Essex under pressure

I spent bank holiday Monday out in rural Essex with friends, supporting the local team fighting a council byelection.

Great Dunmow managed to look pretty despite the downpour. I’m not sure the same could be said of us. At one point, battered by wind, blinded by rain, canvass card, map and leaflets all disintegrating, and boots filling with water, the absurdity of it all set us laughing out loud. We squelched back to the HQ to find that there had been a power cut -a foretaste of the Sizewell shutdown? – but our host was cheerfully boiling water on his gas hob to make us tea. There was something very British about the whole thing.

But for all its traditional charms, this area of Essex is under great pressure. Vast housing developments overshadow their parent villages, with concerns about whether the slowdown in the housing market will create ghost towns. A new ecotown – a housing development with greenwash – is proposed for Elsenham. And the threat of Stansted Airport expansion is still the dominant local issue.

Giving people the chance to speak out on major developments is crucial to local democracy. The government’s new planning bill could change that. It will take major developments out of the current planning inquiry system, which gives communities a chance to speak. Instead it will pass them to a new quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, who will have the final say on airports, power stations, and the like.

The bill reaches report stage next week, with amendments tabled to restore the public’s right to be heard. Like wet bank holidays, that’s also something very British. It’s not just Essex that needs MPs to wake up and get this law right.

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