Local councillors have a tough time of it. Battling with rapidly decreasing budgets, attempting to respond to the often conflicting demands of the public and special interest groups, they are far more exposed to the realities of democracy with all its strengths and failings than are MPs, living a rather more sheltered existence in Westminster. And many local authorities are trialling ways of opening up decision-making processes and working hard to stay close to their constituency.
However, tales still abound of undemocratic planning decisions, of councils riding rough-shod over the wishes of local residents and of a lack of transparency in decision-making.
Mid Sussex District Council (MSDC) and the Cycleway Network Proposal is a case in point. With the admirable ambition of encouraging more people to cycle to work, the council plans to create a network of cycle paths linking the major towns in the district. In the process they have somehow managed to generate a story worthy of an Agatha Christie whodunnit, involving furious residents, environmentalists, developers, landed estates, the vice-sheriff of West Sussex and a seemingly endless maze of complications.
Council plans ‘inappropriate’
Sarah Roberts, the vice-chair of the Burgess Hill Theobalds Road Residents Association (TRRA) explains how it all started. “We discovered that there were plans afoot to turn one of the most ancient and last remaining bridleways in this area of Sussex into a cycleway, with all the so-called ‘improvements’ that that would involve.”
The ancient, sunken bridle road, which runs from Theobalds Road in Burgess Hill to Fox Hill on the B2112 to Haywards Heath, is very popular with local walkers and horse riders. The rural route winds through ancient woodland, a site of special scientific interest and alongside species-rich hedgerows planted hundreds of years ago.
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TRRA argue that MSDC’s plans are entirely inappropriate and threaten to destroy “the natural unspoiled, ancient historic character of the bridleway and its ecology forever”. Converting the path to an approved cycleway would require lighting, a raised sealed surface to be laid, and the path widened to three metres. Mature trees and hedgerows would be removed and attractive new wooden bridges replaced with plastic boardwalks.
Only two cycleway routes linking Burgess Hill with Haywards Heath were originally proposed by MSDC, and Sustrans, the cycling lobbyists, were appointed to review both options: the eastern picking up the Theobalds Lane bridleway and the western skirting the main Brighton to London rail line.
Money trumps transparency
The council decided in favour of the eastern route, against strong public opposition. Roberts believes that a problem with the western cycleway was that a stretch ran right across the Heaselands Estate, owned by Sir Richard Kleinwort, who is an investment banker, philanthropist and the vice-sheriff of West Sussex.
“It just seems so much easier to push the much longer route through, against the opposition of 45 households, rather than just one, doesn’t it?” Roberts asks, sarcastically.
She is particularly scathing about the lack of transparency and what she terms the council’s “stonewalling”, including the publication of crucial reports too late for interested parties to respond to them ahead of a planning hearing. TRRA also submitted a detailed critique of the Sustrans report, as well as proposals for alternative routes, none of which received a response.
Their requests for a meeting with councillors and planning officials to discuss the issues went unanswered for a year, and only after a second intervention by the MP for Mid Sussex, Mims Davies, was a virtual meeting arranged for 24 November.
“It was a bit of a waste of time,” says Roberts. “All the usual platitudes were rolled out, and we didn’t even have our ward councillor there.”
Freedom of information?
It was only due to the sharp eyes of a TRRA member that the group recently spotted another extraordinary piece of information: the district council already owns five strips of land that run alongside the main Brighton to Haywards Heath rail line, which would seem to offer the shortest and most viable interurban cycleway. Either the council had forgotten that it owned the land, or it had another reason for not disclosing its ownership during the consultation period.
Listening to Roberts as she reels off the numerous occasions on which TRRA’s Freedom of Information submissions to the council and their emails and requests for meetings met a blank wall, it is only too easy to start speculating about why. However, answers come there none. Which is exactly the problem. Lack of transparency and unwillingness to meet with key stakeholders inevitably lead to suspicion and loss of trust. And judging from Roberts’ steely determination, TRRA are not going away until they receive answers to all their questions.