Dickens would have revelled in this week’s ‘Bleak Prospects’ meeting in Menston; for all that he knew and campaigned against were there – the social injustice, the perfidious council, the stalwart English copyholder, the brave pro bono lawyer and the menacing ‘company’ man.
This was not a meeting of hypocritical nimby’s, as some Bradford councillors like to portray objectors to their planning schemes; these were ‘ordinary’ people, your aunty, your sister, your father: residents prepared to open their ‘piggy banks ’ to save their village from the destruction heedless councillors are prepared to wrought on them.
The discussion of the night was about the four pronged ‘fight back’ against the planning application for housing estates, on productive farmland at Bingley Road and Derry Hill. But, the livid context was the Dickensian injustice of Bradford’s planning process. The village has been treated shabbily, by the very people on Bradford Council who take payment to defend them: nearly 2000 letters of objection; unanswered: a promise of reports on flooding; not kept: and a planning meeting in February 2012 that even ‘beggared the belief’ of cynical television crews.
The heroes of the meeting were lawyer, Chris Schofield, and the English copyholder. The former, carefully explained the need to concentrate limited resources where they would do most good – on the serious flood risk to the villagers, if, the planned houses were built. The copyholder, rose, straight backed, at the start of proceedings, to point out the presence in the audience of Dacre Commercial’s developer representative. The man who reportedly told Bradford Property Forum in January, “Bradford needed 2,700 new homes a year to meet the shortfall for a growing population – and that would mean around one third of future developments being on green belt sites. House builders would need to overcome resistance from ‘wealthy achievers’ in areas such as the Aire Valley and Wharfedale”. You could feel tails bristle and bush around the hall, alongside the English sense of fair play, at a public meeting.
A strong cast of characters is crucial to any of Charles’ novels, and so it was here. Professor Rhodes, an expert in the square-meter, geo-environmental mapping of the UK, said that Airedale and Wharfedale had a serious issue with ground water flooding, and that this had not been adequately addressed in Menston planning applications. Showman, Graham Booth, walking the floor with roving microphone, asked the audience how they felt about the situation, after almost certain defeat in February – “somewhat better” came the conservative reply. And, a furious lady on a front row, demanded of newly re-elected Councillor Dale Smith, why he was not doing more about the ‘basket case’ that is Bradford Council; where even ‘sanity’ does not even bother to stalk the corridors. “I am doing my best” he said, somewhat taken aback. Looking at the politics of Bradford Council, one has to sympathise with the difficulties, but then, he is due to be the next Mayor.
The first thrust of Menston’s strategy, is to ask leading, Tory rebel, MP, Philip Davies, to persuade ‘the Minister’ to ‘call in’ the planning application for independent review –a long shot, as it has to be in the National Interest to do so. “Wasn’t the issue of sustainable development in the new NPPF’ of national interest” a quiet lady asked? The lawyer though so, but flood risk assessment might carry more weight than a semantic debate.
The last, not quite gasp, as it has more clout than that, is Dr Steve Ellams’ village green application in August 2012. Witness statements on Derry Hill’s more than 20 years use for public recreation, without landowner permission, are now being gathered: the fact notices to ‘keep off’ have now gone up, only proves the point.
In between, lie the expensive action of a judicial review of the whole planning process, and the application for a court injunction regarding the public nuisance of flooding: “just like the situation in Asquith and Timble” said one man, “where devastating flood damage has still not been repaired”. Both actions will need experts and barristers – who do not come pro bono. The judicial review will not necessarily stop the housing, but, it will open up the dark, fetid, recesses of Bradford’s planning process to the searing light of truth. The injunction is needed to expose the miscalculations of ground water that will be sent cascading into an inadequate drainage system – especially as it now has to cope with the new High Royds estate.
However, flooding, as the audience knew, is not the only risk Menston faces: road congestion will worsen, commuters will be hanging ‘Indian style’ from trains, and young children will be bussed to school miles away, in Keighley and Horsforth – it is already happening. The cost to Menston of being listened to in their anguish is £100,000, announced Chairman Alan Elsegood. The question was asked if the European Court of Human Rights was not a better place to go. “We should start in the English courts”, came the reply.
The money is needed before action can commence, you cannot make unfulfilled promises to a barrister. The breakdown of that cost is £42 for every household in the village, but Menston Action Group is adamant that people should only give what they are ‘comfortable with’. If the village wins justice, then along with that will come court costs and a return of some money to donors. If they lose, then down the line is waiting another 600 houses in Bradford’s local development framework. Houses that will cover the green fields the other side of the village, destroying the boundary with Burley in Wharfedale, and the historic identities of these two separate dales villages
You seldom find a thin Dickens novel.