A victory for electoral reform

My motion on electoral reform came to full council today, to a very healthy debate, with many councillors revealing their true colours, and a nail biting finish. The conservatives explicitly opposed it as a group but one rebelled and supported the motion, the independents were split and it was carried 24:18.

There is a Youtube link to a recording of the meeting, the debate on this item starts at 1:37:40. https://youtu.be/CJT2MHTLmSQ?t=5860

I introduced the item explaining in detail why first past the post is a flawed system that can elect a winner when the majority of voters would prefer a different winner – this is the WRONG result. I explained how FPTP sometimes helps a political group and sometimes works against, but it always works against fair representation for our communities.

It was intriguing therefore how many councillors spoke against it saying FPTP benefits their own political position. This included the leader of the independent group, but NSN members of the independent group spoke well, and in favour of the motion.

I was surprised that most councillors liked the 16 year old options, including heart warming speeches from erstwhile opponents who have been persuaded. There were some dinosaurs of course, and I hope as young people grow up, they will remember how dismissive some older Conservatives are of them.

I feel several councillors revealed their true colours today, but a particularly disappointing contribution came from the leader of the Conservative group. Not for the first time, he implied that I and my colleagues are mindless automata enacting the instructions of party central simply because I am a member of that party. He mis-quoted some figures while explaining the hypocrisy of opposing Brexit after there was a vote. I hope I can count on his support for electoral reform now that there has been a vote.

Several councillors trotted out the old myth that “All Politicians break their promises”. This is a view which we must always challenge because it is exactly the excuse used by those politicians who are dishonest. We must identify which promises are broken, which politicians keep breaking them, and stop voting for them. Or we could stand against them but of course under first past the post this would take votes from candidates similar to us, and help elect those most different.

The talk of broken promises lead us nicely into reminding councillors that this entire motion was a promise I originally made before being elected and today I am bringing that promise to fruition. I am delighted with today’s outcome. It is an important statement and brings more pressure on government to make changes.

The full text of the motion is online at https://democracy.teignbridge.gov.uk/documents/g2737/Public%20reports%20pack%2023rd-Nov-2020%2010.00%20Full%20Council.pdf?T=10 agenda item 11.

The details for today’s meeting where it was debated in full are at https://democracy.teignbridge.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=165&MId=2747&Ver=4

Electoral Reform progress

My notice of motion on electoral reform was presented to Executive on Tuesday. Details on the Teignbridge website including minutes and video.

I am happy to say it was vigorously supported, with a series of excellent contributions from my colleagues, all included in the video. Executive resolved to return it to full council with a unanimous recommendation for approval.

It will be on the agenda for the full council meeting on 14th January at item 11.

Late running £16million Marsh Barton station awaits green light

The late running Marsh Barton Railway Station could get the green light to move forward on Wednesday (13 January) when a new plan costing £16million is considered by Devon County Council.

It had been said the station would be open and running four years ago, but delays, spiralling costs and protracted discussions with the rail industry led to the plan for the new station at Marsh Barton running at shunting speed.

Local County councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon division) has welcomed the final step to getting the Marsh Barton station back on the tracks in 2021.

Both Teignbridge District Council and Exeter City Council are contributing towards the cost of the station, an important part of the overall plans for the major housing development of around 2,500 houses being built around the Devon Hotel area.

Cllr Connett said:” I really hope that we’ll be able to blow the departure whistle for this much needed and important station serving Marsh Barton and the wider community.

“The final estimated price of £16million is much higher than first estimated.

“However, the station will mean that people travelling to Marsh Barton and neighbouring areas for work will not need to drive. They will have the choice to go by train. With the cycle network in Exeter, it also means people could cycle or walk to the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital and County Hall, for example.

“It’s also a major boost for the economy at this time, when we are so badly affected by the Covid downturn in the economy. The construction project will create new jobs and that is to be welcomed, added Cllr Connett, who is also the Liberal Democrat opposition leader at Devon County Council.

However, new cycle links are needed, he says, to connect neighbouring communities to the new station at Marsh Barton.

Cllr Connett explained: If we are to get the best from the new station, we need improved cycle and walking links from Exminster and Kennford, for example. At Exminster, we need a safe road crossing on the main village road, just under the motorway bridge and from Kennford we need a cycle path connecting the village and wider community to Marsh Barton.

“This would help encourage more people to cycle and reduce the number of cars on the busy route to Marsh Barton and across Bridge Road, especially as the 2,500 houses around the Devon Hotel are completed.”

Councillors will hear on Wednesday that the new station will be served by the current half-hourly service on the Paignton – Exmouth line and will be adjacent to the Energy from Waste plant at marsh Barton, close to Clapperbrook Lane.

Electoral Reform

At the full council meeting in December I presented a notice of motion for Teignbridge District Council to support electoral reform. It is not in Teignbridge’s power to make these changes in law, it requires national government action, as has happened in Scotland and Wales.

My notice of motion asks Teignbridge to agree that it supports these changes and write to key government officials (The Prime minister, the home secretary and the local MPs requesting that changes are made. Details of the motion are available here: https://democracy.teignbridge.gov.uk/mgAi.aspx?ID=6292

The motion was introduced as follows.

Four years ago, the people of the United States elected Donald Trump as their president. The majority had actually voted for Hilary Clinton but they use First Past The Post and block voting in the electoral college system. This can result in a win for one, when the majority prefer the other.

In their more recent elections there were five US cities where a proposal for ranked choice voting was included on the ballot paper. All 5 were successful.

On the 18th of November, just last week, The Welsh Parliament voted to pass the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill.

This gives councils in wales the power to change from First Past the Post to proportional representation using single transferable vote.

It also means that Wales now joins Scotland in allowing voters aged 16 and 17. These young adults can leave home, can start a family, can get married, can work, pay taxes and can join the armed forces. All at 16 but under current rules with elections every 4 years, they could be almost 22 before they have any say in the running of our country.

In my ward of Kenn Valley in the last administration there were two Conservative councillors with less than half the vote, and no representatives for the other half. When I stood for election I promised to fight this injustice. Now we have all three liberal democrats for Kenn valley including myself, with less than half the vote.

I am still fighting this injustice because this is not about advantages or disadvantages for our parties, it is about making our democracy better at representing the views and needs of all in our communities. It is time to fix this and I hope members of council and the executive will support this motion towards doing that.

Future High Street Fund Win

Thrilled to have it confirmed this morning (Boxing Day) that Teignbridge has been awarded £9.19 million on our bid to the Government’s Future High Street Fund. There’s some more work to do on the final details but it’s a great Christmas present for the district, and Newton Abbot on which the bid was centred. Many people in the Council and our partners have been working on this. It’s very, very good news for all involved and my great thanks to everyone on this successful bid.

Cllr Alan Connett
Leader of the Council
Teignbridge Council

Voter ID

Published in Western Morning News (Saturday) 21 Nov 2020 – Letters Extra

by Andy Swain, Lib Dem Teignbridge District Councillor

FOUR years ago, the people of the United States elected Donald Trump as their president. The majority had actually voted for Hilary Clinton, but they use First Past The Post and block voting in the electoral college system.

A vote in Wyoming has three times more weight than one in California and it sometimes gives a winner that is less popular. This year is more hopeful. The popular candidate has won the FPTP system too. At the same election five US cities voted to bring in Ranked Preference Voting in their local elections and it looks as though Trump’s efforts at Voter Suppression will fail.

The story in the UK though is less hopeful. Our own FPTP election system is just as broken, Conservatives have a majority of the seats in parliament with a minority of the vote. They have almost nine times more MPs per 1,000 votes than the liberal democrats and 23 times more than the Green Party. We can elect candidate A when a majority prefer B (but some voted first for C, so they don’t count). It seems obvious we need a proportional and preference based system to restore faith and fix our broken democracy.

In the 2019 general election there were just 34 allegations of identity fraud at the polling station. Each attempting to gain just one fraudulent vote. This is a crime that isn’t happening, and doesn’t work anyway. In a 2019 pilot scheme, 740 voters were turned away and did not return. Rolling this out nationally could cost 0.4% of legal votes. That is 200,000 people, all because of 34 alleged fraudulent votes.

The common electoral fraud is campaign offences for example overspending. Dark ads on the internet and industrial misinformation campaigns aren’t adequately covered by current law.

Why is our government ignoring necessary reforms and pressing ahead with Voter ID? Could it be precisely because FPTP gives them more seats with less votes, because the dark ads have served them well, and because they think voters who can’t produce a driving license, passport or bank details will not be voting Conservative? This is our very own Voter Suppression.

Recycling Plastic Film

I was asked recently why Teignbridge District Council doesn’t accept plastic film in the recycling bins, so I found out. I now have a very detailed report on the current policy from the Devon Authorities Strategic Waste meeting, which I am happy to share with anyone who wants a little light reading for the weekend.
Plastic film is difficult to process because of contamination issues (with food for example) and lack of suitable markets. It makes up less than 9% of the contents of the black bins in Teignbridge. Our current recycling rate is 56.3% but we need to get that to 60% by 2025. This is challenging when last year saw no increase, however there is a way…
Food waste makes up over 22% of the contents of black bins in Teignbridge, a further 12% is garden waste and 11% paper. This should be going into the blue food waste, garden and paper collections. We have the facilities to recycle these, we just need to make sure it goes in the right container. We would easily meet the 60% recycling target, have more compost and, perhaps, less smelly black bins.

Andy Swain

Thoughts on the planning system

One of the hardest things to get to grips with, after being elected to Teignbridge District Council, is planning.

There is a strong legal framework which officers are required to act within, much of this is the National Planning policy Framework. The officer’s recommendation to approve or refuse must be based on these policies, failure to do that would likely result in an appeal being lodged. If TDC lost and were found not to have followed the legal framework, there could be consequences for the officer, for TDCs reputation, and for public money, plus the application would be approved anyway.

This is why all our comments on planning proposals will carry more weight if they are in line with policies in the national policy, local plan (created by Teignbridge District Council), or a neighbourhood plan (created usually by the parish council) and our submissions should reference the applicable policies clearly.

The officers are required in NPPF (paragraph 38) to “work proactively with the applicant”. So it is clear that the officers should, in fact are required to, discuss the progress of the application with the applicant.

The presumption of approval and the strong appeals process put in place by Conservative national government do mean that officers need to be sure of their ground when recommending refusal. For the officer to make a recommendation they must show that they have taken into account all valid considerations. Suppose additional objections are made at a late stage, and the applicant says they can respond, but the officer proceeded to recommended refusal without waiting for further response from the applicant. The applicant could claim in appeal that the refusal was influenced by the late objection, and they couldn’t respond. This can make it difficult for TDC to reach a point where a recommendation can be made.

Sometimes an officer’s recommendation is referred to the planning committee, made up of councillors. These councillors also have a legal framework to follow, for example they are required to make their decision based on the evidence presented in the meeting. If a councillor had already decided, they would be “pre-determined”. If a councillor spoke publicly against or in favour of an application before the meeting, or if they supported or opposed the application in the planning portal, they would be barred from taking part in the planning committee decision.
Councillors and now also parish councils can request that an application be brought to committee. 
If a recommendation is not made within the prescribed time frame, or an agreed extension, the applicant has the right to appeal on the grounds of non determination.

In an appeal, the National Planning Inspectorate will take into account all the submissions already made, including the officers report from TDC. all those individuals would be contacted again, offering a further chance to submit.

In my opinion, planning policies such as the local and neighbourhood plans, are an excellent way for communities to influence the type of development they want, but the process is a little stacked in favour of the developer. The recent government whitepaper on planning reforms indicates the government would like to make approvals easier, and objections more difficult. I have contributed to the government consultation stating the need for communities to be listened to on contentions planning applications. We shall see how policy develops.

Balls Farm Road

After years of campaigning by Andy Swain, with support from locals, Ide Parish Council, West Exe School and Alan Connett County Councillor, Devon highways have shifted their position and agreed to a trial closure to protect Balls farm Road.

The closure will be on doctors walk, rather than Balls Farm Road as previously suggested. This will give less protection to Ball farm Road Than closure at the twisted oak, but has the advantage it will stop the separate problem of fast traffic up little Johns cross hill, and also I hope, will be less disruption to the residents. It could halve the traffic on Balls farm Road which will be a huge improvement. We will do surveys to establish if it does.

It will still be illegal to shortcut down Little Johns Cross Hill and up Balls Farm Road, as it always has been. Devon County Council will be monitoring the closure, and I hope residents of the roads and surrounding areas will enjoy the benefit of finally stopping the rat running traffic and having a safe protecting walking and cycling route into exeter from Ide.

Exeter in turn benefits from a significant extension of it’s good quality cycle network into a village outside the A30 barrier.