by Olivia Hanks
I had the dubious privilege of being in the public gallery for the first meeting of the re-established Greater Norwich Development Partnership (GNDP) earlier this week. This board, made up of councillors from Norwich, South Norfolk and Broadland, is tasked with developing a strategic document, the Greater Norwich Local Plan (GNLP), which will dictate where housing, roads and other infrastructure will be built in the area over the next 20 years.
The meeting, which was scheduled to last from 3.30 until 5pm, finished at 4.10 with very little discussion having taken place. You might have thought that, having been successfully taken to the High Court for failing to consider alternative options during the creation of the GNLP’s predecessor the Joint Core Strategy (JCS — I promise that’s the last obscure abbreviation), the board would be asking itself a lot more questions this time around. Although it was admittedly a more or less introductory meeting, agreeing the board’s terms of reference and the next steps, there was an opportunity for comments, which was taken up by only three members.
This matters because these dozen men — and shockingly, they are all men; all white; none under 50 or so — are shaping the future of Norwich and the surrounding area. It matters because sometimes it is hard to spot the moment for intervention until it has already passed.
shockingly, they are all men; all white; none under 50 or so
A series of papers and meetings, each one drier than the last, obfuscates and complicates the issue until even the most dedicated observer is struggling to follow. Every step seems so small, so unobjectionable, that nobody even notices the point of no return. This is already evident in the GNLP process in the form of the ‘sustainability appraisal scoping report’. This document blandly sets out a collection of environmental issues and quotes from national planning policy.
At first glance, it appears harmless enough — but when you look closely, the omissions start to seem glaring. For instance, there is no explicit acknowledgement of the link between car use and carbon emissions. We’re talking pretty basic stuff. And this report sets the framework by which the sustainability of the Local Plan will be judged — so if it doesn’t mention that cars contribute to climate change, well, we can’t factor that in later when we decide whether to build a road.
The same thing happened with the Joint Core Strategy process. Possibly the most controversial issue in the whole scheme, the Norwich Northern Distributor Road, was included in all three options in the public consultation. All three proposed the same area, the ‘north-east growth triangle’ between Sprowston, Thorpe St Andrew and Rackheath, as the main locus of development. The really big questions, the ones the public really cared about, had somehow already been decided without anybody noticing. The judge at the judicial review in 2012 asked at one point whether the options had “sprung fully formed from the brow of Zeus”.
The really big questions, the ones the public really cared about, had somehow already been decided without anybody noticing.
This kind of insidious decision-making-by-omission is rife in government. For the most part, it is not the fault of local authorities: their power has been eroded so far that all they can do is carry out orders from Whitehall. In the devolution discussions and now on the GNDP, we hear again and again the justification: “This is what the government wants.”
So who is really making the decisions here? It can be difficult to tell. The GNDP is technically not a decision-making body, in that it will have to go back to the district councils for approval of the Local Plan. However, the option placed in front of those councils will be: accept this, or have no plan (P.S. this has cost a lot of money and you don’t have any). It might technically be a decision, but it is made in utter powerlessness.
he option placed in front of those councils will be: accept this, or have no plan
This is what our system of governance looks like now. If you want to know what a combined authority under the proposed devolution settlement might resemble, have a look at the GNDP — unrepresentative, disconnected, mostly unquestioning — and add in the considerable ego of an over-powerful, under-scrutinised mayor.
When there is no built-in scrutiny process, we as members of the public have to do that job ourselves. It was a local campaigning group, Stop Norwich Urbanisation (SNUB), who forced a review of the JCS; groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Wensum Valley Alliance are already on the alert. We need to send a message to the GNDP that we are watching closely, and demand a real say now, not a tick-box consultation when the game is already over.
The GNDP’s next meeting will be in late November.
Featured image via greaternorwich.co.uk