In our series on Darlington's political leaders, local democracy reporter Gareth Lightfoot speaks to a Green councillor about development, urban sprawl and who should run the town

Confrontational politics do not have to be the way forward, argues Councillor Matthew Snedker.

"Most voters will spend their entire life with red versus blue,” he says.

“What I’d like to show to people is that we do politics differently,” says Darlington’s Green Party group leader.

He says he prides himself on finding common ground and ways forward, "genuinely questioning bad decisions" rather than scoring points.

“I said in 2019, it shouldn’t be one party running this council. And I stand by that.

“It should not be Conservatives and it should not be Labour running this town, because the voters didn’t see fit to give either party a clear majority.”

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But Cllr Snedker says there is a “built-in democratic deficit” in Darlington, with decision-making concentrated in a handful of cabinet councillors.

“We in the Green Party say that leads to decision-making that is not as representative, consultative nor as well performed as it could be.”

He says he is looking for a “collaborative approach” which worked well on Covid, “but unfortunately it didn’t transfer to other things”.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Matthew Snedker. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Matthew Snedker. Picture: Northern Echo.

He cites the Darlington Local Plan, which contains the controversial Skerningham development, as one of those areas. He has branded it “dreadful”.

He believes voters viewed events over the plan, passed earlier this year, “very cynically”.

He says: “They’ve seen Conservatives turn a 180-degree U-turn on this and back the plan. They’ve seen Labour U-turn and oppose the plan.

“Whereas the Green Party have been consistent in our stance and our messaging.”

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He says he would like to see “strong local planning documents” added to the plan.

“These would reframe the Local Plan for the long-term benefits of the town and its residents rather than the short-term profits of the housing developers.

“We’re not saying we’re against house-building. I like houses. I live in one. But the plan has been designed around pleasing the developers.

“Only a few years ago, Darlington Borough Council officers and members agreed that Skerningham was the wrong place for housing.

“But the developers decided they wanted the easy greenfield and that’s what’s won the day.

“Why have we decided to throw the jewel in the crown to the wolves?”

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He says it comes down to “desperately low” funding, with the council forced by national Government cuts into spending its reserves.

“It’s throw up the houses quickly, hope they sell and then the council tax should come in.

“We don’t have the financial resilience to stand up to developers.

“We don’t seem to get from central Government any concrete move to rebalance who’s in charge of building houses and making communities.

“We’re going in the wrong direction.

“I feel we’re going to have to deal with the consequences of this urban sprawl.”

Nevertheless, he says he is working hard with residents to bring forward the design for Skerningham: “This is an opportunity to set the bar for Darlington.”

He believes the Local Plan will “loom large” in voters’ minds at next year’s election.

And, he says: “They will see the gradual decline in quality of basic services like roads, pavements. They will see bus services continue to be unreliable.

“And they will question, as they should do, where’s our money being spent, why are the promises not being kept?

He says headlines are grabbed by millions of pounds from the Towns Fund, but “this is one-off, it’s spent once and it’s gone”.

He is pleaded to see a focus on flytipping, anti-social behaviour and building council houses.

“But it’s been hamstrung by funding.

“I don’t really see us being particularly nimble or creative in how we do things. There doesn’t seem to be joined-up thinking.”

As for the Greens: “More than a fifth of the vote came to the Green Party but we only got two councillors.

“We saw in 2019 a really broad support for us across the town.

“And we feel that vote will grow and produce more councillors.”


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