‘There are a very complex set of obstacles to remove, and this will take some time, but I can state this evening very clearly that Princes Parade is saved’ (Newly elected Green leader of Folkestone and Hythe District Council Jim Martin speaking at the AGM last Wednesday 25 May).
Planning permission and opposition
The future of a relatively small strip of coastal land near Hythe, Kent has been contested for more than 30 years. When planning permission was granted in 2019 for a scheme that included 150 ‘dwellings’, there was utter disappointment from the many campaigners who had fought tirelessly against the urbanisation of the area.
Later that same year, a motion tabled by Liberal Democrat councillor, Tim Prater, to rescind that permission was approved at full council, much to the delight of hundreds of residents. But celebrations were short-lived, as the then leader of the council, David Monk (Con), declared the vote to be ‘non-binding on cabinet’, and as the cabinet was almost fully controlled by his party, that democratic vote was simply ignored.
The building hasn’t started, but there is lots of awful white hoarding that can be seen from Dymchurch (if not from outer space when the sun’s on it!). The council were in the process of discharging the planning conditions but thankfully didn’t achieve this before the elections.
Shifting political landscape
Fast forward to May 2023, and the political landscape has shifted dramatically. The Tory stranglehold at FHDC (Folkestown and Hythe District Council) was not just broken – it was obliterated. The Greens now form the largest party with 11 councillors (and in coalition with two popular Liberal Democrats), closely followed by Labour with ten and the Conservatives hanging on to only four. So, how did this come about?
Nationally, the polls continue to show high dissatisfaction with the Tories in their handling of many issues. Underlying this, in my opinion, is the rejection of an attitude of superiority that the Tories seem to foster. Their style of management is outdated. Rather than trying to engage and involve communities, they cling doggedly to a top-down approach, handing down decisions influenced by those who (financially or otherwise) support the party.
Former leader of F&HDC, David Monk, embodied this approach. It’s no wonder he failed even to be elected as a town councillor this time. His refusal to listen to local residents on Princes Parade, despite numerous protests, petitions and thousands of objections, and the ignored vote at council were his undoing.
Clearly, there are tough decisions to be made in local government, and obviously, some will be unpopular but pursued for the greater good. In the case of Princes Parade, however, the idea of its being for the greater good was questionable at best. Already, £5mn has been spent on the scheme, with precious little to show for it. The costs were escalating, and the financial case, let alone the moral one, was always laden with massive risk.
What makes the district such a great place to live is the variety of environments, from coastal to rural to urban – a pleasant mix in many ways. It is finely balanced. As we learn more about nature and the effects of human activity on our world, it is more vital than ever that a sustainable balance is struck.
A more equitable democratic system
The case of Princes Parade proves beyond doubt not only that the environment is an increasingly important issue but also that the democratic system, while imperfect, is something worth defending. Change can come as a result of the ballot box, and it remains an important pillar of a just society.
To this end, Jim Martin also promised a move from the cabinet system to a committee system of governance at the council, in line with the desire for a more equitable system designed to give local representatives more of a voice. This shift echoes the intention of the incoming administration to listen, be more responsive and encourage engagement of the wider population – to move on from the disenfranchisement that many Conservatives have ultimately previously promoted.
The Green Party has also consistently called for proportional representation in national politics. A key to breaking the deadlocked dominance of two main parties in the UK? It’s not an easy path, but it is certainly a noble one. A new day is dawning, and the ripples of local action will surely spread countrywide at the next general election. It’s time to realise that people have the power!