Local Campaigners suspect political influence in Community Garden decision process

Posted on June 8, 2010 by

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Campaigners in Portswood have raised concerns that the recent election may have had an undue influence on the progress in securing the NBSP Community Garden, as crucial reports have been withheld from local residents by the Council for months longer than promised.  The councillor responsible for overseeing the application (who also happens to be the former Conservative parliamentary candidate for Southampton Test in the recent election) has now promised some ‘good news’ that he will reveal at an upcoming residents’ meeting, despite residents’ requests for the news to be given beforehand to avoid further disappointment over more empty promises.

The site of the proposed 3/4 acre Community Garden

The reports are for a Soil Survey conducted at the site, which was conducted in order to identify the extent of industrial contamination on the land, and was funded by the City Council and the University of Southampton.  The council have claimed that the potential contamination is a risk to users of the site, however independent experts have pointed out that the contamination, although present, is  dealable with and can be solved with funding available from various organisations.

In order to resolve the issue the survey was carried out in January and the report completed in February, at which point Council Officials said in an email (which was cced to Councillors) that they would forward on the report to residents once they had read it.  However, over 3 months later the report has not been handed over, preventing any progress on the project in the meantime and preventing any potential start on the land this growing season.

Suspicions have grown amongst campaigners supporting the residents’ plans that the Tory Council may have delayed, or at least ignored and put down the to-do list, the process for political reasons.  Councillor Jeremy Moulton, who as Southampton City Council’s Cabinet Member for resource planning has been the principal contact for the proposal, recently stood for the Conservatives in the General Election against Alan Whitehead in Southampton Test and would have needed a big swing to unseat him.  Residents in the Portswood area might not have given the Tories that swing, however, based on the Council’s previous intransigence regarding the project, whereas Alan had been supportive of the Project since the beginning and has even researched parallel examples for such a project to assist with it.  A rejection before the election might have seriously undermined votes for the Tories in Portswood.

Some feel that the Council’s stated concerns over contamination are not in fact its strongest concerns regarding the Project, as the land itself is worth £1.1-1.3 million and was earmarked to be sold until proposals for development were previously defeated by residents and undermined by a sluggish market, leaving the land in limbo.  Although the Garden has been proposed on a ‘Meanwhile Basis’, i.e. that it uses the land only as long as the council does not sell it, some suspect that the Council is more concerned by a legal change brought in by the previous government, which allows community groups to claim ownership of land used by them after only a few years.  If this were to happen the Council would lose the exclusive right to sell off the land, with it instead being guaranteed for the local community.  As a result, it is possible that the Council might prefer to prevent a Project such as this going ahead in order to not lose some of its capital, and that eventually a decision against it might be in the pipeline and a fight on the local residents’ hands.

Despite the delay, Councillor Moulton recently contacted the residents’ group to let them now that he reckoned he had some good news to tell them, and will attend the NBSP Resident meeting which is being held on the 24th June 2010 at Brickfield road scout hut to reveal it.  Residents are however asking that he lets them know the ‘good news’ before the meeting due to concerns that it will just be more empty promises and will disappoint residents who make the effort to attend the meeting to hear about it.

Although The Blowhole could not accuse the Council of directly attempting to influence the timing of the decision, it would be very unfortunate if they had done so, as the Project has lost valuable time and momentum as a result, with residents kept in the dark.  In the long run it would also be unfortunate to deny the local community such a precious resource as a Community Garden in preference to making a future profit from the land, even if the money would be redistributed into Council services (it has been proposed for that money to go to schools, but the Garden has also been designed to be an educational resource for Southampton’s schools, thus providing a valuable service for them).  The Council has been supportive in improving a nearby recreation ground, which although it is very welcome for local residents it would be disappointing if this was calculated as a limited gesture of compensation instead of the community if the garden was denied.  We would also encourage Councillor Moulton to be more forthcoming in his news as per the wishes of the local residents.

UPDATE

At the meeting, which no Councillor attended in the end but a Council representative spoke, it was stated that the delay in releasing the report is purely due to problems with the company that produced the report, and that it had to be approved by various people before being released.  However, over 2 months later the report is still nowhere to be seen despite it being said at the meeting that it was imminent.  It seems that the Council seem to be not treating the issue with any particular urgency or importance, thus putting local residents through yet more uncertainty and irritation.

It has also become apparent that the picnic area recently installed by the NBSP group in Portswood recreation ground has been earmarked for the expansion of the adjoining tennis courts by the Council, including a new court and club house (turning the public courts into a private club).  This is based on a survey of court users around 5 years ago (in which only a few participated), and wasn’t acted upon until Jeremy Moulton proposed resurrecting it very recently.  Why has it resurfaced now just as NBSP have put in an improvement for the local community?  And why did this all constitute ‘good news’ as originally stated?

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Posted in: News, Southampton