Caroline Voaden and I met up for coffee and a chat this week to get our heads around the recent dramatic Withdrawal Agreement Bill vote in Westminster, and what happens next here in the European Parliament.
Peace, defence, security. Amongst all the talk of trade deals these aren’t always the issues at the forefront of the Brexit debate. They should be.
I’m delighted to have been elected as the Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Iran Delegation.
This is a worrying time in the Persian Gulf. If we can play a small part in the European Parliament in promoting peace in the region then I think we’ll be doing something very valuable indeed.
If I can play a small part in that I’ll be deeply honoured and very proud to be representing Britain as an MEP taking part in the European Union as a real peace project – not just for peace within our own borders, but around the world.
There is news on the planned new secondary school at Kidnappers Lane – and it’s a mixed bag for local residents.
First of all, a government inspector, Wendy Burden, has issued her interim advice on the draft Cheltenham Local Plan – one of the key local planning documents for our area. Against the run of previous inspections and the wishes of both the Borough and Parish Councils – she concluded that the 39 hectares proposed by our local councils as protected Local Green Space at Leckhampton might be too “extensive” and not justified. This is very surprising since an enormous amount of evidence has been amassed to justify the protection of the Leckhampton green fields (alongside a substantial amount of new housing next to the Shurdington Road). Under the National Planning Policy Framework, there is no upper size limit on LGS and it should for local communities to determine this but nevertheless the opinions of this experienced inspector carry huge weight in the process and the councils have to pay attention to this or risk the whole draft plan being declared “unsound”. I have been in discussion with Cheltenham planning officers along with fellow parish councillors to see what we can salvage from this situation.
The inspector’s verdict has played right into the hands of the Conservative-led county council who want to grab some of the planned Local Green Space for their controversial new secondary school instead of building it on the land next to Shurdington Road which had been earmarked for development (see my earlier update here). The county presented plans for the Kidnappers Lane site at a recent public meeting:
There are some positives to these plans: it’s noticeable that they retain the extensive and ancient hedgerow around the school site which will be really important in Kidnappers Lane and Farm Lane retaining some of their current charm and rural character and will make an attractive green environment for the school students themselves. The plans also set the school building right at the northern end of the site, closest to planned development and the least intrusive location in respect of the planned protected Local Green Space to the south and east. The playing fields – and in particular the all-weather Astro pitch could be important community assets for local young people, including Leckhampton Rovers Football Club.
But local residents still have deep and – in my view – well-founded worries about the safety and traffic implications of such a large school set amongst what are now rural lanes with already congested roads around them, not least because the county’s shifting of the site will make way for developers to try to put even more housing on the fields next to the Shurdington Road. It’s also disappointing that the building and site so close to a Local Green Space and clearly visible from the AONB seem to boast so little in the way of green features, in stark contrast to exciting low energy new developments like the two Gloucester Services on the M5 which are camouflaged so well as to be nearly invisible from any distance or even the headquarters of Gloucestershire Constabulary in Quedgeley which boasts a fantastic reneweable energy resource in the shape of a large ground-source heat pump.
Unusually the county is applying to itself for planning permission to build the school instead of to the usual planning authority, Cheltenham Borough Council. A further consultation event is planned for 4.30-7pm 27 June at Hatherley & Reddings Cricket Club (on the left of the Shurdington Road outside town down towards Shurdington). Come along and make your views known!
In December 2017, Gloucestershire County Council cabinet decided to establish a new 900 place 11-16 secondary school in Cheltenham, widely regarded as necessary because of a looming crisis in secondary school admissions. They identified Kidnappers Lane in Leckhampton as their preferred site. Funding for the school was approved in February 2018 and the school is expected to open to new Year 7s in September 2021. It is being sponsored by outstanding local secondary school Balcarras who bring a welcome reputation for high academic standards and positive engagement with their local community.
But the site of the new school is causing real concern and controversy and not just because of the likely impact on local traffic through narrow rural lanes.
After more than ten years’ campaigning against the imposition of thousands of new houses all over Leckhampton’s green fields, local campaigners like the Leckhampton Green Land Action Group (LEGLAG) and the Parish Council accepted that the fields immediately next to the A46 Shurdington Road would be built on, principally for new homes. The remaining fields would be protected as Local Green Space, a new designation for local green spaces important to communities which I initiated when I was MP for Cheltenham and which is now national policy. After discussions with the county council, Cheltenham Borough Council included the new secondary school in their draft Local Plan on the land to be developed – at the corner of Shurdington Road and Kidnappers Lane. It was accepted that the school’s playing fields could be within the planned Local Green Space area further up Kidnappers Lane. This was agreed in writing by Gloucestershire County Council in March 2018 (as explained in these Cheltenham Borough Council minutes – see Question 10).
Then in September 2018 the county council changed its mind and announced that despite all the previous discussions, it wanted to build the school in the area further up Kidnappers Lane everyone expected to be protected Local Green Space. Why? To save the county money. The new site was land they owned and would not have to buy in opposition to the housing developers.
This would be a double whammy for Leckhampton: not only would green fields be lost to the newly built school but more of the land agreed for development would then go to housing as the developer always wanted but this would now be in addition to the new school. Local Lib Dem councillors, LEGLAG, the Parish Council and Cheltenham Borough Council have all lined up to oppose the loss of green space and likely overdevelopment.
Unfortunately, local Conservative councillor Stephen Cooke has refused to oppose the county’s plan, describing it as the “lesser of two evils” and complaining that no-one had got the agreement of the developers!
Worse, since the county council own the land proposed for the new school, they are allowed to apply to themselves for planning permission to build it instead of to the usual local planning authority, Cheltenham Borough Council. But this decision will be carefully scrutinised by the plan’s opponents. In law, the county council must pay proper attention to the traffic problems too much development would cause, as well as to the emerging Cheltenham Local Plan, the previous Cheltenham Local Plan and the emerging Leckhampton Neighbourhood Plan, all of which would rule out the use of the protected green field site.
The county council’s summary of the situation can be found here but it contains fake news! It suggests that only one site was ever considered (not true, as the Cheltenham minutes show), that the site was previously identified for housing but this was “not taken up” (not true; the land had been earmarked for development until the plan for thousands of houses was ruled out by a government inspector) and that local Lib Dem councillor Iain Dobie supports the plan (not true; Iain welcomes a new school but has vociferously opposed the proposed green field site).
There have been some important developments in Leckhampton recently relating to local schools – and there are more to come.
Leckhampton CofE Primary School in Hall Road is an outstanding local primary school currently educating just over 430 local pupils under the leadership of popular headteacher Sam Porter.
Last April, Gloucestershire County Council proposed an increase from two to three forms of entry which would gradually increase the size of the school to at least 630 pupils from September 2019. The justification for this was increasing demand for primary school places in the local area although the actual model and assumptions behind this argument have proved infuriatingly difficult to extract from the county council. Nevertheless they insisted it showed sufficient demand within the immediate local area and no spare capacity at other local schools either so in May 2018 the council proceeded to consult with a wide range of stakeholders including parents, teachers and governors. 215 of the 372 respondents (58%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposal. The most opposition came from parents (whether their children were at Leckhampton, pre-school or at another school). Staff and governors, by contrast, were strongly in favour but obviously fewer in number. Leckhampton with Warden Hill Parish Council opposed the plan.
The county council then published a statutory notice that it intended to proceed and conducted further consultation during which I took local parents concerned about the expansion to see the responsible Conservative county cabinet member, Cllr Lynden Stowe, along with education officers. It was good of him to meet us and discuss the plans but we never did get the really detailed modelling and assumptions behind the decision. On 23 November 2018 Cllr Stowe approved the expansion and this will now go ahead unless the necessary building to accommodate hundreds of extra pupils is frustrated by the planning process in which case a rethink will be necessary.
The usual planning authority in Cheltenham is Cheltenham Borough Council but on this occasion the county council has decided to apply to itself for planning permission. Astonishingly, the law permits this where the county council is itself the landowner. This is not a decision which will reassure local people concerned that the impact on the local neighbourhood – including its already very congested roads – will be adequately considered. Local Lib Dem county councillor Iain Dobie is working hard to see if mitigating proposals can be brought forward, such as a rear access route for walking and cycling from Burrows Field where there is already a pathway almost to the back of the school. Iain regularly updates his Facebook page with the latest school news. Latest news from the county itself can be found here and the background documents to their decision are here (click the tab for ‘supporting documents’).
There will be an open drop-in at the school on Wednesday 30 January 3:30pm – 7pm, when members of the public can view the building plans to be submitted for planning approval later this year.
Can I say thank you to everyone who voted in Thursday’s Cheltenham Borough Council elections and particular thanks, of course, to those who generously voted for me and placed me top of the poll in Leckhampton. Two seats were being elected here this time and the second went to Conservative Stephen Cooke, just 13 votes behind. Commiserations to the other candidates, in particular Glenn Andrews, the brilliant Lib Dem candidate who worked his socks off in the ward and has promised to keep working hard for local people, and also sitting councillor Chris Nelson who lost out to his Conservative colleague by just 2 votes. Thanks to him and retiring independent councillor Ian Bickerton for all their work for Leckhampton.
Across the town it was a great night for the Lib Dems. Despite already holding nearly three quarters of the Borough Council’s 40 seats, we made three gains and increased our total to 32. The Conservatives now hold 6 seats and the People Against Bureaucracy 2.
The full result in Leckhampton was:
Martin Horwood, Liberal Democrats 1,082
Stephen Cooke, Conservative 1,069
Chris Nelson, Conservative 1,067
Glenn Andrews, Liberal Democrats 834
Votes spoiled: 1 Voter turnout: 52%
Councillor Max Wilkinson has been elected by local Liberal Democrat members as their new parliamentary candidate.
Former Lib Dem MP Martin welcomed the news: “Max is a terrific local campaigner, a good friend and he works to get things done. Unlike the Conservative MP, he lived and worked in Cheltenham before becoming a parliamentary candidate here. He’s already working hard for local people as a member of the borough council. I have every confidence that with Max in the lead, we can close the slender gap between us and the Conservatives at the next General Election, whenever it comes.”
“Cheltenham badly needs a new voice for tolerance, internationalism and openness in Parliament, and the country badly needs an alternative to this shambolic, divided government which is going to drive us over the cliff-edge of a very hard Brexit. So that election can’t come soon enough.”
For reasons unconnected with politics, as one of my predecessors once said, I wrote yesterday to Cllr Paul McCloskey, chair of the local Liberal Democrats, to let him know that I have decided not to put my name forward in any forthcoming selection of a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham.
I do regret having to take this decision and I very much hope to return to frontline politics in the near future. But I can’t commit to that right now. We ran a tremendous campaign in Cheltenham earlier this year, bucking the national trend by increasing our vote significantly and making this one of the most winnable Liberal Democrat / Tory marginals in the whole country, so I understand why the local party will want to crack on with selecting a candidate as soon as possible. But the timing isn’t right for me.
Luckily, the Liberal Democrats have many able campaigners locally and nationally who will be very interested in taking on this challenge. I wish them every success and I hope to be able to give them my wholehearted backing.
For the record – since this question is often asked – Cheltenham remains home and I have no intention of going anywhere else. I remain a trustee of three local charities and I will be continuing with all of those commitments and continuing to help Cheltenham Liberal Democrats as much as I can.
The Conservatives are making a tragic mess of our country and their inept handling of Brexit in particular threatens all our futures. Jeremy Corbyn’s increasingly embarrassing personality cult and his 1970s policies provide no realistic alternative. Here in Cheltenham, we continue to see Lib Dem victories in local elections. So I see no reason why the Liberal Democrats should not go from strength to strength again, nationally and locally. We have a new national leader in Vince Cable and we now need a new standard-bearer in Cheltenham too. But there is still everything to play for.