31 March 2017

Sundials and Democracy

First two warnings. There are people who will be upset by the contents of this blog. No personal offence is intended however, when the local democratic process and possibly planning laws are being circumvented then someone needs to speak out. A debate is needed. People need to be informed about decisions that are being made behind their back by a small number of people who belong to several local groups, in my words a cabal, about a much loved local green space and then to be allowed their say. Secondly, this is dry, very dry. Sit down with a drink whilst reading!

We can all agree that The Rotary Club of Aldridge working with Aldridge Croft Community Group, Aldridge Village Partnership and Walsall Council have brought about some lovely improvements to the environment of our 'village' centre. The Peace Garden by the Elms Island, the lovely improvements made to the Croft a couple of years ago and the Ellie (Simmonds) Sculpture have enhanced the village. The Aldridge Volunteer  Gardeners are out there in all weathers creating beautiful floral displays through the village and I cannot applaud them enough. They have brought honours in the forms of various awards over the last few years and long may they continue.

Alas, a proposal brought forward by the Rotary Club working with Aldridge Croft Community Group to install two sundials on what they call 'the crofts' (there is only one croft but the grass adjacent to the war memorial outside the church is being referred to as the 'little croft' by them, not a name that may be familiar to many) is probably not something you may not have heard about, let alone been able to express a view about and I believe, brings into disrepute the local democratic process. There appears to be a local cabal that is involved with all the local groups in Aldridge, that feel they are empowered to make decisions that affect the wider community and the village environment without reference to the community at large. Their intentions may be for the local good but the avoidance of true consultation and the democratic process means their intentions are meaningless.

The story begins nearly two years ago now. A proposal for the sundials project was put to a meeting of Aldridge Village Partnership by The Rotary Club. This proposal was never put to the vote but apparently was 'widely approved'. I take issue with this. How can something be widely approved if it hasn't been voted upon and has not been brought to the attention of the general population of Aldridge? The correct way for discussing changes to common and public areas of our village and in particular the Conservation Area around The Croft is to put it out to WIDE consultation through various methods including VISIBLE displays within the shopping centre, a display in the local library of several weeks and wide advertising of those events through local newspapers and social media. This is not an all encompassing list because there are other ways to consult with the people who live in Aldridge but you get the general idea.

Without wide consultation at any level and without discussion with the people of Aldridge about how money of the magnitude granted could be used to better the environment say for our young people, an application was made to the Tesco Bags of Help community grant scheme (this is where  your 5 pence for plastic carrier bags goes to) by the Aldridge Croft Community Group and they were granted £10,000, yes ten thousand pounds, for a proposed project for which no consultation had been carried out!

This is where the steam rollering begins in earnest. A small stall was set out in the shopping centre one Saturday last month to 'consult'. It must have been small and hidden because I went into the Village that grey and rainy day specifically to make my opinions known. I didn't see it. Following that there was a few weeks of non-publicised 'consultation' in the library where people were invited to make comments about the scheme. I am told the majority of comments were against the project however there is no proof either way because the evidence remains the property of one person.

So what is this project? Here's a leaflet:
Their plans seem to be changing and it is now believed that the first sundial will be located adjacent to the Children's Playground on The Croft and will be in situ by June this year. The information about that in their own words is as follows:

It is proposed that the Sundial be located to the side of the existing pathway that connects the Children’s Play Area to Little Aston Rd. This is in an area where some very old and diseased trees were removed and where the feature Tree Sculptures have been added.

We will use pavers, together with local red clay brick for the special features. These will include a selection of brickwork imprinted with verse, dates of significant conflicts and two sculpted brickwork features, set in the ground.

A white Peace Post will display words of Remembrance.

Single-leg information Lecterns will include Remembrance Poetry from local schools, information on the purpose of the sundial and acknowledgement of the sponsors.
The Peace Post and the Lecterns will be the only features that will be above ground level."

By June 2017? What has happened to Planning Permission? Surely changes to be made to what is a Common within a Conservation Area should be subject to planning permission? When a direct question about planning permission was asked at a recent Aldridge Village Partnership meeting of Bob Cooke, who is the sundial project coordinator, replied that no planning permission is needed. Really? The local planning department when asked the same question by at least two different people, replied that planning permission was most definitely needed.

So you may ask, why is planning permission so important. Under circumstances such as this where a scheme has been dreamed up, funding obtained and plans put in place for implementation with only lip service paid towards any consultation and discussion as to whether an enormous sum from a community charity should be used for such a scheme, it is the only avenue open for the general public to actually view the plans, consider the plans, to ask questions and to consider do we really need and want this. Apparently if anyone does have any questions, comments etc then they can contact Bob Cooke. Who is Bob Cooke I ask myself and how is he accountable to the local community. Point is he isn't. At least if a planning application is made and considered our local councillors and the planning committee can take into account the views of their constituents and be held accountable at the ballot box for any decisions made.

If you lead people to believe that the powers that be have already been consulted and that permission has been granted then just like in the George Orwell novel 1984, it becomes the truth. A search on the council web site for any such planning applications produces a big fat zero. That is the truth.

Do we need two sundials? They are apparently inspired by the analemmatic sundial located at The National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas. Aldridge is not Alrewas, nor a destination for those who wish to remember. It remembers its own in its own way. Aldridge already has a beautiful war memorial adjacent to the Parish Church, that is cherished by the local community and is the scene every year of an extremely well attended memorial service by both young and old. The young in particular are conspicuous in their presence because there are so many of them from various different groups. The local schools in the area have always held events for their students to inform of the role of local men in world wide conflict, I know because I have two children that have gone through the education system in Aldridge at different schools. Even Year One pupils are led to the memorial each year to begin the process of learning to pay your respects for those who have walked before them.

Alas the local services held each year may possibly be under threat but the memorial will still be there inscribed with the names of those young people from Aldridge who served and died. Many do not keep their visits to just a November Sunday. I go regularly as I do to the Commonwealth War Graves in the cemetery. I am not the only one and groups of school children can often be seen with their teachers taking something new from their surroundings. History projects abound, researching individual names on the memorial, the children learning that these young people had families who loved them just as they do.

I show you my card here. I personally see no need for sundials around the village centre. The children and young people of our community already learn and are educated about remembrance. They don't need something else to prompt them such as plastic poppies, bricks and posts. The older people don't need them either. There are benches there right by the memorial where weary legs can be rested and thoughts allowed to formulate. I don't need to see the grass right behind the memorial scarred by an unnecessary and totally inappropriate sundial. The clean run of grass gives a perfect setting to see the memorial in all its glory. Placing obstacles before it will merely obscure the present majesty.

Furthermore I do not wish more of the green space of the Croft, our village common, taken up by something that is so unnecessary. Let us spend that money obtained under what I believe are false pretences because there was no consultation with local people prior to asking for the money for a proposed project, on something that the young people of Aldridge really need. Consultation really should be carried out before a project seeks funding and not afterwards or even at all!

Let us close the gate on the local cabal horse race that gallops rapidly on making decisions about the future of the village with no meaningful consultation and a complete disregard for democracy. Let us also insist that no work is started on any project until it has been properly debated and discussed at all levels. Let the voices of Aldridge be heard. You don't have to agree with my point of view about the sundials. I just want everyone to be allowed their say.