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News from Nick Palmer, Labour Party Spokesman, 12 December 2012

17th December 2012 Nick Palmer, Uncategorized, Updates from Politicians 0 Comments

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Just two things this time (you’ll maybe be relieved to hear – I had a few grumbles over the length of the last one!):

* Should churches be banned, allowed or forced to bless gay marriages?

* What does the Rushcliffe decision on housing numbers mean for us?

I’ll also mention in passing that 5700 families in Broxtowe are going to be affected by the real terms cut in Working Tax Credit, though this doesn’t kick in until April. Essentially WTC is designed to ensure that it pays to work (it transfers to people in work some of the benefits that they’d get if they were unemployed, so that the total always adds up to more). It’s another example of the way that budgetary savings are being skewed to focus at the lower end of the scale.

1. Should churches be forbidden, allowed or forced to bless gay marriages?

The debate on gay marriage started seriously but is now acquiring elements of farce. On the fundamental question of whether it should be possible for a gay couple to marry, all three main parties are in broad agreement that it should (UKIP disagrees). The realistic alternative was to make civil partnership identical in legal effect to marriage (there are still a few differences to tidy up – for instance, as I understand it, if you’re gay you don’t have an automatic right to visit your partner in hospital after an accident, as a spouse does), so it comes down to the symbolism.

The belief of the main parties, which I share, is that respecting the desire of couples to make a lifelong commitment to each other through marriage is such a good thing that it overcomes the reluctance which some feel to give the same status to a gay partnership as a traditional one. I didn’t initially feel very strongly about this, since the feedback I’ve had from gay friends was mixed (some were concerned that it would wind people up unnecessarily), but now the proposal is on the table I support it. I expect that Anna Soubry and I are at one on this.

But the debate has moved on to churches. The position is that some faiths (Quakers, Liberal Jews, Unitarians) want to bless gay marriages and some don’t (the marriage itself is a civil legal matter so we’re only debating here whether the church can celebrate it or not). There are three possible positions here:

• All faiths should be FORCED to bless gay marriages

• All faiths should be ALLOWED to decide if they want to bless gay marriages or not

• It should be ILLEGAL for established faiths to bless gay marriages

It seems to me rather clear that the middle option is right here. It is ridiculous to force someone to bless you if you know that in his heart he deeply disapproves of you: surely a blessing must be given freely or it’s meaningless? It is even more ridiculous to make it illegal for him to bless you if he wants to. Yet this, apparently, is what the Government now proposes.

Quite apart from anything else, this is going to be completely unenforceable. What if a pesky parson decides to marry a gay couple? Are the police going to raid the church and arrest everyone for taking part? And if you can imagine that, what happens if said pesky parson then decides to have a gathering in secret at his home, like a Christian group in Maoist China? Do the police build a network of Illegal Blessing Informers to tip them off? Don’t the Government have anything better to do with the police than this?

2. What does the Rushcliffe decision mean for us?

It’s very easy to lose the thread in complex planning debates, so I’ll try to summarise.

• Every borough is required by the Government to propose to build a certain number of homes over the next 15 years and to say roughly where they will allow them to be built.

• It’s generally agreed that if the advice of Broxtowe’s officers on housing need is taken, it will be necessary to allow building on a green area, the main proposals being Field Farm and Toton.

• Local Conservatives have organised numerous meetings to argue that the Lab-Lib coalition on the council should reject the officers’ recommendation and go for a much lower number. They pointed to Rushcliffe as an example: uniquely in the area, Rushcliffe decided to separate from the other councils and go for a low figure.

The new development is that the Government’s planning Inspector has rejected Rushcliffe’s proposal to build fewer homes on six grounds.

If you’re interested, you can see the full decision here:

http://tinyurl.com/rushverdict

The effect of this is that Rushcliffe has neither a current nor a future plan, so developers have a strong case to dismiss any objections to building anywhere in the borough, on the basis that the council has no alternative in sight.

The reason this matters to us is that it reinforces the point that I’ve been making for the last year, that it’s a very high-risk strategy to propose to undercut what officers believe that the Government will accept. The Government’s view is that there’s a shortage of homes that people can afford and every council should help to tackle it. They might be right or wrong, but we can’t ignore them – for better or worse, they’re the Government.

There is, frankly, nothing party political about this – the last government took almost exactly the same line, and if Labour wins next time I don’t expect it to change. Locally, though, the Conservatives have sought to cuddle up to every local campaign against development by claiming that the evil Lab/Lib council could have adopted the Rushcliffe strategy and therefore wouldn’t need to build on anywhere green at all. It was always a cynical stance out of step with Conservative national policy, and it would be nice if they would now engage with reality. Instead, their latest email is a classic “Look! Squirrel!” distraction: it glosses over the implications of the Rushcliffe outcome and instead trumpets a decision made in Eastern England (Norfolk etc.) that would have helped Rushcliffe on one of its six problems if it applied to the East Midlands – which it doesn’t.

The real position is that the Government requires Broxtowe to build more homes than is comfortable for us, and we should have a proper debate on which is least uncomfortable. At present, since all the parties are on the record as opposing the Toton proposal, it looks as though Field Farm will go through. If councillors (or MPs) want to change that, they need to start coming up with realistic alternatives. My own view is that we should encourage more brownfield development of good-quality blocks of flats in the towns, but that reflects my Continental background (nearly every city in Europe has lots of high-rise blocks, which they then look after properly so they don’t go to seed). Most people still seem wedded to the idea that we all need a house and garden. OK, but basically if we don’t build upwards (blocks) then we will end up building outwards (green fields).

Anyway, enough of these controversial thoughts – let me wish you a very happy Christmas and a cheerful 2013!

Best wishes

Nick

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