
Along with most of the world, I breathed a sigh of collective relief as we saw the end of the mad, bad, vulgar, self-obsessed Trump, and the arrival of the mild and apparently wound-healing Joe Biden, and the glamorous and highly competent Kamala Harris. They are taking on a tough job, but we all – of whatever our personal political inclination - wish them well in it. And well done to Vice President Pence for behaving in a more gentlemanly manner than his ex-boss and turning up at the important and symbolic Inauguration Ceremony.
Why Theresa May should have thought that a good moment to launch an (entirely unjustified) attack on Boris Johnson’s apparent lack of “moral government” is reminiscent of her equally foolish and ill-timed description of her own party as “The Nasty Party”. Does she not remember Ted Heath’s years of grumbling at his much-disliked successor, Margaret Thatcher? Is she not grateful that David Cameron has said not a squeak about her own disastrous premiership? Has she no loyalty to her own Party, or does self-disappointment over-ride it?
On the other side of the World, you may not have noticed an event in Mongolia – an independent Republic surrounded by those great dictatorships, China and Russia, whose Parliamentary system is based on Westminster’s since we were the first nation in the world to recognise them after Soviet times. The Mongolian Prime Minister and entire cabinet resigned this morning because their only Covid patient so far died being transferred between two hospitals in the Minus 25 degrees Celsius weather wearing only plastic hospital slippers. She died, apparently, not of Covid but of pneumonia. (There may be more to this story than meets the eye!) What a brave and honourable move.
Incidentally I hear very good things indeed about the roll-out of the vaccine in both Calne and Malmesbury, and the charm and efficiency with which is being achieved. So my thanks and congratulations to all of the professionals responsible.
I too stuck my neck out this week - rebelling against a three-line whip to vote in favour of Lord Alton’s amendment to the Trade Bill which aimed to stipulate that we should not trade with countries guilty of genocide. The 33 Tory rebels had China in particular in mind, and the fate of the Uighur people, who do indeed seem to be victims of genocide. Lord Alton may have erred by giving the decision to the courts, and it may well be reworded to make it a Parliamentary decision instead; but the principle remains the same, and I have no shame over my little rebellion. (Bang goes my knighthood- again!)
Politics should be about doing whatever you think is right, no matter what the consequences. Donald Trump and Theresa May could both take some lesson from the honourable PM of brave little Mongolia.
Just yesterday when I wrote this week’s Column I commented on a serious matter in the Westminster World - whether or not the current Covid-inspired arrangements were or were not good for Parliamentary democracy. That now seems a petty consideration by comparison with the developments overnight in America.
It is simply inconceivable that in an advanced democracy thousands of thugs supporting the losing side should think it reasonable to invade Capitol Hill and seek to disrupt the smooth transition of power. The Republicans demonstrably lost the election, reconfirmed by the unheard-of loss of two Senate seats in Georgia. The Democratic party, for good or ill, now control both the Senate and House of Representatives as well as having a duly elected President. So be it. That’s democracy for you.
What comfort it must be to corrupt dictatorships round the world to hear ‘The Leader of the Free World’ apparently incite his disappointed followers to seek to disrupt that very democratic process. By any standard of decent governance anywhere, it’s an absolute disgrace, and President Trump will leave office under a cloud of shame.
The Global Covid crisis (and the UK figures announced yesterday are horrific) demands at least good sound governance to deal with it - governance which the people respect and accept even if they dislike it. That principle seems to have broken down in the United States and it must be restored.
In our own little way, we here must make sure that Parliamentary procedures and practice equally deserve the respect of the electorate as a whole. Government must be seen to be fair and decent and strong. That’s why I am so keen to be certain that the Westminster Parliament behaves and is governed in a way that all of the people accept, even if they dislike it. If it does not, then we risk undermining the whole basis of decent Parliamentary democracy.
The excesses which are marking the end of the Trump era in the United States are symptomatic of something wider - the total failure of good governance. Decent government is all about making choices, taking decisions between or amongst competing interests and pressures. It’s about how you best use scarce resources for the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s about how you look after the weakest in society while not necessarily disadvantaging the better off or more competent. It’s about balancing off the short-term against the medium and long term; about ignoring popularity in favour of statesmanship while always being conscious of the fundamental electoral foundations of good democracy. It’s a complex business; which is why governments get things wrong from time to time; why they change course on occasion.
Trump, dictators of all kinds, ignore those delicate balances and sensibilities being certain that they are always right. He has taken it to absurd lengths by denying the undeniable fact that he lost the Election. It’s like Chemical Ali (or 'Comical Ali' as he turned out to be) broadcasting Saddam’s triumph as the American tanks rumbled into Baghdad.
Some of my Covid correspondents exhibit some of the same characteristics. There are the conspiracy theorists (QAnon and the Illuminati); there are the extreme deniers “Covid does not exist; it’s a figment of someone’s imagination; it’s no worse than a dose of flu”; there are the anti vaxxers ; there are the extreme libertarians who object to face masks and lockdowns; there are those with clear (if often incorrect ) views about the best way to roll out the vaccine; about how their military expertise from many years ago gives them expertise on testing regimes and how to make them work. It’s amazing how many expert epidemiologists and logisticians there are around; and astonishing how much their proven expertise so often fundamentally differs from the next correspondent with equally sound credentials.
The fact is that defeating this Pandemic is not a matter of conviction, nor of dogmatism; it’s a matter of flexibility, quick thinking determination to meet the enemy on its own ground and deploying whatever resources may be necessary. It’s the virus that’s in charge. It changes, mutates, flares, and the Government has to be ready to change its approach accordingly.
The fact is that we are in a straight race. It’s Virus Versus the Vaccine. We have to get enough people vaccinated before the virus overwhelms the hospitals. There are some signs that Lockdown may be starting to work - certainly in London and the South East with infection figures levelling off just a bit. Sadly, hospitalisations and deaths lag behind by perhaps a couple of weeks, so we will not see their peak until February, by which time substantial numbers of people will have been vaccinated.
So we have to hold our nerve. Strain every sinew to get the vaccine out. Observe the rules to the nth degree - avoiding if possible all human contact for another month or so. In everything we do we must presume either that we are asymptomatic and therefore a potential spreader, or that the person we are meeting may be. Either we or they have Covid and we must treat each other with all due respect as a result.
Trump is ignoring the realities of life. We must not do so.
It is quite right that Parliament has been recalled for a second time in this Christmas Recess to pass Lockdown Number Three into law. It is right that these things are scrutinised and approved by Parliament, not just by the Government. MPs must have a chance to raise specific questions about it all with the PM and Ministers, and this Recall is their moment..…. Sort of
For in a positively surreal way, the note from the Chief Whip recalling us all coincided with another note from Mr Speaker pleading with us all not to come back. It was a positively Alice in Wonderland moment. To be fair, the Leader of the House has now changed the rules with regard to remote participation in debates and statements, so that we can all have our say from home or our constituency offices. MPs have to log in electronically, ask for a chance to speak on a particular Parliamentary event; the names are selected at random by a computer and, if you are lucky, your name comes up.
However, perhaps because it can be done electronically, vastly more MPs than ever before are putting in to speak. It was 350 or so for the debate on this Lockdown. The PM’s Statement, the Statement on Education under Lockdown and then the substantive debate on the laws needed to make it all happen, all took place between 1130 AM and 7 PM including speeches from both Front Benches. So very probably no more than a hundred MPs were able to take part. And anyhow a time limited two minutes reading out a pre-prepared statement to one’s computer on the kitchen table hardly fulfils the highest standards of Parliamentary debate.
Not only is the debate pretty stilted, to say the least; but we are also effectively prevented from voting in person on the matter being debated. For a month or so at the start of Lockdown 1 we had a perfectly workmanlike remote electronic voting system. But the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg did not like it, perhaps out of concern that it would become a permanent fixture, and abandoned it. For a time it was only possible to vote in person in Parliament, but of course that cannot really be justified now that we are asking everyone else to stay at home. So they have brought in a ‘proxy’ system which in essence involves us handing our vote to the whips who vote on our behalf. I understand that the Government Deputy Chief Whip, for example, now holds about 250 votes.
I am afraid that, perhaps in line with so much else right now, the Parliamentary system is wholly unsatisfactory, and it cannot be allowed to continue. I am glad to serve on the Commons Procedure Committee which looks after these matters (or at least advises the Speaker and Leader, who may always ignore what we say). We are already turning our thoughts to how the Commons should look once the Pandemic is over. We are considering the elements of a proper Parliamentary debate; how to re-educate MPs who may have got a bit slack about the whole thing over Lockdown; and how to make the best use of some of the innovations we have seen as a result of the Pandemic.
The Commons is Surrealist, Alice-like for now. We must take steps to make sure that after the Pandemic is over we recreate it as the finest debating and decision-making chamber in the World. We more or less created Parliamentary democracy. We must now restore it.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.