It occurs to me that many readers might be unaware that I served, for a time, as a councillor on Wargrave Parish Council. For transparency’s sake, I’m reiterating it now.
You see, with the exception of Leigh Town Council, Southend doesn’t have a lower tier of local government. And lately I’ve been wondering if it wouldn’t benefit from the addition.
Parish and town councils are traditionally the lowest level of local government, giving a forum for local residents on issues like planning and… Well, what I remember is mostly planning, but I think there were benches and Christmas trees too.
The standard answer to the addition of another level of government is no — notice how nobody rushed to shake my hand when I went back to regional assemblies? But I think there’s a lot of promise in devolving power down to the grassroots, so to speak.
The planning issue is the big one. Even with town and parish councils, planning decisions are still made at the district/borough council level. But what parish councils do is give residents of the immediate area a place to air their views, a little more locally than the Development Control Committee.
Parish councils can’t block an application, but they submit a recommendation or an objection up the chain to the planning authorities. When I was on Wargrave, a huge number of them were overruled by Wokingham Borough Council, but we had a voice, at least.
The reason that the idea occurs to me, is that there have of late been a few controversial planning decisions which have caused a lot of upset in Southend, and have left a lot of residents feeling that their voices have been overruled and ignored. Two in particular occur, and these are the areas which I feel could benefit from their own parish councils.
The first is the town centre area. Southend town centre is a hugely overdeveloped area, in part as a result of pushback from other areas of the town. You might notice, perhaps, that Leigh both has a town council and has resisted overdevelopment.
There are a few proposed developments at present on the seafront, in Kursaal and Milton wards. They haven’t yet passed Development Control, but hold that thought for the moment. The developments are resisted by residents and local councillors (Well, the ones who aren’t on holiday… -Ed), but as my friend and Labour councillor for Kursaal Anne Jones has pointed out, she needs resident involvement in objections to bring a weight of public opinion to the committee.
A Southend Town Council would be one way to address that problem. It would give residents a more consolidated voice when lobbying Southend Borough Council, and help to preserve a distinct identity for the town centre area itself.
The other area I think well suited to a parish council, is Shoeburyness.
The issues around the sea defences and the Garrison homes plan are well documented across the internet and various other sources, and do not need rehashing here. What I would highlight, though, is that this is one example of the community being shut out of the process. In their infinite wisdom the last Tory administration decided to take a collective objection from over a thousand people as a single objection, doubtless a way of watering down the weight of public ill-feeling towards the project.
Now you can believe that Shoebury needs flood defences whilst still believing that the approach adopted by the Holdcroft administration was a catalogue of how not to do it — which, actually, I do; though I have grave reservations about some of the revelations coming out about the project. The fact is that a parish council could allow for a debate amongst residents, and the submitting of a collective, authoritative response to a planning application.
Maybe it would usher in an era of nimbyism, maybe it wouldn’t. What it would do is give an avenue for ordinary residents to engage with a planning process which looks, from the outside, labyrinthine and confusing (Mostly because it is… -Ed).
This is, of course, just me musing. I’d be very interested to hear what other commentators, and residents, think about this. In this blogger’s opinion, it could be the shot in the arm that inclusive, localist democracy needs.