Time for a leap year dive into honest waters

Norfolk’s much-envied glories are under serious attack from excessive development – but our MPs and

Norfolk’s much-envied glories are under serious attack from excessive development – but our MPs and other county “top brass” remain uncannily silent on the subject.. - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper used the extra day at the end of February to take a look at where we are all heading in Norfolk

I'm devoting this precious extra day at the end of February, our Leap Year bonus, to call yet again for Norfolk's political, business, media and civic elite to look, listen and then join in one of the most important debates of our time.

It is a savage indictment of deafening silence, reasonably interpreted as blatant indifference, that it's nearly 35 years since the last truly meaningful instalment of "Let's weigh up exactly where we might be going".

A stirring speech by one of our parliamentary representatives in a safe Conservative seat (now, there's a novelty!) brokered a welcome fresh spirit of honesty between diehards manning the drawbridge and missionaries preaching the gospel of progress and prosperity.

The core question at the heart of surprisingly frank comments remains alarmingly relevant … how far and how fast we could go without surrendering ignominiously to commuters, congestion and convulsions brought on by artificial expansion fired by short-term thinking and the fast-buck philosophy

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John MacGregor's memorable "Carpet of Concrete" blast in the summer of 1986 prompted sighs of relief that at last someone influential had found the courage to speak out with a belief he really wanted new thinking on matters previously dismissed as off limits.

Like priceless meadows being sacrificed, not because the natives needed houses so much as strangers were demanding dormitories.

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The South Norfolk MP, then chief secretary to the Treasury, went on to become a key figure in the Thatcher and Major governments before being made a life peer as Baron MacGregor of Pulham Market in 2001.

His stark warning of how an increasingly popular place to live and work could turn into a "dormitory sprawl on a carpet of concrete" collected big headlines but scant support among his fellow MPs in the county, most of them also cushioned by big majorities.

Thankfully, several other leading figures did respond purposefully with eminent historian Correlli Barnett leading the way. He coined the term "The Middlesex Look" in the early 1970s to describe modern housing development in rural Norfolk. He moved here from Surrey.

He resumed a passionate argument against creeping urbanisation: "It's possible that through continued growth of popularity and industry, Norfolk might acquire what is defined as increased prosperity … but it will have lost something we greatly value.

"Perhaps those of us who have come from other parts of the country can see this more clearly because we value the difference". Sentiments to cherish from a gifted "incomer". There's been so little since to lift the Norfolk soul amid constant concreting over precious character .

Ironically, one of the best opportunities to at least bring the great development argument back into overdue focus fell to Richard Bacon, who took over John MacGregor's comfortable seat in 2001.

Mr Bacon, interviewed on a community radio station, claimed there couldn't be an upper limit on the number of new houses "needed in Norfolk" but called for changes in how development and pressures on local services are managed. The current housing system is broken, he added, and a "quiet revolution" needs to happen in Westminster. "Do I ever expect to tell the government that Diss is full? That Norfolk is full? No, I don't"

Well, he might be forced into a change of tune. In the meantime, he could always drop a few hints about the way his constituency has altered radically over his years as MP and express a measure of concern over an obvious erosion in quality of life in and around beleaguered places like Diss.

Or don't our temporary custodians of different blessed plots in a much-envied county see that as part of their daily business? I've been disturbed countless times over at the way so many of our elected representatives give a strong impression of being able and content to do - or not do - the same job anywhere in the country.

Predictably bland comments, evading awkward local questions for fear of rocking the national boat, come easy, especially to well-drilled characters parachuted into safe seats by party chiefs. That sort of arrangement can seriously dilute genuine pride and passion such a position demands and deserves.

The same goes for all others happy to wear Norfolk "movers and shakers" garb with accompanying perks. They must accept a duty to recognise what we stand to lose alongside drum-banging for "wonderful rewards" of wholesale change.

It's time for a Leap Year dive into honest waters.

SKIP'S ASIDE: Now, I don't like too much idle gossip in public. So I tend to tuck away the best, take it home, sift thoroughly before the 10 o'clock news and add to my giant collection.

It provides a handy snapshot of how Norfolk has changed or remained very much the same over about 60 years of subtle snooping, careful listening and honest reporting.

There's no point looking for juicy scandal on a wet and windy Cromer seafront when you, a fisherman smothered in oilskins and two seagulls complaining about the weather comprise a complete cast.

On the other hand, rich pickings abound on a sultry August afternoon in Sheringham when you drop in to find out how the area's second best seaside resort might be coping with visitors who keep asking where their pier is

I've given up waiting for old-fashioned jawing on public transport. Most fellow passengers are plugged into Primal Scream, Def Leppard or a Stephen King bedtime story. The rest are slouched over laptops or bellowing into their phones about unbridled joys of travel by train.

I used to garner useful little harvests of titbits during daily delights on the Bittern Line. It seems that generation gave up en masse when they simply ran out of cordial company intent on putting the world to rights between coast and city.

Talking of Norwich, it remains a lively source of meaningful gossip as I bump into old friends with plenty to share during my monthly visits for a mardle on Radio Norfolk's Teatime Show with Matthew Gudgin. The market place and various bookshops yield good new material.

On my home beat, a personal crusade to support high street shopping in Cromer and other local thoroughfares is based almost exclusively on the amount of gloriously unadulterated gossip on tap. Regular strolling has always brought handsome rewards.

I can't mention names but characters galore appear only too ready to spill the "did you know?" beans. There are no "non-disclosure clauses" in operation at present as I select providers known for complete discretion and perfect powers of recall.

I will share a few of my favourite bits of Norfolk gossip in this highly-respected column next Saturday. Full care will be taken to protect the innocent and guilty.

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