On 24 January 2022 I gave evidence to the examination by government inspectors of the proposed scheme for the A417 which has been hotly debated for more than 20 years. Despite all the years of delay the scheme the government is proposing still raises landscape, environmental, cultural and even new road safety concerns. And they wouldn’t pay for the schemes found to be have the best environmental, social and economic outcomes. Read my take on the A417 here.
There have been a few compromises and defeats along the way but this afternoon, after more than 40 years of local campaigning, most of Leckhampton’s much-loved green fields around Kidnappers’ Lane and Farm Lane will today be designated as a protected Local Green Space when the new Cheltenham Plan is adopted by the borough council.
The green fields are an oasis of green space, ancient hedgerows and accessible pathways, the last remnant within the borough of Cheltenham of the medieval pattern of small fields, meadows and smallholdings that once characterised most of this area. Thousands of local people have joined repeated campaigns to fend off the loss of the entire area almost all of which has been optioned by developers.
As well as protecting much of the green space, today’s Cheltenham Plan, in accordance with the hotly contested Joint Core Strategy agreed with Gloucester and Tewkesbury, also allows space for at least 250 new homes, most of them next to the Shurdington Road in the so-called ‘northern fields’ with some going on old nursery sites further up Kidnappers Lane. Since hundreds of new homes have also just been built at the corner of Farm Lane and Leckhampton Lane (permitted against furious local opposition by the neighbouring borough of Tewkesbury), the Leckhampton community is currently contributing more to local housing need than most other parts of Cheltenham. And thanks to the county council literally moving the goalposts, a new secondary school is also expected to be built on fields that were previously agreed to be remaining entirely green as playing fields. Your local Lib Dem councillors Iain Dobie and myself have fought to ensure that at least the buildings are more environmentally friendly and local hedgerows and natural habitats are protected in the process. And while many planning inspectors’ enquiries have supported campaigners in protecting the valued green fields for their rural character, the most recent inspector arbitrarily reduced the size of the Local Green Space designation which could be protected.
The Local Green Space designation didn’t even exist 40 years ago and the whole area was ‘safeguarded’ for future development. Campaigners like local Liberal councillor Kit Braunholtz and my father Don Horwood couldn’t claim the area enjoyed the chocolate box landscape of the nearby Cotswolds AONB or many particularly rare species that would have earned scientific protection nor was any of the area recognised under archaic ‘village green’ laws. But they rallied thousands of local people under the banner of the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group. Wider opinion about the environment was already changing too: the value of local green spaces to peoples’ mental and physical health, their biodiversity and ‘ecosytem services’ in reducing carbon emissions, filtering out air pollution, absorbing flood water and providing free recreation were all gaining more recognition.
In 2006 a previous Cheltenham Plan introduced by the Lib Dem administration recognised the area’s unique rural character and importance but the threats were still there: Labour’s top-down Regional Spatial Strategy or RSS threatened to overturn local plans and impose urban sprawl on Leckhampton, sacrificing all the green fields. I had just become an MP and wrote a new policy for the Lib Dem opposition which would create a new designation that offered a high level of protection on the basis of a green space’s well-established importance to local people, not just to great crested newts or landscape painters. This policy made it into the Lib Dem manifesto in 2010 and from there straight into the new coalition’s Programme for Government. The coalition quickly abolished Labour’s toxic RSS and, against all the odds, the new Local Green Space designation made it into the new National Planning Policy Framework in 2012. Some councils (like Tewkesbury) largely ignored it but Cheltenham’s Lib Dem administration enthusiastically planned to designate dozens of vital green spaces across Cheltenham’s urban area including the Leckhampton fields. In all 16 will be designated today including vital green spaces in Fairview, St.Mark’s, Hesters Way, Benhall, Charlton Park and Hatherley.
While this process ground slowly forward, Leckhampton’s active Parish Council picked up where the early campaigners left off and fought tooth and nail alongside local borough councillors to protect the fields from overdevelopment based on growth-based housing projections often way in excess of local housing need.
The outcome isn’t the complete protection of the whole area my father and others originally campaigned for but councils rightly have to strike a balance between the genuine pressures for new homes and schools and the need to protect the most important green spaces for local people and particularly the children who will live in those homes and go to those schools. I’m proud that Cheltenham Borough Council has managed to square that awkward circle and will today deliver the strong protection for most of the Leckhampton fields for which we have campaigned for decades – and proud to have played my own part over decades.
We now have to make sure this protection is defended against reviews of the Joint Core Strategy, planning “reforms” by the new Conservative government and the constant, well-funded pressure of developers. We can develop our own Neighbourhood Plan and plan to encourage use of the green fields and educate everyone about their importance to our own health and wellbeing, our community and the local and global environment.
Parish and borough councillor Martin Horwood, 20 July 2020
Yesterday in the European Parliament I raised the contradiction between Foreign Sec Raab’s support for JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and Boris Johnson’s call to replace it with a ‘Trump deal’.
Yesterday in the European Parliament I raised the contradiction between Foreign Sec Raab’s support for JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and Boris Johnson’s call to replace it with a ‘Trump deal’.
If you’re worried about pedestrianisation, traffic congestion and public transport, take a look at how one European city has tackled them – and the climate emergency.
Science matters, so I visited the Royal Society to get a better understanding of the impact Brexit is already having on UK science and the impact actually leaving might have.
The best deal for the future of British science is the one we already have. We must stop Brexit to safeguard the future of British science.
Martin has never believed that the best way to help the homeless or make homes affordable was to build all over the countryside. So he has always strongly supported campaigns to protect treasured green spaces around Cheltenham.
But he welcomed Lib Dem-run Cheltenham Borough Council’s new local plan, adopted in 2020, which will allow several hundred new homes (not the thousands that once threatened to engulf all our local green fields) and a brand new secondary school aimed at local children as well as permanently protecting 26 hectares of Leckhampton’s precious green fields.
And just recently he moved a motion at a council meeting to defend the 16 Local Green Spaces now designated across Cheltenham in any future round of planning at neighbourhood, borough or joint authority level.
As an opposition MP, Martin developed a policy for the Liberal Democrats which was then implemented by the 2010-15 coalition government as the Local Green Space designation. It provides protection for local green spaces not for their landscape value or scientific importance but simply because they are important to local people – providing free recreation and quiet enjoyment, growing local food, improving physical and mental health and absorbing both CO2 and dangerous particulate pollution.
It’s been a long battle. For 40 years, Martin and other local campaigners have had to fight planners who wanted all of Leckhampton’s green fields “safeguarded” (!) for future development, then Labour’s centrally-driven Regional Spatial Strategies and now Conservative attempts to let developers ride roughshod over local plans.
As Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury councils worked together to develop their own Joint Core Strategy, Martin consistently lobbied for enough housing for local people in need but not the tens of thousands required by a strategy based on economic growth regardless of environmental consequences. In particular he lobbied hard against the loss of precious green spaces at Leckhampton, Chargrove and Springbank. This was made difficult because neighbouring councillors like Tewkesbury Conservative councillor Derek Davies condemned Cheltenham Lib Dem councillors as ‘greedy’ and ‘precious’ for trying to protect Leckhampton and regularly blocked moves by Cheltenham to protect key green spaces. In the end the JCS ruled out a huge ‘strategic’ development at Leckhampton, reducing the likely housing there from over a thousand houses to a couple of hundred and with most of the green fields permanently protected.
At the 11th hour, the Conservative-run county council moved the planned school onto land they had previously agreed would be protected green space while an unelected government inspector arbitrarily ordered the Local Green Space to be reduced in size. So less green space has been protected than originally planned but we can still look forward to new homes and the new school and 26 hectares of green space for new residents and students to enjoy along with everyone else.
Martin’s father, Don Horwood, was one of the founders of the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group (‘Leglag’) and Martin joined at an early age. When he returned to Leckhampton with his own family and his children began attending local schools and nurseries the need to protect a green, safe and healthy local area for the future became even more personal.
Martin believes more homes should be built on brownfield sites and in mixed use developments as they have been at Leckhampton View and in St.Paul’s, the Brewery and North Place in Cheltenham, in urban city centres in need of regeneration and close to smaller villages and market towns whose shops, post offices, pubs and schools are closing for lack of people.
Martin has also called for more action to support rural housing (for instance in and around farms) where it is wanted and needed, tougher measures to bring more of the UK’s 850,000 empty homes back into use and new powers at local level to encourage the buying and building of more social housing for rent which is where the need is greatest.
Martin passionately believes Brexit was wrong for this country. He still believes our future safety, prosperity, environment and culture will all benefit from membership of the European Union. Even Leave voters must now despair of the Conservative government’s inept and disunited approach both to the EU negotiations and the continuing problems caused by Brexit which have been masked by the Covid epidemic but will become incresaingly clear as busibesses continue to struggle to export goods and services, all organisations struggle to recruit staff and everyone from Ukrainian refugees to British holidaymakers face more and more bureaucracy that just didn’t exist when we part of the EU.
Martin supported the British people having the final say on the Brexit plan with the option to vote to remain in the EU after all. That chance was lost after just 43% of voters backed Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the 2019 general election. Only our crazy voting system delivered the ‘landslide’ majority he needed to push Brexit through.
As the Lib Dem party spokesperson on Europe in the 2010-15 parliament, Martin repeatedly confronted anti-European Conservative and Labour MPs who were pressing then Prime Minister David Cameron to bring in the Referendum Bill.
During the referendum campaign itself, Martin put a strong case for Britain remaining in the European Union. He still believes EU membership is:
- The best guarantee of British jobs and future prosperity, through our full membership of the world’s largest single market
- Enormously important for tackling cross-border organised crime, people trafficking and terrorism, and for bringing British and other EU criminal suspects to justice through the European Arrest Warrant and EU agencies such as Europol
- The best way for Britain to find its voice in highly competitive global negotiations on everything from climate change to world trade
- The best way of safeguarding the environment which transcends national boundaries and requires co-ordinated action for its protection
- An effective guarantor of many human rights, consumer protections and employment rights
- An enormously important cultural, educational and scientific benefit to the UK, and in particular for future generations.
Martin told local businesses during the campaign: “Cheltenham businesses, from high-end engineering firms to the social care sector, benefit from millions in investment from within the EU and employ hundreds of people from other European Union countries and would in many cases struggle to fill those posts if visa or residence qualifications ever got in the way. Our businesses benefit from their skills and productivity, the UK benefits from the taxes they pay – and of course we get the right to live, work, study, sell our goods and services and even retire anywhere in Europe on the same terms as local citizens. Why would we throw all that into doubt with a costly and uncertain divorce from Europe?“
Sadly, the vote for Brexit has already damaged the UK. It was followed by an immediate drop in the value of the pound, business confidence and investment has faltered, the NHS, public sector and many companies now face a crisis in recruitment and retention of valued European staff and young people feel rightly cheated of their future work and study opportunities. There is good evidence we have sacrificed as much as 3% GDP growth after the vote.
Martin moved the policy amendment at the 2020 Liberal Democrat conference that guaranteed the party remains committed to UK membership of the European Union without campaigning to reverse this the moment we leave in 2021. We have to acknowledge that winning back hearts and minds on this issue will take time.
Better public transport is crucial to our economy, our quality of life and our battle against climate change. Throughout his ten years as our MP, Martin successfully campaigned to protect local rail services and to win new investment in track and station so that the nearly two million passenger journeys that now start at Cheltenham Spa each year can be quicker and more convenient for personal, business and tourist travel.
Martin led the opposition to the Conservative-led County Council’s plan for a Gloucester Parkway station between Cheltenham and Gloucester when it became clear that it was based on taking services away from Cheltenham Spa. He was backed by environmentalists like Jonathan Porritt, local politicians of all parties and many residents and businesses in Cheltenham and Gloucester too. As a result of Martin’s campaign, the plan was shelved by the Department for Transport.
Martin has consistently backed new investment in Cheltenham Spa station and a future development that would improve parking, access for public transport and bikes, make better commercial use of the site and meet the concerns of the station’s neighbours. Working closely with Cheltenham Borough Council and the University of Gloucestershire, he lobbied for a plan eventually supported by train operators, Network Rail and Travelwatch SouthWest and helped to get millions in funding in place by 2015. The most ambitious version could have seen two brand new bay platforms to prevent stopping trains slowing up through services and the lower part of the car park given a second tier – but this now looks like being downgraded to a much less ambitious plan since the Conservatives took office in 2015.
Martin successfully campaigned for the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line. Two lines on this key route will allow more direct trains from Cheltenham to Swindon, Reading and London and give the whole region a more reliable railway service because trains will be able to overtake delayed or stopped services.
Martin personally lobbied Labour transport secretary Andrew Adonis, Conservative ministers Teresa Villiers and Philip Hammond and finally LibDem transport minister Norman Baker to secure the £45 million spending.
Again working with Cheltenham’s Chamber of Commerce, Martin also backed a longer-term plan to build a Gloucestershire light rail network linking, Gloucester, Cheltenham town centre, the racecourse and Bishop’s Cleeve, possibly connecting with a new line to Honeybourne. This would be a convenient, reliable and low-impact network using routes like the old Honeybourne line and could connect with a restored main line north of Cheltenham, offering the prospect of a ‘heritage triangle’ train connection between Cheltenham, Stratford and Oxford.
It has never been more important to stand up for the local NHS. As your local MP, Martin campaigned tirelessly for free, local health services.
Martin is married to a doctor himself and four generations of his family have been cared for by Cheltenham GPs and hospital staff so he never forgets how valuable it is to have a good local health service free to all.
Martin has campaigned for many years to defend the emergency department at Cheltenham General Hospital and to see the full overnight A&E service restored in Cheltenham. After ‘critical incidents’ were declared at Cheltenham and Gloucester, Martin asked the NHS regulators to investigate what went wrong in Gloucestershire and what role the new 111 service played, how well the various local health and social care providers are working together (for instance when they refer patients in to A&E and allow patients to be discharged) and whether local management decisions have made the situation worse by downgrading Cheltenham A&E at night and routing all unplanned admissions through A&E.
Under the coalition, Martin refused to vote for Conservative Secretary of State Andrew Lansley’s Health & Social Care Bill which he believed broke the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats which promised no top-down reorganisation of the NHS. But he supported the coalition in raising overall spending on the NHS from £98bn in the last year of the Labour government to more than £110bn a year in 2015. The Conservative government since 2015 has failed to match that rate of growth.
Far from bringing extra money into the NHS, Brexit will now put this progress at risk by damaging the economy and the so the resources available to the NHS, as well as driving away European staff and damaging recruitment.
Back in 2006, under the last Labour government, Martin was a leading member of the coalition of local campaigners that fought the 26 different cuts and closures that threatened the long-term future of Cheltenham General and many local services. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have a rose-tinted belief that Labour has always been a good friend of the NHS but that’s not how it felt then.
That campaign secured the future of Cheltenham’s St.Paul’s maternity ward which was earmarked for closure. Martin will continue to campaign for the services that matter most to people, like maternity and A&E, to be kept local.
Other cuts like IVF services were also restored after pressure from Martin and others and as MP he took up many individual cases for local people who felt let down by local healthcare providers. But he has always taken time to praise NHS staff and volunteers for their tremendous work and to give credit to local NHS management when they get things right. Under the coalition, they managed to increase expenditure and deliver a small net surplus after achieving more than £17m in efficiency savings.
But as the chart from the independent King’s Fund below shows, in the few years since the Conservatives took power on their own, the majority of NHS trusts have plunged into deficit – and this now includes Gloucestershire too. This is a direct threat to the future of local NHS services.
Martin also campaigned consistently for good mental health services in Gloucestershire to make sure mental health service users get not only the services professionals think they should have but the services they want and need – just like those suffering from physical health problems. He believes there is a particular crisis in child and adolescent mental health. Before the coalition ended, he backed Lib Dem Deputy PM Nick Clegg’s announcement of £1.25 billion over five years for children’s mental health – but tragically this spending has not been maintained by the Conservatives since 2015.
At the 2015 General Election, only the Liberal Democrats pledged the full £8 billion extra which the NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said the NHS needed over the following five years and pledged equal status for mental health within the NHS, including children’s mental health and new mums who may need rapid access to treatment.