The Conservative nomination
for the Lovelace by-election has been announced. It is Ben Paton an Ockham resident, a member of the Guildford Greenbelt Group and a vociferous opponent of the Draft Local Plan, especially the proposal to build a large housing development on the Wisley airfield site.
It is understood that the selection was not without controversy: Mr Paton has been highly critical of Guildford’s Tory council. But the selection was made under the auspices of the Mole Valley Conservative Association as the Lovelace Ward comprising Ripley, Wisley as Ockham falls within the Mole Valley parliamentary constituency area, not Guildford’s.
The Mole Valley MP, Sir Paul Beresford, is known to be sympathetic to those campaigning for the preservation of the green belt.
In an exclusive interview with The Guildford Dragon NEWS Mr Paton talks about his background and the reasons he made the decision to stand as a candidate:
Questions asked by Martin Giles.
Tell me something of your background.
Although originally from Ockham, I have lived and worked most of my life in London, but also in Boston, Paris and Geneva. I qualified as a chartered accountant and worked in corporate finance but spent most of my career at Fidelity Investments.
I moved out of London in 2005 into a house in Ockham which my grandmother first rented in 1932. I wanted my children to have access to the serenity of the countryside and to the facilities in Guildford and London. These villages have kept most of their character since my childhood although much has changed – especially the traffic.
My family history has a mix of different influences, English, Scottish, and American and perhaps some others besides. So I’m happy to be a mongrel.
What has made you decide to stand in the Lovelace by-election?
I am standing to serve the people of Lovelace Ward at a time when it is proposed to build twice as many houses in this ward in the next fifteen years as in the whole of the last thousand years altogether. The proposals are so shocking I have decided to run for election despite never having been a ‘politician’.
I am appalled at the way the Local Plan is being forced onto residents. Most of those houses are planned to go on the green belt. By law “exceptional circumstances” are required to change the boundaries of the green belt. None have been proven.
The draft plan is being assembled in the wrong order. The preliminary Access and Transport study is wholly inadequate. The mandatory Conservation Area Character Appraisals for Ripley and Ockham, the Habitat Regulations Assessment for Ockham Common and the Sustainability Appraisals for our villages have not been completed.
The estimate of housing need in the borough is based on faulty demographic data. The evidence base is a moving target and much of it is factually wrong. I have expressed many of these concerns when speaking on behalf of a number of petitions asking for changes to the draft Local Plan.
Lovelace Conservatives, who are equally appalled, have persuaded me to run as a conservative. Cllr John Garrett [the late councillor for Lovelace Ward] spoke and voted against this draft Local Plan whenever he could. Stated Conservative policy is to protect the green belt. Like John, I intend to represent, forcefully, local residents’ concerns on this and other matters.
Why are you standing as a Conservative candidate? How long have you been a Conservative party supporter?
Last year Surrey County Council unanimously resolved ‘to use its power to protect Surrey’s green belt’ and ‘that any green belt development in the County is in line with the needs and wishes of Surrey residents’. My conservatism is much closer to the views of the people in the Borough and to Party policy than that of the Executive in Guildford.
I’m a citizen first, a human being second and a conservative third.
For me conservatism is about conserving things; about following the rule of law, keeping the ‘show on the road’, fair competition and cooperation.
Civilisation is a fragile thing and it needs to be consciously conserved. Fairness is not a natural condition – it is enforced by law. English Law is one of Britain’s jewels. People are not so much created equal as made equal under and by the law. Good law is made and also begotten – because it is only good if people of good conscience can abide by it.
Keeping the show on the road means continuous investment to sustain and improve what we have. Competition, in the best sense of the word, is about letting all ideas get a fair hearing and letting the best ideas win, in the sense of getting adopted. Politics is about cooperation and trust, without which our civilisation would quickly collapse.
If you are elected do you expect to be fully accepted and trusted by the Conservative group at Millmead, given your vociferous criticism of their handling of the Local Plan?
Yes. Democracy is a system for representing the truth which people experience to power, for the governed to speak to the governors.
It doesn’t work like that everywhere. In some countries the media are controlled by a one party government and truth is not always apparent. But in England, since King John signed Magna Carta and King Charles I lost his head because he would not listen to parliament, we have a noble tradition of dissent.
The free competition of ideas is essential to progress and to improvement. Enquiry and criticism are better problem solvers than conceit and self satisfaction.
The popes didn’t like the protests of William of Ockham or Martin Luther. But they had to improve their game.
You can’t make a good football team with eleven goal keepers or eleven centre forwards. By analogy you would not make a good council with group think and yes-men and yes-women.
Given that any Local Plan has to be approved by a planning inspector how much control does the borough council really have?
In fact the Localism Act reduced the powers of the Planning Inspector. So the problem is not that the council does not have enough power. It is that the council is using its power to select evidence to suit its policy, to ignore other evidence and to ignore the public response to the consultations.
The council has complete control within a broad range. It is using that control to force this local plan through.
The will and aspirations of local voters should decide the Local Plan we end up with. The challenge is to make sure the aspirations of local voters are met – not those of the “Construction and Development Complex”, or some unaccountable bureaucrats in Millmead.
It is not honest to tell voters that the council does not control the Local Plan. The council has control. Councillors are responsible. Voters must hold councillors to account for the plan created by them and in their name.
How many new homes/houses do you think the borough can tolerate over the next 15 years and where should they go? Should any green belt be relinquished?
There are objective facts and subjective judgements.
Objective facts are that: Guildford is built in a gap in the north downs created by a river. The river valley is a natural constraint which cannot be ignored and a natural asset which we should enhance; local infrastructure has a finite capacity. Some of it is already at capacity; green belt is intended to be permanent. It can only be changed if exceptional circumstances necessitate change. No such circumstances have yet been presented; much of the borough is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) where development is effectively prohibited.
Subjective judgements include: whether we should increase the housing stock to cope with the high levels of net international immigration which we have seen in recent years and whether we should accept more traffic congestion?
In my view the Local Plan must: cater for local need not international demand or developers’ aspirations; be based on statistically sound demographic projections (it isn’t); recognise the real constraints on housing growth – including the green belt.
It is a disgrace that: the council has not built council housing for twenty years – it should remedy that directly not indirectly; the council has not disclosed its demographic projections (my Freedom of Information request for the demographic model is still waiting for a response – it is a month late); the Scrutiny Committee’s resolution to review the housing numbers has not been actioned.
Building houses indiscriminately is not intelligent economic strategy. Spain and Ireland built more in the last 50 years than in the previous 1,000 years. It was expected to transform their economies. It didn’t. It made property developers rich but resulted in empty houses and excessive debt.
What are the main infrastructure challenges we face and what solutions do you think should be considered?
Population first and last. Everything flows from that. Government builds infrastructure for people. But people and infrastructure go hand in hand. Everyone agrees that local roads and schools are at capacity. Although national planning policy talks about “environmental limits”, it is taboo to say that population is at capacity.
The problems and the solutions are no longer local. Free movement of people and capital in Europe means the local housing market is not “local” any more.
Anyone using the A3 and M25 daily knows that they are at capacity. But they are owned and managed by national not local agencies. Their purpose is to serve intercity not local traffic. The council has no authority over these roads. At over £30 million a mile to build, it does not have resources to build such infrastructure.
Green belt land is infrastructure not wilderness. It is a measure of the ‘environmental limits’ which the NPPF [National Planning Policy Framework] speaks of. It is not a free resource to be raided at will. It was, and is, intended to be permanent. The NPPF clearly states that brown field land should be used up first before green belt land is even considered. And green belt land can only be built on in “exceptional circumstances”. Net international immigration is not an exceptional circumstance which justifies destroying our green infrastructure.
Infrastructure and population are national issues which the council cannot solve. But it can and must protect the green belt.
Why should Lovelace voters vote for you?
A breath of fresh air is still free in this borough. The opportunity to go outside and be uplifted by beauty is still free. A place at a school, run by the county, is still free.
So-called development will make everything more expensive and some things impossible. We’ll have to pay to park and pay to drive on a toll road. Our non money costs will all rise: the costs of sitting stationary in a traffic jam or finding a school place, or worrying about graffiti and other signs of societal breakdown will all go up.
Developers make money for themselves now. The non money costs are paid for later by other people who can’t move out and move on to the next development. In some Japanese cities you can buy a breath of fresh air with money. [Do we want to] pay for fresh air in England? Measured air pollution at the junction  of the A3 and M25 is already the worst outside London. This is our “Green and Pleasant Land” not some developer’s backyard.
I want full disclosure not economic dogma; verifiable facts not visionary fantasy; choice not fait accompli; accurate summary not an incomplete, disorganised data dump; quality not quantity. I believe Lovelace voters want the same things.