It seems appropriate in this, the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, that the question of democracy and what it means in the 21st century, should be alive and kicking.
The Magna Carta was a huge turning point in British and world history. For the first time the Executive Authority of the King was challenged and he was brought under the rule of law, law created by people.
In the same way, while we may vote for elected politicians, they are still required to act within the law: otherwise we are left with elected dictatorships. This is why the Chilcot Enquiry into the Iraq war is so important – because it is investigating whether the Executive (ie the Government of the time) acted illegally, that is outside the rule of law, when invading Iraq in 2003.
What has this got to do with Rampisham, you might ask?
Today, The Dorset Wildlife Trust were accused of acting undemocratically by challenging the decision of West Dorset District Council, in giving planning permission to build a Solar Factory on Rampisham Down SSSI. According to the Bridport News, British Solar Renewables Director Giles Frampton said
“The democratic process had already spoken when the planning committee voted to support the facts.”
In the Dorset Echo today, an article suggested that Dorset Wildlife Trust had acted “undemocratically” in opposing the Solar development, apparently because some DWT members supported the development.
Taking the second issue first, this isn’t about democracy because DWT has very strict Charitable Purposes, which they are legally bound to work to achieve. Their purposes will be to further nature conservation, not promote renewable energy, so clearly there is no question of the members being able to excercise any democratic rights that are odds with their charitable aims.
The first issue is more interesting. Going back to Magna Carta again, we can say that the West Dorset District Council are the Executive power – they are equivalent to King John. DWT (and RSPB et al) are in the position of the Barons – they are saying –
“no WDDC you cannot place yourself above the law of the land”.
The law of the land in this case is the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended), and the National Planning Policy Framework. These are laws and legal instruments which the Executive are bound by, just as you and I are. It certainly appears from here that WDDC ignored their obligations to consider the law regarding the protection of SSSIs when approving the planning application.
If the Executive decides to ignore those laws, it is the democratic right of individuals and organisations to challenge decisions made by the Executive which flout the law. And this is exactly what has happened. DWT have used the legal mechanisms available to them to challenge what they regard as a decision which ignores the rule of law.
The National Planning Casework Unit, which is part of the Department for Communities and Local Government, will review the evidence of the case before recommending to the Secretary of State whether the planning permission should be called in. This is all part of the complex set of checks and balances which comprise democracy at work.
Far from acting undemocratically in challenging the legality of the planning decision at Rampisham, those 7255 people (to date) who have written to Eric Pickles asking him to call it in are acting in the deepest traditions of democracy in this country.