Elaine Abbott’s revealing account of the development of the Tithebarn Project (LEP 5/7/07) provides a timely warning of how the democratic process is threatened when Councils tie themselves into agreements with big business.
Elaine’s account shows how Preston City Council’s pursuit of the Tithebarn project resulted in the interests and wishes of local people being subverted in favour of the mantra of economic regeneration and the interests of Grosvenor Estates.
Her account makes alarming reading for the 74% of local people who are opposed to the plans to build a barrage on the Ribble
, since it reveals remarkable similarities between the early stages of the Tithebarn development and the current Riverworks project.
Elaine writes that the Tithebarn Regeneration Project was fraught with problems because it was obvious from the beginning that:“Grosvenor Estates were determined that it would be done their way or not at all…..In the early days as a then Labour Councillor, I sat on the town centre management committee. The meetings were shrouded in secrecy. It was a very small committee with very few councillors who were outnumbered by Town Hall Officers and the Duke of Westminster’s [Grosvenor Estates] representatives”.
Whilst members of the committee were threatened with legal proceedings if they discussed the smallest detail outside the committee room, other councillors were angry that, although the Tithebarn project would have an enormous impact on the people of Preston, they were neither allowed to sit in as observers nor see the minutes of the meeting.
Today we have a situation where Preston City Council policy in respect of Riverworks is being driven by Council officers and the un-elected Preston Vision Board - despite opposition from local councillors and the vast majority of local people. Much of the decision making around Riverworks is taking place behind closed doors
whilst minutes and business plans – including a recent report completed by the property consultants King Sturges - remain secret from members of the public.
It is clear that, as was the case with the Tithebarn project, the potential of vast financial investments could once again result in the interests of the people of Preston - and our unique River environment - taking second place to those of big business.
According to another article in the Lancashire Evening Post - in which they examine some aspects of the recent barrage funding controversy
- some councillors are already indicating that our environment might have to be sacrificed to attract the reported £800 million pounds investment that Riverworks may bring.
Councillor Cartwright, a cabinet member for the environment on Preston City Council “claims his passion to protect the Ribble estuary will be balanced against the millions of pounds which can be pumped into the river (sic) through the….. Riverworks project” (LEP 6/7/07).We might add that building a barrage on the Ribble would indeed be just as much a waste of public money as pumping millions of pounds into the River and letting it float out to the Irish Sea...Elaine Abbotts account suggests that decision making around the Tithebarn project became concentrated in the hands of a small and secretive committee. This echoes the report last week that Preston City Council voted, by a narrow margin (the poll was tied 27-27 and relied on the casting vote of the mayor), to transfer decision making for large projects from full council scrutiny to a select City Centre Committee.
This Committee will have the power to spend £12.9 million of North West Development Agency (NWDA) cash. Previously, any plan which cost more than £250,000 had to be referred to full Council, but this will no longer be the case.According to Councillor Jack Davenport
this means that:"in the future most Councillors will not be able to get a say in large scale projects (for example, the feasibility study for the Barrage). This removes the bulk of democratic opposition (or support) to any project and renders voter representation virtually mute on the subject.”
Given the widespread public opposition to proposals for a Ribble barrage this concentration of decision making into one committee will, according to Councillor Davenport, make the barrage “far more likely” (LEP 6/7/07).
Preston City Council still insist that Riverworks and the barrage scheme are ideas only and will be subject to full feasibility studies. Yet Save the Ribble and other environmental organisations have already provided enough evidence to suggest that building a barrage would have disastrous consequences for our environment
and, along with its associated floodplain building development, would also increase the risk of local flooding
- a fact which even Preston City Council leader Councillor Hudson appears to acknowledge, agreeing that the serious flooding scenes of recent weeks 'would prompt a rethink on the plans' to build houses on the floodplain "If the Environment Agency are saying there should be no houses on flood plain land at Preston" (LEP 30/6/07) - at a time when the Environment Agency are already saying there should be no further building developments on floodplains AT ALL
.So why carry on wasting public money in its pursuit?
The concern of local residents has always been that Preston City Council is becoming tied into agreements with developers and big business that will drive Riverworks and give the barrage project an unstoppable momemtum. Once again there are parallels with the Tithebarn development.
As Elaine Abbott reports:
“the threat that Grosvenor would take their millions elsewhere was enough to send the Town Hall into a flap. The biggest issue of all was the bus station. Some of us, knowing that most people in Preston would not want to see it moved, suggested that it could be modernized (but) there was to be no debate. Anyone who queried this was accused of being a dinosaur and of trying to prevent Preston moving into the 21st century.”As part of their feasibility study for Riverworks, Preston City Council has promised that there will be widespread public consultation. But if widespread public opposition to a barrage threatens the potential millions of £s investment, will Preston City Council be thrown into another flap which will lead them to override the wishes of local people and the protection of our environment?
Once again Elaine Abbott’s account of the Tithebarn project sounds a warning:
“I (was) not the only one to be frustrated during the past few years to hear that the public were to be consulted about the bus station. It gave the impression that the most popular vote to keep it in its present location would be given serious consideration. That would never happen. The Tithebarn progamme was never intended to include public consultation.”The LEP reports that Councillor Neil Cartwright, who says that he has not made his mind up about the Riverworks proposals, has called for an informed debate and believes the debate has been hijacked by people opposed to a single part of Riverworks – the barrage.
He says that other ideas include improving the docks area and linking the canal to the dock basin: “the problem is that people have come to the conclusion that Riverworks is just about the barrage and formed their opinion on that alone” (LEP 6/7/07).In fact Save the Ribble campaign has never opposed the ideas for improving the dock or reinstating the canal in Preston. And neither is Save the Ribble Campaign opposed to investment and economic development. But we do argue that any development has to be environmentally and economically sustainable and should enhance rather than diminish our natural environment!Unfortunately, it is difficult to have an informed debate about these issues when Preston City Council have now voted to remove the decision making process from the scrutiny of most councillors aswell as local people.
Preston City Council and the Vision Board have placed the Ribble barrage and the associated development on our green belt as the 'key project proposals' of their Preston Economic Regeneration Strategy and Prioritised Action Plan
, to the exclusion of other more sustainable and less environmentally damaging alternatives. The Council appears to have already decided that Riverworks is the only way forward for Preston.Councillor Ron Atkins has questioned why the Council’s Chief Executive supports the barrage project before the outcome of a feasibility study is known - a study which the Council is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax-payer's money on.
Councillor Atkins writes (LEP letters 28/6/07):
“It seems to me that attempts are being made to present the project to residents for consultation as a fait accompli although it originated only as a “Vision” of a group of people with special interests, who are as unrepresentative of the residents as they are of the councillors whom the residents elected”.By what right do these special interests groups suppose that they can pursue their “Vision” at the expense of the wishes of local people and our environment?
In pursuit of the Riverworks project Preston City Council will have to attract vast amounts of private investment – possibly another Grosvenor Estates – whose only interest will be making huge profits.The question is will Preston City Council be prepared to listen to informed debate and the wishes of the people if in so doing they risk losing millions of £s investment in the City? And how will local people – and their elected representatives at the Town Hall – know what decisions are being taken behind the closed doors of the City Centre Committee?
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Labels: Democracy, Elaine Abbott, Preston City Council, Riverworks, Tithebarn