Last evening I attended the South Cambridgeshire District Council’s Civic Affairs Committee Meeting as a member of the public, albeit wearing my Parish Council Planning Committee Chairman’s hat.
Under consideration was a petition from businesses and residents in a portion of Willingham village which, for historical reasons, is actually across the border and in the neighbouring village of Over, although it adjoins Willingham and is separated from Over by more than a mile of open countryside.
It’s a good job there was no flammable liquid to hand because self-immolation was becoming an increasingly tempting option as the evening wore on. This was essentially a single agenda meeting and it took 2 1/2 hours. As a member of the public, I was not allowed to speak.
It should have been simple. The Guidance says: “The .. council must have regard to the need to secure that community governance within the area under review .. reflects the identities and interests of the community in that area.”
The people and businesses in the area want to be in Willingham. Therefore, according to the Guidance, they should be in Willingham.
Over Parish Council objects to moving the boundary. Nobody knows why, and they didn’t say. The best I could glean was because 400 years.
Various District Councillors are also against it, and it is even harder to understand why. They never addressed the point, but did argue themselves into corners on several occasions.
One Councillor briefly raised the question of cost, but not what the cost related to – it seems the cost of debating this must now dwarf the cost of actually changing the boundary, but to discover whether that was true would have required the injection of facts into what was an almost fact-free evening.
The petitioner was asked what tangible benefits would be seen if the boundary were to be changed – even though this is not a criterion for judging whether it should be moved. He related the trouble some businesses have with deliveries, where lorry drivers first go to Over, then start looking for the business park. There is a business park in Over, so they drive around there for a while and eventually give up and phone.
The Councillors then became obsessed with SatNavs and postcodes, speculating on whether deliveries really would get lost – despite having just been told that they did. An anecdote about a villager who regularly misses having her bin collected was related. Her Councillor always tells her to ring the relevant department, and the first thing they ask for is the postcode, thus intending to emphasise the postcode’s importance but entirely failing to see that even with it she was not getting her bins emptied.
Another proposed benefit was that building a footpath to the business park might be possible. This was dismissed as “pie in the sky” by the Over representative because nobody would fund a footpath which was 1.25 miles long. A footpath to Willingham would be 75 metres.
Several Councillors expressed themselves “unable to grasp the concept” that all that would be achieved was the moving of a line on a map. This is entirely the point, despite another claim that to change the boundary would in effect be a “land grab;” no land ownership is in any way affected by parish boundaries.
One final irrelevance: it was observed by another Councillor that there are many anomalies like this in Cambridgeshire village boundaries. I’m not sure why he raised this because he didn’t say how it was connected. I assumed because they would then all want to change (some already have) but again, he didn’t say why that would be an issue. In fact, the Guidance does have something to say: “a [review] offers an opportunity to put in place strong, clearly defined boundaries, tied to firm ground features, and remove the many anomalous parish boundaries that exist in England.”
It may be my political naïveté, but there appeared to be an unspoken commitment amongst the objecting Councillors (by no means all Conservative) that “nothing must change.” Ever.
How did it end? Astonishingly, with a compromise: the decision was deferred for 4 weeks so that Willingham and Over Parish Councils can meet and agree a way forward. It has taken an alarming amount of time and effort to get to what should have been the starting point.
It has also shown me that logic, reason and plain-speaking are strangers to local politics, and I can only thank my lucky stars that most of these meetings take place when I am at work and therefore cannot attend.