Local MP Steve Brine opened the 'Future of Winchester' debate at the Theatre Royal on Thursday 27th October and called on all local councillors to work together and rise to the challenge of localism.
The event, chaired by local businessman and former TV presenter Khalid Aziz, was organised by Winchester City Council to discuss the planning needs of the city in light of the recent decision by Eric Pickles to return the decision over Barton Farm to locally elected representatives. The Secretary of State, in making the ruling, had said that it would be incorrect for a top-down decision to be made, and that it was in the interests of local people that such a judgement would be made in Winchester.
In his opening remarks to the panel, which consisted of Cllrs George Beckett (Conservative leader of WCC) and Brian Collin (Liberal Democrat), Ian White from the Save Barton Farm Group and former Labour councillor Patrick Davies, Mr Brine emphasised that Eric Pickles' decision has been correct.
He said: "I am sure it was far easier when Government Ministers made these big decisions - and took the flak for them - but I think it would have been quite wrong for the Planning Inspector or even the Secretary of State to make the Barton Farm decision and it has now returned where it should have always been, in the hands of democratically elected local councillors.
"So the change of regime in Westminster has rather put us in the driving seat, and I make no apologies for that."
Encouraging local councillors to work together in the local interest, he said: "While I have campaigned for that change of regime over many years, I have also said more times than I care to remember that localism doesn't mean saying NO anymore than it means saying YES.
"It means a local decision, taken with a clear and transparent evidence base, in the local interest and – this is the key point – by local councillors who are accountable to us the rate-payers.
"And for the record, that means ALL councillors in Winchester. The music may have stopped with one party in control but I know thousands of my constituents expect ALL our councillors to rise to the challenge laid down by localism.
"It is after all, the same two parties who dominate Winchester city council that are in Government together - in the national interest - so it is for me inconceivable those same parties will not come together here in the Winchester interest. We need the experience and expertise of them all and we expect them to put narrow party interest to one side."
He highlighted that the key questions that local had to address included 'How many new houses does Winchester Town actually NEED in the next 25 years, what is the evidence base for that figure and do you trust it?', and 'If you've settled on that figure and you agree it is sound, how many of those houses can go on already identified brownfield sites?' He also said people must consider where they would be content for the rest to go?
The lively discussion featured a number of contributions from local people, including Robert Howland, Harvey Cole, Sandie Vining from the Keep Pitt Green campaign, councillors Jacey Jackson, Ian Tait and Jackie Porter and Littleton & Harestock parish councillor James Byrnes.
Following the event, Mr Brine said: "After opening the debate I had to fly across town to the cathedral for the BBC Question Time event but my team were there taking copious noted and I have spoken to a many people since who were very impressed at the quality of the debate. I know there was much discussion about the actual number of houses we need, but there was I understand a general consensus, backed by George Beckett and Patrick Davies, that the evidence is there, including local views sourced from the Blueprint exercise, and Winchester now has some tough decisions to make.
"From my point of view, I have always been clear that our housing problems will not just go away, and while I strongly maintain that Barton Farm is the wrong site for our city, we do have to continue to build homes, in particular affordable homes, to serve our very real housing needs.
"I also said time and again that I would like us to consider some more council housing in Winchester, and judging by the reaction from the audience this is something that would certainly be welcomed."
More information ...
You can read Steve Brine's opening speech in full here (opens as PDF).
See Winchester City Council's Blueprint pages here.
See Steve Brine's special Barton Farm pages here.