What a lot of people turned out for the Save Winchester March on Saturday. It’s a reminder to the city’s politicians- if they needed it- how little trust there is in government.
I’ve met many councillors and local government officers over the years and have found most of them to be sincere and driven by a desire to help their community including Winchester's current leader Rob Humby. Unfortunately I’ve met some who are arrogant and self serving and they, I fear, give the rest a bad name.
Our local councils could undoubtedly market themselves better. Decisions are made without the transparency of full explanation or adequate consultation. Silver Hill may be a wonderful scheme and there may be no alternative but the brief and last minute public exhibitions give the appearance that the Council has something to hide.
And they do have a history. The awful street market that clogs Winchester High Street appeared without any public consultation. The Brooks was built to a design that was the least popular in a public vote. It’s no wonder people feel the Council doesn’t listen. That's not to mention all the current gripes from Silver Hill to Chesil Street car park to the River Park Leisure Centre.
Add to which, all councils are tarred with the reputation of councils elsewhere and long ago when corruption was rife and some councillors’ main concern was lining their own pockets. I’m confident Winchester never behaved in the way of those northern cities where planning permission depended on backhanders but that appalling practice does mean that councils everywhere must now do everything they can to be above suspicion.
I was involved in a planning battle myself a few years ago in which the council didn’t seem to be listening. A local council wanted to develop some land I had an interest in. I was opposed but the planning office representative wasn’t interested in hearing my case and informed me they would do what they wanted. I asked a friendly architect to help. As it happened, he had had many previous encounters with this officer. Immediately the mood changed and it was all smiles and soft words. ‘You must stay in my Lakeland cottage again,’ said my friend to him. I’ve no reason to suppose the officer wouldn’t pay the going rate but I did notice that compromise and compensation suddenly became the name of the game.
Of course it’s not all one way traffic. Too many people, a minority of whom are actually voters, are too quick to blame the whole institution of government or dismiss all politicians and bureaucrats as untrustworthy simply because they don’t like a particular decision. We can’t like all the decisions of government, just as we can’t always get our own way in anything we do. That’s democracy. That’s life. The answer should be lobbying, demonstrating, compromising and, ultimately, voting.
But it does help if the people in charge genuinely listen to the people they serve.