The stench emanating from the morass of dodgy deals and decisions surrounding our elected unopposed (with zero votes) parish councillors and their Neighbourhood Development Order (NDO) is becoming over-powering. Quite frankly, it’s an embarrassment. You only have to look at other parish councils and how they deal with such issues as conflicts of interest and the letting of contracts to see that there is clearly something amiss in Burcot and Clifton Hampden.
We have the unelected Giles Baxter, who leads the NDO steering committee, engaged in a secret side deal with landowners the Gibbs Estate to purchase a piece of land that could potentially rise in value if the NDO gets pushed through. And yet he had the gall to write to another parishioner to tell her she could not be on the steering committee because she owned land that was contiguous with land that is slated to be developed. Never mind that he is in almost exactly the same position himself! This has now become a resigning matter, not least because he has misled the public by failing to declare his secret deal until just a few months ago. Even now he has not made the terms public.
This is the same Giles Baxter who during the campaign against the quarry at Fullamoor was full of passion about defending the Green Belt. “The new proposals still require huge bunds to cut out noise, dust and visual pollution and will destroy the openness and tranquillity of the Green Belt,” he told the Oxford Mail in July 2019. He was spokesman for the Bachport campaign and can be found on countless occasions defending the integrity of the Green Belt. Back in 2019 in reference to the quarry he said: “There are no very special circumstances which justify such inappropriate development in this location at this time.” How times change! Now the gamekeeper has become poacher and pleads ‘special circumstances’ for his dodgy proposals to build more than 20 houses in the centre of Clifton Hampden in a Green Belt and conservation area. What could possibly have made him change his mind?
Then we have the developer Thomas Homes, whose representative has attended all the meetings of the Steering Committee since its inception and who, to all intents and purposes, is playing the leading role in formulating the NDO. Their plans include an exclusive ‘millionaire’s row’ with its own private drive. Who appointed them or asked for such dwellings? Was anyone else invited to tender? I note that in neighbouring Long Wittenham, when they were considering a development plan, there was a ‘beauty parade’ of potential contractors, with all the offers openly discussed and debated by parishioners and parish councillors. Nothing like that in B&CH, was there? Who knows how the deal was done?
And then we have our supine parish council. Let us remind ourselves of a few facts. First, a reminder of recent history from parish council minutes, for May 2015. Then, the councillors published a special message: “Your council needs you”, it began in dramatic style. “The Parish Council has applied for and received permission to increase its membership to seven with two more members required right now. This is a very busy time for the Parish and it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that, were it not for all the volunteers on the various groups both unsung (you know who you are) and high profile, the volume of work would be overwhelming. So, the message is: your Council – your village – needs you!No particular expertise required, just enthusiasm and a desire to help.”
So five or six years ago the parish council was apparently so busy it applied for two extra councillors to bring the total to seven. It appealed for people to come forward and join the PC. And yet today, when it is supposedly in the middle of pushing through the largest land development the village has ever seen, it is resolutely determined not to appoint further councillors, even though only four were elected, unopposed (with zero votes), at the last election and there are vacancies. It stinks, doesn’t it?
What has happened to change their minds? Why will the PC not appoint any extra councillors, or even allow a new election? Why will it not accept any councillors at all from Burcot – the majority of the parish – despite the fact that two residents, backed by many more, have offered to take up the vacant posts?
And let’s not forget Mr Chris Neill, the parish council chair, who was also one of those who spoke up against the quarry and in defence of the Green Belt. He is hopelessly compromised over the NDO by the fact that he is a tenant of the Gibbs Estate, a fact he only declared earlier this year. To act when subject to a clear conflict of interests and not disclose that conflict, when acting in a councillor or council delegated capacity, is clearly not serving only the public interest.
This whole NDO is rapidly becoming a public scandal. How will an inspector be able to recommend a referendum in these circumstances? Here’s what I think should happen. First, parish councillors who are conflicted in any way should recuse themselves from all decisions relating to the NDO. In effect, they should resign and new elections should be held to replace them. There will be no trouble finding replacements.
Second, Giles Baxter should immediately resign as chair of the NDO Steering Committee. He is already in breach of regulations governing conduct of council-delegated persons. No-one who has a conflict of interest can fulfil this role.
Third, a new parish council should reconsider the entire NDO. It may be that there is some demand for additional houses in the parish, but a fair and just way of deciding their type, number and location should be adopted. The allotments should be restored as a matter of urgency and negotiations with the Clifton Hampden surgery should continue over its future in the village. If the Gibbs estate wants to give land for a new surgery, let them do it. It should not be tied to a dodgy land deal that makes millions for them, while at the same time they tell us all how generous they are. As I have said before, the Gibbs estate should make a gift to the parish of its remaining landholdings in the area, rather than trying to squeeze out every penny it can. This parish is facing unprecedented change in the coming months and years. If you really care about this area, join the Friends of Burcot and Clifton Hampden and do something positive to help. We, at least, have a vision of where our precious neighbourhood should be heading. No carpetbaggers wanted.