Well, guess what? Our illegal parish meeting, abandoned in haste last time out, was magically resurrected from the dead on Thursday night. The unelected – sorry elected unopposed (with no votes) – councillors – agreed to resume the meeting as if nothing had happened. Of course, no questions were allowed from the public, despite attempts by several brave souls to speak. They were, in that wonderful modern parlance, “muted” by the chair. Oh, shades of Mrs Weaver!
Let’s reflect on this a moment. The PC has got itself into a position where it is terrified of anyone discussing issues that are seriously affecting the future of the parish. It would not even allow a discussion about whether or not it was right to exhume the body of the last, illegal PC meeting. The so-called Steering Group of the Neighbourhood Development Order (NDO) housing scheme has taken to holding mini-meetings by invitation only for selected parishioners plus developers. The June PC meeting has been totally abandoned. And the PC will not call the Annual Parish Meeting before the end of May, although it is legally obliged so to do. Not exactly community-led development is it? Whatever will the NDO inspector think?
We were given some fascinating information at the resurrected meeting about the likely effect of the new trunk road from Didcot to Golden Balls, the masses of new housing due at Culham and the possibility that the current A415 from Culham to Berinsfield will be turned into a B road. But no discussion. That was followed by a surreal presentation of the parish ‘survey’ of public attitudes towards the housing development in the proposed NDO scheme. A chap called Giles Baxter – another unelected person and local landowner, who chairs the NDO Steering Group – struggled to explain the meaning of the statistics he had cobbled together, based on what I regard as a flawed ‘in-house’ questionnaire. Many residents have spoken out against this survey procedure and argued that any survey of public opinion in the parish should be done by a professional polling company, but the PC, it its wisdom, has decided otherwise and has chosen to allow a non-elected resident already engaged in the development process to design the survey and interpret its results.
Some of the information obtained – as far as one could understand, no questions being allowed – suggested that those who filled in the forms were against big houses for the rich, but wanted 1-3 bedroom affordable houses for elderly downsizers or first-time buyers. No surprise there for anyone who knows the difficulty of find cheap housing in the parish. We await with interest further fascinating interpretations when the full survey results are published in a few weeks.
Of course, the biggest scandal about the NDO is that the land proposed for the new housing all belongs to the Gibbs Family Estate, no other sites being considered suitable, according to the three people who made the decision. This is ironic, to say the least. PC chair Chris Neill – who told the meeting that the Gibbs estate owned the post office and shop, presumably making him a tenant and therefore somewhat constrained in what he can say – told us that the Christopher Gibbs and the Gibbs Family trusts were seeking to liquidate their interests in the village where they own many assets that people might have thought belonged to the community, including the village hall car park, the allotments, Watery Lane garages, the Barley Mow car park, High Street parking area, etc.
So let me be controversial for a moment. Without the proposed NDO the Gibbs estate would not be able to sell the land for housing, as it lies within both the Green Belt and a conservation area. They would be unable to get planning permission any other way. Therefore, by agreeing to support the NDO the community would effectively be giving the Gibbs family a massive multi-million-pound gift as a leaving present. Without the NDO the land would be next to worthless. With the NDO it is worth millions.
And what are we supposed to get in exchange from these wealthy landlords? Not a lot is the simple answer. Now, I’m not a land developer – although my namesake was – but why should the Gibbs family be given all this money? Why don’t they give all their parish assets to the parish instead? Would they miss them? And it would be just recompense for all the service they have received from parishioners over the years. In more experienced hands the negotiations over sites for the NDO could have been very different. Personally, I don’t like this NDO development at all, but perhaps the PC could have used a little nous. OK, so you want to build some houses on your green belt, conservation-area, land do you? Well cough up, so that everyone in the parish can benefit, rather than a few wealthy people who are certainly not short of a few quid and who are pulling out of the area anyway? Or am I being unreasonable?
Instead, we have a forelock-tugging PC that is doing its best to make a very wealthy family even wealthier. And don’t get me started on where the Gibbs family money came from. (Some of it, at least, came from the use of indentured Chinese workers to mine guano in South America. Other wealth came from the same place as other prominent Bristol-based traders whose ships sailed between Africa, the Caribbean and South America and England. Check out this English Heritage publication (p34) for some clues: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/slavery-and-british-country-house/slavery-british-country-house-web/).
So, parishioners, it’s time to rethink this NDO. Our PC seems to be perfectly happy to give a massive bag of cash to wealthy landowners, even if it means destroying the peace and calm of one of the few villages along this part of the Thames that have not been wrecked by developers. Meanwhile the landowners’ family trusts themselves, according to the PC chair, are pulling up sticks. Hmmmm. . . .