Rampisham Factcheck #2: Democracy









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.

photo of Magna Carta (1297 version with seal, owned by David M Rubenstein) by Uploaded by J.delanoy. – http://www.rarebookreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/07-magna-carta_for-email.jpg.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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7 Responses to Rampisham Factcheck #2: Democracy

  1. robseago says:

    Very well stated Miles.

  2. David Dunlop says:

    “No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.”

    • Mark Fisher says:

      How many Freemen were there at that time of the Magna Carta? Probably less than 10%. Not exactly a universal franchise then? The Charter of the Forest from 1217 gave a right of access to a Royal Forest , but this right was given only to Freemen.

      • Yes indeedee Mark, too true. Now it’s 2015 we can play with framing and re-framing Magna Carta in a zillion different ways, examining it from every conceivable perspective, which would be no bad thing, and great fun of course.

        But in terms of this specific blog post, the play of Barons and Monarch doesn’t fit as well as today’s fairy tale on Rampisham factcheck #4 which is, imo, a lot closer to “reality”, “whatever that means” as the Monarch-in-Waiting might say.

        I recently found a copy of Dan Jones’ “Plantagenets” for 20p in a charity-shop. Check out pp 213-4 if you can, which gives Jones’ perspective of King John Lackland, barons and 13th century class structure:

        “‘The rich citizens were favourable to the barons,’ wrote the chronicler Roger of Wendover. ‘And the poor ones were afraid to murmur against them’.”

        “With London the rebel barons had their wedge.”

        In more ways than one! Fact is, the barons couldn’t give two hoots for “the people”. In a 3 or 4 or more tier social world, the barons/oligarchs wanted more power over the common people and Magna Carta was more about telling the monarch to butt out and give oligarchs more head in exploiting the common folk, land and other resources of England. City of London merchants and bankers then, as now, happy to get on the oligarchs’ coat-tails to make their wedge.

  3. Mark Fisher says:

    Miles, I’ve sat through so many meetings with people whose views have no mandate other than they were an employee of an organisation – and they were getting paid while they were there when I wasn’t! Its the difference between an elected councillor and a council officer. My days of being a councillor, but more relevantly in this case, a trustee of various national charities, made me acutely aware of what constituted representative opinion, and how that opinion was reached and given a mandate. Cripps has done the usual sleight of hand with the justification of the general rather than the specific. Has he sought a mandate from his trustees? Have they ever discussed Rampisham? Would we ever know, considering the lack of opacity there is in the governance of wildlife trusts? That’s not to say who is right or wrong in this situation, but as in the case of Magna Carta (and Animal Farm) some are more equal than others!

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Mark. I obviously can’t speak for Simon, but I do know that the Rampisham decision has sent shock waves through the conservation movement, both in Dorset and nationally. I would very surprised if any DWT trustees actually supported the proposal to build a solar factory on a SSSI in Dorset.

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