In local politics, it is tempting to feel powerless in the face of the big issues facing our society.
Brexit comes up a lot on the doorstep, and while I continue to believe that we are a stronger nation allied to the European Union than outside it, my role is to focus on what’s within our power to change as Councillors.
The Council often portrays itself as the victim of Government legislation, which obliges them to take certain decisions. Is there more they could be doing to challenge this situation? I am sure there is.
Take the current lack of affordable housing, for instance. The Government requires Councils to set targets for levels of affordable housing in new large scale developments. But in 2012 the law was changed to allow developers to avoid building affordable housing if this impacts on their 20% profit margin.
Developer viability assessments, which allow them to avoid providing affordable homes, are private documents. Councils can open these up to external examination, but Tunbridge Wells has not done this. So how many of the 108 flats proposed on the former cinema site are affordable? Not one.
Then there is the issue of vacant homes. A recent freedom of information request from the Lib Dems revealed that more than 11,000 homes across the country have been empty for longer than 10 years, and over 60,000 for more than 2 years. This includes 102 properties in Tunbridge Wells. Again, Councils have powers to take over properties which have been vacant for more than 2 years, but Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has not used these powers. At a time when people are sleeping rough on our streets, we have one hundred potential homes sitting empty.
And the Council is crying foul over Government rules introduced in 2013 which allow offices to be converted into residential without planning permission (via a process called permitted development). This has resulted in a lack of office space in our town, as offices are converted into lucrative residential flats.
What can Tunbridge Wells do? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. Councils such as Merton and Sevenoaks passed Article 4 directions to restrict the ability of developers to automatically convert offices in certain areas. Tunbridge Wells has not.
Passive Councils deliver poor results for residents. It’s time we stopped playing the role of the victim, and started taking our destiny into our own hands.