According to the lesser known US poet, John Godfrey Saxe (or if you don’t check your facts) Otto Von Bismarck, there are two things that people shouldn’t see – the making of laws and sausages. Last night around 200 residents of Patcham (Patchamites as one claimed) exchanged the opportunity for a friday night BBQ for a chance to watch some laws (or at least planning decisions) being made. However just like the absent BBQ sausages, any chance to influence or participate in a planning decision was lost due to the political grandstanding by the organisers. They did however offer a petition that attendees could fill in. My own concern is not that Mike Weatherley and Geoffrey Theobald wanted to play political games (after all they are both past masters) but that too many of those who gave up the chance of a quiet family BBQ were little more than collateral damage in the exercise.
Some people may have left the Community Centre assuming that their voiced concerns will make a difference to the outcome of the planning application, when all their comments could reasonably have done was to feed the prejudice that was expressed all too frequently by those on the top table. Indeed one of the last residents to speak explained of her frustration at being at a previous meeting and her views being ignored. Sadly for her, de ja vu is inevitable unless she spends more time responding to the consultation process. However she may feel she has already done her bit.
We had some classic comments by Mike whose chairing was as balanced as the panel (who he claimed were drawn at random) made up of three Conservative Cllrs, himself and the leader of the Council, Bill Randall. Mike referred at the beginning of the meeting to the concreting over of the countryside, and his desire for Travellers to buy land and obey the planning rules that we all abide by (he was unable to identify any suitable land later!). His tour de force was directed at Caroline Lucas who he challenged to explain why travelling people need permanent sites. Thankfully she was much more familiar with the latest report from Mikes own party on Travellers than he is and could make up for his own research deficit. Geoffrey repeatedly explained the problem with creating a site in Patcham on the Downs in the National Park which he claimed he campaigned about for at least 40 years. He pointed to the failure by Sussex Police to remove caravans from some of our parks, yet ended by thanking the police officer who he has known for many years as though they were best friends. He could not explain why he was on record as being in favour of a permanent site in Sheepcote Valley (apart of course that it is a long way from Patcham!).
This meeting was not a formal consultation event as Mikes website makes clear. It was a meeting by the Conservative group and hosted by Mike as the local parties spokesman against Travellers and other people they don’t like. It was well attended by a number of Councillors from all three parties but Council Officers were not involved on advice from their superiors, because quite reasonably this was a political knock about (a sort of ill-humoured BBQ if you will). Not that this stopped the two main protagonists from trying to blame the current administration for failing to bring officers with them. Full credit to Bill Randall for attending as he was bound to be criticised and indeed he was. Caroline Lucas also attended and the chairman did his best to be a poor host to his Westminster colleague, despite the pretence at otherwise.
The vast majority of the comments were from people opposed to Travellers, and their need for a permanent site which is not a surprise given the meetings context (yet this need is something all national parties subscribe to). Many were reasonable comments deeply felt following very difficult situations, and a few bordered on what most people would find offensive. There were also a small number of people who attended who were willing to challenge the mood of the evening and speak up on behalf of the Travellers or challenge the top table on their own inconsistencies. This was something that neither Mike nor either of the two Cllr Theobald’s appeared to enjoy as much as they did picking on the Greens, Labour or the Travellers.
I hope that some who attended left feeling that they had their moneys worth. I have my doubts that many will respond to the formal consultation, assuming that their voices were heard and recorded last night. I was certainly left feeling that the city was no further forward if what it needs is a cross party consensus on difficult issues that affect all of us (which in my view it does).