20140523_Councillor Under Siege

Councillor Juneja not deserving of vitriolic criticism

Letter to Surrey Advertiser (printed 23rd May)

I was dismayed to read on the front page of the Surrey Advertiser (16th May) that Councillor Monika Juneja has been subjected to such personal attacks about her ethnicity and qualifications.  I am also disappointed that some people must feel there is so little merit in their own arguments that they have to resort to smearing the Lead Member for Planning.

In many ways we are incredibly fortunate to have someone of Cllr Juneja’s undoubted ability who is prepared to spend vast amounts of time and energy managing the Local Plan process.  I would rather help inform the debate (the process of which has been substantially enabled by Cllr Juneja’s efforts) than have a competition to see who can deliver the nastiest rhetoric.

In my own efforts to shape the Local Plan (and leading the response for the Guildford Society), I have tried to stick to the evidence, find the facts and track the logic and imperatives that lead us to adopt one particular solution or another.  Of course I have some fairly strong views and they do not necessarily accord with those of Councillors Juneja and Mansbridge.  This (for the most part at least) makes them neither right nor wrong – just opinions.

I have been fortunate enough to sit down with Councillor Juneja – having previously privately wondered (as I might with any Lead Councillor for Planning at this time) whether she was up to the job.  I found that, not only is she competent and capable of delivering a Local Plan, but she is also managing to balance some very tricky topics, and taking the time and trouble to talk to people.  I have no reason, therefore, to doubt her abilities as a Councillor, as a member of the Executive nor in her current role.

I have been critical (guildfordplan.com) of some of the professional judgements made by the Senior Planning Officer but I recognise that she and her staff have also been working incredibly hard and, as shown at the Joint Scrutiny Meeting on Thursday 15th May, they know their way around the documents they have been asked to procure, produce and/or manage.  My criticism is not intended to be personal, nor directed to any individual member of the officer team who were rightfully praised for their efforts on Thursday evening.  It is, however, the case that professionals do occasionally disagree with each other.  It may get pretty hot in the professional kitchen but this should not be interpreted as any attempt to spoil the food.

In her quotes in your front page article, Cllr Juneja noted that many representations were anti-immigration.  I would like to clear up any doubt for myself and for the Guildford Society.  We have not sought to take an anti-immigration stance; rather, we have sought to question the historic and trend statistics that point to potential future international immigration, and consequently housing need.  We wish to ensure the demographic expectations are appropriate and proportionate.  I am very conscious that this might appear to be a position against immigration per se, and I would like to personally assure Councillor Juneja that that would not be a true interpretation.  As noted above, we are trying to drive towards good evidence which, when it comes together, provides a demonstrably sustainable path for growth in the Local Plan, whilst maintaining what we love about the town and Borough of Guildford.

As soon as the Local Plan is released for consultation – and my early reading of it ahead of Thursday’s meeting suggests it is not yet ready – everyone will have their opportunity to tell the Council what they think of any aspect of the Plan.  Councillor Juneja has committed herself to the widest possible consultation (to reach the ‘hard to reach’ people) and has shown herself to be ready to listen.  I strongly hope that, however deeply feelings may run about one aspect or another; one site or another; the debate will be intelligent, well-informed and, above all, courteous – not least to Councillor Juneja, the Senior Planning Officer and her staff.

20140520_Local Plan Madness

You know things are getting out of hand when the political debate becomes personal; when people start to challenge the personal standing of the Lead Member for Planning instead of trying to put forward a valid argument.

As we progress laboriously through the Local Plan process, some people are so annoyed with potential development solutions that they have taken to vitriol and aggression in lieu of reasoned arguments.

I have no great desire to see the extent of development proposed in our town and borough of Guildford but neither do I want to see metaphorical-manure-flinging defences of the Green Belt as if that were the only issue.

Stack the buildings high in the town ‘so that we can continue to enjoy our protected environment in the countryside’.

The problem seems to be that the sequence of publication of documents for consultation and the spectre in print of some rolling back of the green belt has been enough to generate loads of ‘Save the…’ groups campaigning for a do-nothing-very-much strategy.

I am not enthusiastic for rolling back Green Belt; neither am I fundamentally opposed.

The key to this difficult process is GOOD INFORMATION leading to GOOD DECISION-MAKING.

I lament the poor quality of some of the data and feel sure that with an overlay of greater detail, the Local Plan process could actually be a cathartic experience.  As it is, there is no doubt we will be at war amongst different parts of the community at least until the moment a new Local Plan is in place.

Come on one and all, let’s get the debate to an altogether higher level and collectively help to improve the evidence base.  That way we are more likely to have a town and borough we can be proud of and which allows our children and their children to expect to be able to live here to share in that pride.