The Trouble with Amateurs

If you live in the parish of Burcot and Clifton Hampden you should have just received a single-sheet document in the post entitled ‘Feedback from the Initial Parish Consultation’. The author is Giles Baxter, who was appointed by the parish council to chair the Steering Group of the proposed Neighbourhood Development Order (NDO). It presents findings from the extended parish consultation over the NDO, which lasted from November last year until the end of March. An initial poor turnout meant it was extended to allow more people to respond.

Before examining the findings, we should note that housebuilding company Thomas Homes was involved in collecting the information and that Mr Baxter – who has a declared interest in land abutting part of the proposed development – was responsible for drawing up the questions and analysing the answers. Neither, as far as I am aware, has an expertise in designing or interpreting survey data. Both have a financial interest in the outcome of the NDO. This is not mentioned on the feedback sheet.

The failure to use professionals to conduct the survey inevitably means that its results are tainted. And an opportunity has been lost to gather valuable information that could help the parish deal with the many challenges it is now facing. Neutrality, better-designed questions and professional analysis would have provided uncontested information that all of us could have relied on. Was there not enough money in the £100,000 grant the NDO SG received from SODC to allow for this? (Incidentally, was anyone paid for this survey work or was it all done gratis?).

Instead, what we have is an amateur survey, conducted by people who have a financial interest in the outcome. Not a very satisfactory state of affairs, but hardly surprising considering the way the non-inclusive NDO has been run from the beginning. We know that Mr Baxter only declared his interest in land next to one of the proposed – and highly unsuitable – development sites late last year, whilst the chair of the elected unopposed (with no votes) parish council, Mr Chris Neill, didn’t get round to declaring his interests as a tenant of the Gibbs Estate until the beginning of this year. Minutes for both the parish council and the NDO SG have not been published online since February and our annual parish meeting has been postponed with no indication of when it will be held.

In these circumstances, it would be foolish to place any reliability on the figures presented by Mr Baxter. Basic questions have not been asked or answered. How many people are in favour of the ‘millionaires’ row’ houses intended for the paddock site to the south of the A415? No answer is given. We are simply told that “many supportive of layout, look and feel of the paddock site”. Really? Did they ever get a choice over sites? At the same time, it seems “most respondents” want more 1, 2 & 3-bedroom houses – with no details on numbers. That looks like a contradiction to me. This is what happens when you allow amateurs to conduct surveys. You get a lot of contradictions. Apparently 10% of those represented (ie 23 people) think “the parish must grow”. Or, to put it another way, 90% think it should not grow.

We are also told that those in favour of the NDO appear to outnumber those against by 2:1. But is that residents or respondents? It is unclear. Other ‘key themes’ include environment issues, parking and access and “policies to improve or extend the school”. However, there is no breakdown of these figures. Hence we have no idea of how much extra parking will be needed or acceptable. We don’t know how many people would favour protecting the Green Belt over developing houses. We have no data at all on whether or not people continue to support the Conservation Area status of the village. Or how much demand there is for allotments. And what are the “policies to improve or extend the school”? How are they affected by the NDO? Answers there are none.

As I have made clear before, the main purpose behind the NDO in its present form is to offer a multi-million-pound departure gift for the Gibbs Estate, which has declared its intention to up sticks and quit the village. In doing so, it is seeking the support of residents to override years of planning decisions and turn community amenity land into a handsome pension pot. Squire Purvis and his relatives are thanking the village and its inhabitants, who have served them for generations, by flogging back to them assets which should have been given as gifts many years ago. Londoner Mr Purvis, of course, is in the midst of setting up the Plenti House Hotel in the Nilgiri Hills in India, where his well-heeled guests are encouraged to stay for at least a month, spending their days helping locals in charity work. It is an irony indeed that at the same time he is seeking to withdraw important community assets from the residents of Clifton Hampden. Perhaps we should seek to twin with Gudalur in Tamil Nadu? Maybe they could send some of their rich residents to assist parishioners in South Oxfordshire?

Those of us who are opposed to the NDO in its present form are not against all development. We simply want it to be democratically decided, proportionate, environmentally friendly, in keeping with the village setting and fulfilling a clearly recognised need. Questions about the shop/post office, school and the surgery can be dealt with separately as part of the Village Plan. As it is, we have an under-strength parish council whose members have decided to exclude anyone who opposes their wealth creation scheme for the squirarchy. Despite arguing for an increase in the number of councillors five years ago, two posts remain unfilled (by choice of the councillors) and Burcot has no councillors at all.

Later this year the parish council will conduct another consultation on its proposals – which it says it will now revise. But unless the parish council ups its game and brings in professional help to frame and analyse its questions, I suggest you ignore it and wait for the SODC statutory consultation which is due to take place early in the new year.   

Incidentally, before signing on for any of the proposed developments, perhaps local residents should take a close look at the maps below that show the new dual carriageway that will soon sweep close by the north-west quadrant of Clifton Hampden. Do we really want all these extra houses as well as the road, the 3,500 houses at Culham and the 1,700 houses at Berinsfield?

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