28 April 2006: Last night’s annual general meeting of the Bookham Residents’ Association (BRA) (full report here)
made it clear that the organisation sees no need either to make its planning processes more open or to try harder to sound local opinion before recommending these or other big decisions on behalf of local people.
A packed meeting in a new venue, the Baptist Church Hall on Lower Road, on April 27 heard the Bugle try unsuccessfully to persuade BRA chairman Peter Seaward (right) and his colleagues of the need both to widen the appeal of the organisation and to accept at least some democratic principles.
The editor recorded, again, his dismay at the way the BRA handled a recent planning decision: ‘It is clear that, in forming its stance on the recently approved plans for the National Trust’s redevelopment of Polesden Lacey, the BRA was not just indifferent to the alarm these proposals were causing among some Bookham residents but determined to stifle their opinion or any public discussion of it.
Lack of discussion
‘No objector to any proposal can complain when an openly-made decision goes against them after a properly conducted debate. But in this case there was no debate and the BRA’s decision to support the NT’s plans was anything but open.’ When it came, he said, the BRA’s response was a carbon copy of the NT’s proposal.
In reply John Pagella, speaking on behalf of absent planning committee chairman Brian Granger, said that, in planning and other matters, BRA committee members relied on local people to bring their concerns to them, though it did also take an active role: ‘We try to find out local opinion.’
But in planning matters, ‘You are never going to please everybody.’ In the end committee members had to come to a view, ‘after we have listened to those most directly affected’ by a decision.
When the time came the Bugle, it has to be said, did not put its case particularly well - its editor is not, by training, inclination or talent, a public speaker. But he found the unanimity among the 200 or so in the hall frankly terrifying. This can only be a guess, but the gathering felt much more like a social occasion for local Conservatives than a meeting among a genuine cross section of Bookham and its inhabitants.
Indeed one surprise to the newcomer was the presence, by BRA invitation, of local Conservative MP Sir Paul Beresford. Beresford launched into 35 minutes of party-political knockabout which, though purportedly about the local hospital crisis, ranged from such matters as what a ‘sweet little thing’ the editor of the local paper was to the hope John Prescott’s success with younger women now gave overweight men.
This being so, it soon became obvious that the allegedly factual content of this offensive nonsense was hardly to be trusted. But at the end of the tirade, BRA chairman Peter Seaward, clearly unused to taking points of order from the floor, responded angrily to the Bugle’s suggestion that, a week before district elections, it might have been wise to balance Sir Paul’s anti-government rant with contributions from other parties.
Beresford and the BRA had been working closely on the threatened downgrading of local hospitals and he was there to report current progress, Seaward insisted, to loud calls from the floor that the BRA was ‘non-political’.
Sir Paul’s intervention had two effects on your reporter. One unexpected one was to feel a twinge of sympathy for the charlatans now running the government. The other was to note that, in showing its political colours like this, the BRA is skating on thin ice.
First, if the BRA shows favour to any political party its charitable status is at risk. Second, the BRA has pledged ‘to represent the views of all who live in Bookham, and [be] independent of all political parties.’ Has it not noticed, for example, that South Bookham is not a Conservative ward?
The final penny that dropped is that the unelected BRA does not recognise any accountability to anyone. It does a great deal of good work. The meeting revealed the BRA’s work in promoting public transport and encouraging affordable housing ‘ all these stories above
. Against all that, however, it has to stop treating the questioning of BRA decisions as impertinence, bad manners or worse.
Its officers are extremely defensive about the way they operate. In John Pagella’s view, for example, to ask how or why some decision was taken is to accuse them of ‘bad faith’ or to impugn their integrity, and the Bugle’s editor should justify asking such questions.
In that Mr Pagella is 100 per cent wrong. The Bugle does not wield political influence on behalf of others. The Bugle does not collect subscriptions to fund its activities. The Bugle does not claim to represent anyone but itself and is answerable to its readers and the laws of defamation. But all that aside, since when does any member of a free society have to justify asking awkward questions of powerful people who, still, refuse to answer them?