Friday, 31 January 2020


Dies irae, Dies illa, Solvet saeclum in favilla”

At 11.00 p.m. this evening the UK will officially cease to be a member state of the European Union, after almost half a century in which our membership of the European Community has been hugely beneficial to this country and its people in numerous ways, in addition to the immense economic benefits that membership of this huge trading bloc brought with it. I regard this symbolic break with our fellow Europeans (who as near neighbours are our natural trading partners and friends) as an unmitigated disaster with no countervailing advantages whatsoever, contrary to the vacuous blatherings of various species of Brexiteer.

No doubt Boris Johnson will now gloat triumphantly that he has “got Brexit done”. But he hasn’t done anything of the sort. What will happen this evening is BREXINO - Brexit-in-Name-Only. Nothing else will change until the end of this year at the earliest. We continue to be bound by EU rules and will continue to pay into the European budget, and so everything simply carries on as before (except that we will no longer have any representation on the Council of Ministers or in the European Parliament). So this is only the inauspicious start of a difficult and painful process. If Johnson sticks to his government’s stated intention of diverging from European rules and standards, he will only make Brexit immeasurably harder, and ultimately much more damaging to this country’s interests. Ironically, the people who stand to suffer most seriously from the economic fall-out are those who voted in the greatest numbers for Brexit. We will all suffer to a greater or lesser extent, but I can’t resist a certain sense of schadenfreude that those people in the North and North-east who voted for Brexit (and then last December for Tory MPs), will get what they deserve.

It is very clear that there are many of us (probably at least half the country, judging by the number of people who voted in the General Election for parties which were in support of a second referendum to reconsider Brexit) who will never be reconciled to Brexit. I, and a good many other people to whom I have spoken in the past month, remain implacably opposed to what is happening, and will seek to reverse the process as soon as the political opportunity arises. When the economic and social consequences of Brexit gradually dawn on the wider public, and disillusion sets in (especially in those areas that were duped into electing Tory MPs for the first time), the game will be up for this Tory government, and political nemesis awaits.

The recent antics of the Brextremists have at least afforded us some innocent amusement. They lost ‘the Battle of the Bongs’; Big Ben will not strike the hour at 11 p.m. tonight. Nor will church bells be rung. A few idiots may let off some fireworks, but this Last Hurrah for Brexit promises to be something of a damp squib. It won’t be long before the Brextremists are weeping and wailing, and gnashing their teeth. (Listen out for cries of “Treachery!” , “Betrayal!”, and the like from Nigel Farage and friends when things don’t go exactly as they had hoped or expected.).

Even the trumpeted issue of commemorative 50p pieces may prove problematic. I heard a rumour the other day that counterfeiters have seized the opportunity to strike a large number of fake 50p coins, which they hope to pass into circulation in the coming week or two. I have absolutely no means of verifying this information – it may be the sort of thing President Trump would instantly dismiss as “Fake News!” – but my informant suggested that the fakes may be good enough to deceive the average punter, though not so good as to evade detection. The risk, it was suggested, is that an innocent person might get one of the fake commemorative coins in their change and then find themselves arrested for passing counterfeit currency if they try to spend it. So far as I am concerned, this just gives me an added excuse for refusing to accept any of the new coins, which (in common with a good many other people) I was already proposing to do on principle.

This may well be my last rant against Brexit (well, for a few months at least). Boris Johnson amended the recently passed Bill so as to shut down any parliamentary scrutiny of the forthcoming trade talks with the EU, and he is also doing his best to keep the press in the dark about what is going on. Whether he will succeed in the latter endeavour is perhaps doubtful, but I will leave that to the political press to puzzle out.

Meanwhile, for me, it’s back to the endless fascination of planning law!


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

What price ‘Localism’ now?

I expect most of you will have heard by now of the controversy surrounding the South Oxfordshire Local Plan. This plan got as far as its formal examination in March of last year, under the former Tory administration in South Oxon, but was the subject of furious opposition by local residents who were horrified at the huge increase in housing development that was proposed across the area. This may well have been a factor in the defeat of the Tories in South Oxon in the May 2019 council elections, leading to control of the council being taken over by a coalition of Lib Dems with the Green Party.

The new council withdrew the draft plan from examination in October, because of concern over the increased housing target in the new plan, coupled with the issues raised by the climate emergency, which they felt had not been given sufficient weight in formulating the plan. Most of all, the decision reflected the serious concerns of local electors, which had been expressed through the ballot box in May.

The government had been attempting to bribe Oxfordshire authorities with a promise of more than £200 million in infrastructure grants if they would accept a substantial increase in housing in the county. The proposed withdrawal of the Local Plan promptly led to the government threatening to withdraw this funding. But SODC was not deterred, and made it clear that they would nevertheless persist in their intention of withdrawing their local plan.

Having failed to bribe the council, the government then resorted to threats. A holding direction was issued by the Secretary of State in order to prevent SODC from carrying out their intention, and he followed this up with threats to call in the Local Plan, and then to hand it to the Tory-controlled Oxfordshire County Council to handle. (Unfortunately, it seems that MHLG did not warn OCC of their intention beforehand, and the County is still in the dark as to where the resources are to be found for taking on this task!)

Robert Jenrick (Secretary-of-State-for-the-time-being-pending-Boris-Johnson’s-pleasure) demanded that South Oxfordshire Council should write to him by the end of this month to explain themselves. This they have now done, making a number of very reasonable points, and taking an emollient line (including a request for face-to-face talks with Jenrick, if he’s still there after the pending cabinet reshuffle). Perhaps the most important point in the letter, in addition to the need to address the climate emergency was the fact that the councillors now in office were elected on the basis of their opposition to the draft local plan, and that they therefore have what they believe is “a clear electoral mandate given to us by the residents of South Oxfordshire”. As the council leader pointed out in her letter, the proposed course of action threatened by Jenrick would be a dangerous precedent that would undermine local democracy. It is a great irony that John Howell, the MP for Henley whose constituency covers a large part of South Oxfordshire, was the author of the Tories’ ‘Green Paper’ before the 2010 General Election, which introduced the concept of “localism”, coupled with a commitment that the level of development should be determined at a local level, rather than being imposed from above.

I am not trying to take sides in this dispute. Clearly there are arguments on both sides. The Secretary of State does have the necessary powers to take the action he has threatened, but he must act reasonably (in accordance with the Wednesbury principles). If the matter is taken out of SODC’s hands, an application to the High Court for judicial review seems a distinct possibility. At the moment, both parties seem to be circling each other warily, trying not to put a legal foot wrong. But I can’t help feeling that m’learned friends are already salivating at the prospect of a juicy case ahead.

We shall see.