Regional spokeswoman

Leading councillor Moira Gibson is determined to ensure that the South East's views are still heard despite government moves to abolish the regional assembly, writes Susanna Gillman.

Gibson: fighting for regional voice
Gibson: fighting for regional voice

Moira Gibson reflects wryly that as soon as she took over as chairwoman of the regional planning committee at the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) the government decided to abolish the parent body and its counterparts across England.

The regional assemblies' looming closure, which is due to see planning powers transferred to regional development agencies by 2010, could be disheartening. But Gibson is committed to making the best of the next three years and in particular to ensuring that councillors have a voice at regional level in the future.

"It is unclear what powers of scrutiny and veto local authorities are likely to have under the new arrangements," she says. "Whatever you think of regional assemblies, they have had some democratic accountability. At least 70 per cent of members are elected councillors. Now powers will be going to an unelected, government-appointed body."

- Assembly stands up for region

For the time being, however, SEERA remains in the driving seat, just as deliberations on future development in the region are at a crucial juncture. "Our voice may be slightly weakened because everyone knows that we will not be here in three years' time. But we will use our powers to do our best for the region," she promises.

Gibson will have the interesting task of trying to pull together opposing views on development. The South East Plan public examination panel has called for house building to be increased from 28,900 to 32,000 a year (Planning, 31 August, p1). Prime minister Gordon Brown's drive for three million more homes nationally by 2020 will add fuel to the fire.

Some antagonism towards the prospect of vast numbers of additional homes might be expected from Surrey Heath Borough Council's Conservative leader. But Gibson does not see things in such stark terms.

She and many of her Tory colleagues recognise the need for development as long as it is backed up by infrastructure investment. "We get a bit tired of being portrayed as nimbies who do not want more housing and are putting up the barricades. That is not the case," she insists.

SEERA has calculated that £89 billion of infrastructure spending is needed to support the growth levels proposed in the draft South East Plan. If it is right, the government's pledge to share £19 billion between the South East and the East of England will barely be noticed. "The figure trips off the tongue but actually it defies belief," Gibson remarks.

"There was once a view that you could get it all out of developers, but that is impossible for such a level of infrastructure," she maintains. "Yes, we can take growth. We may not like it but we understand the economic reasoning. But it must be followed by some of this investment."

As well as the next stages of the regional strategy, Gibson is overseeing a potentially controversial review of Gypsy and traveller housing needs that will take until 2009 to finalise. The constant cycle of reviews may be frustrating, but she sees it as the only way of making the strategy a living document. "Some parts were written two or three years ago. But it has been so long coming to fruition that we need to see whether things have moved on. If we do not, the plan just becomes static," she argues.

For Gibson, it is impossible to be a councillor and not be interested in planning. "If you ask any councillor what most residents contact them about it is either rubbish collection or planning. It is the issue that touches people most. They become very emotional because it really affects their lives," she finds.

Sixteen years as a member at Surrey Heath have honed Gibson's understanding of such issues. She has experience on the planning committee and has been involved in drawing up the council's local development framework. She says she is comfortable with her role at the borough because she is "closer to local people", helping to balance their needs with the aspirations of business and economic development.

She is not afraid of a stand-off with ministers, but she believes that debate should focus on what is deliverable for the region rather than splitting along party lines. "We are proud that the South East is the engine of the UK and do not want to see that end," she adds. "Even as Conservatives we have never said no to growth. We have called for managed growth. That is still our position."

Yet with the Labour government intent on scrapping an organisation that prides itself on being "the voice of the region", where does that leave people such as herself? "It will not stop us speaking," she affirms. "Whether we have the powers or not, we will continue to be a voice for the South East." CV

Age 57

Family: Single

Education: Law degree, Newcastle University; qualified as member of Lincoln's Inn

Interests: Property, Labrador dogs, painting

2007: Chairwoman, South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) regional planning committee

2004: Member of SEERA regional planning committee

1998: Leader, Surrey Heath Borough Council

1991: Councillor, Surrey Heath Borough Council.

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