My youngest son turned four on Monday. One of my friends, who’s a local authority planner, and shan’t be named, gave him a Biff, Chip and Kipper book entitled ‘Save Pudding Wood’. Basically, it recounts a nirvana where deer run free, wild flowers grow, and children frolic serenely without a care in the world. Then an anonymous bunch (we only ever see a heavy-set bald man and a woman on mobile phone at the Town Hall) decide they are going to build homes on Pudding Wood. The residents get together, make a few placards, hold a meeting in the village hall, and march on the Civic Centre. Everything ends happily ever after, as the plans for development are ditched, and the community goes back about its business. The end.
Or is it? I’m now busily contemplating writing up a follow up. It will be a two-part thriller. Part one will deal with the fact that for political reasons, the Council in question has felt compelled to freeze council tax for the fifth year running, and so as a consequence, has got to make cost savings elsewhere. They’ve ditched the planning department, and have got EasyPlanning providing a basic service from a remote office in Telford. Nobody can remember whether the council has a parks and open space department, but the outsourced estates department (run from a building control off-shoot in Hull) has decided to sell Pudding Wood for ‘best value’ – i.e. as much money as they can get regardless of the social or environmental logic. (I’m thinking 1984 meets London Fields).
Part two is where it really gets tasty. A developer agrees to buy the site, and sets about due diligence. It transpires that Pudding Wood is actually a contaminated site, with evidence of a botched council landfill dating back from the 1960s. There’s poisonous ponds and contamination, and people really shouldn’t be anywhere near the place (it’s only because the council couldn’t afford to put up ‘keep out’ signs, and maintain the fence that the kids have been using it anyway). It then transpires that the developer never had any intention of building on the Wood itself, rather just the footprint of a former employment site. But of course, by this stage, The National trust have taken out a one page advert in the Times accusing the developer of building over the entirety of England’s green and pleasant land. The Council has suggested waiting three years before submitting an application due to the local election cycle, which sees a third of the council up for re-election for all but every fourth year. Unfortunately, the fourth year coincides with the General Election, so that’s no good either. Whilst contemplating their next move, a group of kids get into trouble in one of the ponds, and the landowner is put on a corporate manslaughter charge. The problem is, the deal hasn’t completed, and so the developer advises that the council is still the owner. As bad turns to worse, no one in Telford or Hull knows where the land registry details are. They think they got ‘microfiched’ to Milton Keynes, but the chap that did it got laid off, and he was only on a temporary contract anyway. (Irvine Welsh is going to be my inspiration for this bit).
The epilogue to the book sees Pudding Wood ten years on. The original developer has gone bust due to all the uncertainty and delay. The Duchess of Cheesebury has bought the site, and turned the entire Wood into an eco-hamlet. The locals are delighted as despite original objections, their properties have doubled in value, and they get preferential rates in the local Duchy farm shop. The Chief Executive of the council (a job share with seven other local authorities) has received accolades for his successful interview in The Localist as part of their long-running ‘How we did it’ news item. The council quietly settled their corporate manslaughter case out of court, helped by the privatisation of the Land Registry, which resulted in an IT botch and the loss of all property details for the south east of England. (There’ll be high notes of Ben Elton running through these pages).
I’m taking advanced orders if anyone is interested.
Many thanks to Neil Crowther of Arun District Council who was my inspiration for this blog entry.