Fracking was in the news today, as government approval was given to fracking sites in Lancashire, despite the widespread local opposition to it, and against the wishes of the County Council. I am not surprised. Government spokespersons bombard us with promises of plans for local democracy and consultation; councils promise residents that their wishes will be heeded; guidance and plans are circulated for years and submissions invited. And in the end, local wishes are overridden in favour of perceived national interest and claims for an improved economy. I speak from some bitter experience with my own little corner of the south east.
Locally we have, or rather, had, a thriving small shopping centre. Everything you could wish for to see you through day to day needs, especially as you get older and less inclined to drive through the jams into town and try to park, or take an infrequent bus. From funeral parlours to travel agents, from Indian restaurant to supermarkets, from optician to banks, from newsagents to beauty salons, from library to betting shop, it was all there. And then there came a developer who plans to buy it all from the owner, the district council, and pull it down.
In its place there will be the ugliest 8-storey blocks you can imagine, less retail space, and unwanted, unsuitable student accommodation and a cheap chain hotel. Hundreds of students and travellers will be introduced into a small space with insufficient parking. At the moment, we enjoy free parking at street level. It will be underground paid parking soon, so the convenience of popping over for a paper and a haircut will be over. There is much more I could say about pollution, traffic congestion, noise, danger and so on, but you can imagine it. There are, I expect, many such new concrete unattractive shopping centres going up all over the country.
Of course hundreds of locals objected to the plan, over a period of years, and serious research was undertaken and submitted to the Council about the unsuitability of the site for students, the pollution problems, the design, the breach of local guidance and use plans. To no avail. The councillors, who do not live nearby, were told that what mattered was the “economy”. The district council will sell it for a high price. The little shops which have served us for so long will be put out of business (will they come back? I doubt it as the rents will be escalated); we will no longer have a community focus. Blight has already descended as leases are being ended, and decay is creeping into what had been a lively and clean area. The developer has even escaped making the usual required provision of affordable housing because the scheme is so financially rocky. We local residents cannot afford, and probably would not win a judicial review. That is because all our objections were met with the argument, unsupported by evidence, that stimulating the local economy must override everything else.
Money isn’t everything – even in relation to Brexit – and it is unlikely that this new centre will be a money spinner. We locals will just drive right past it, or take the bus to the other supermarkets a little further away. I really hope it goes bust. But the destruction will have been carried out and the developer will move on.