Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A disgraceful meeting

The town centre with the market cross. The proposed big supermarket would be just behind those white houses opposite.

I have just been to most disgraceful public meeting. I am reporting directly what I saw.

The question is of a medieval and sixteenth-century town centre's piece of green where the local football club has played for many years. Let me emphasise, it is only two narrow streets behind the town centre. Three minutes walk if that. Being a football pitch it is, well, football pitch size, plus some surrounding green for spectators. It's a small town so there are no surrounding walls and when the pitch is not in use people walk round it and over it. It is pretty well common ground.

A major supermarket wants it to build a very big supermarket on the pitch, something like an out-of-town one - but in town.

We don't know all the details but the supermarket might have talked to the football club first or not. It's not the most important thing now. The point is that matters were put in motion. Nothing of this was known by the public. Once news emerged strong opposition to the plan. The opposition conducted a survey of close on 1000 people and found that those it canvassed were against the scheme by about 20-1. One councillor, strongly in favour of the suermarket, dismissed the vote in the local paper, claiming that the silent majority who didn't vote or have the opportunity to vote, must have been for the supermarket. He was sure he could speak for his silent majority. Not that he asked them anything of course.

There follow public meetings that councillors don't attend. They try to ignore the opposition. The local paper runs and runs with it. The local MP considers that there should be some account taken of public opinion, that the local council is in fact obliged to consult the town on it. It is, after all, a huge historic change.

Now let's get this straight. The opposition as it stands is not saying that the plan to sell to the supermarket must be thrown out. They only say there should be a proper public consultation - as the county plan outlines.

Let us now cut to the chase.

The special meeting tonight is held in a hall clearly too small to accommodate all the people wanting to attend. An interesting decision. We are dangerously crowded, mostly standing and there are people waiting outside. The mood is ugly, or ugly-ish.

The public are allowed to ask questions, none of which is answered in any way that might be considered an answer. There are many questions involving timing and the keeping of records. Those very few responding from the council have, er, no records of when things happened.

The one answer that is eventually given about timing quotes some apparent stipulation that things must be done one particular way, that that way requires an immediate answer, and that time is so pressing that the supermarket's application must be pushed through now to compete with two unnamed other possible sites.

Two ex-councillors, very politely, query the question of timing and procedure. Their experience is different. Their experience is not ancient but very recent: their queries are not answered.

The chief question of why the council want to sell the space to the supermarket is never answered, though all councillors are pressed to answer it. Almost all sit there like dummies.

One eventually suggests, in the vaguest possible terms, that 'it would be good for the town'.

There is, in fact, a good case for a middle-range supermarket of that range in town, though not in the town centre (there is already a good sized Co-op right in there, in place of the old Woolworths, and a Waitrose on the way out), but there are two brown field sites available, slightly less central. Yes, but this is the site the supermarket wants. This is the one the council quite desperately want to have included among the possibilities.

A map break:

The town centre is the A shape third square from the left at the bottom. The football pitch is the space just above the first little white road after the yellow road that forms the top of the A, just SW from where it says 4.1 It's a central as anything can be.


Finally, there is the proposal, as above, that does not call for the supermarket plan to be dropped only that time should be allowed for a proper consultation process. This proposal is eloquently argued in great detail, and two other councillors speak for it.

Nobody, but nobody speaks against it - let me repeat it that - nobody speaks, squeaks, mutters, mumbles - nothing. They remain dummies. Eventually, the same man who suggested that things had to be done in a particular way in a hurry, repeats that without any evidence for its questionable truth and that is the sum total of reasons for rejecting the proposal.

We should remark that the council includes members who were never voted in, who simply took seats unopposed. They are among those supported the supermarket bid.

The clerk reads the amendment (amendment to the earlier council vote to support the bid) a few times.

A vote is taken, the amendment is defeated.


All around me there are, as you might expect, suggestions I wouldn't care to repeat but do feel free to talk about them among yourselves. No doubt the local people will. You may also imagine the mood of those who stayed there, standing for an hour and half in a hot packed hall in their winter coats, having no room to take them off - older people as well as younger, mostly courteous intelligent people - who have listened to one side being explained in great detail, the other never stated or defended. They have asked questions not one of which has been answered.

They think: a bunch of craven dummies have sold us down the river. They didn't even have the guts to say anything in defence of their actions. They think: what a despicable crew, and if despicable, what more?

I wouldn't suggest anything myself, of course, but you might, and some will. Weigh it up: democracy versus money. Hard choice.

Finally, please note, I am not attacking this proposal primarily on the grounds of 'character' and certainly not out of Nimbyism. I am attacking it for the disgraceful conduct of a council that shows clear contempt for democratic process. I would like to point particularly at those silent councillors. One can't help wondering why they were silent. You are free to carry on wondering.

For more information and background go here.


Anonymous said...

Hi George,

down here in the West saw the opposite happen in response to a proposal to build a supermarket on a site in Ashburton that was/is part of a retail/mini business unit on the edge of town and another on the site of the former police station......massive local protest by the shopkeepers, the townsfolk and the local councillors acting in unison to have the plans overturned through posting objections to the Dartmoor National Park planning approval committee....same experience of too many people turning up to the public meeting held at St Lawrence Chapel to fit in- but we all filed out into outdoor space to hear the case put by our Chair of Chamber of Commerce, and the representative from the Co-op and then points from the floor - and then, through the volume of opposition and the detailed nature of some of the responses to the planning application and supporting data, local response of a no to a supermarket on that site won the day.....so maybe the art is to muster an action group and deal with it through the formal process of written objection, all the way to the planning application stage - if you muster that support now, who is going to want to buy the land?

Anonymous said...

and having thought about it while walking to the shops to buy the morning paper, I'd say the key issues are likely to resolve around the question of who owns the land - town council?-how are decisions supposed to be made - town council's constitution and policies and protocols which should be followed - and then to look at whether the Councillors have adhered to their own policy framework in their decision making process and, if not, to challenge them appropriately quoting their own governing structures and asking them either to adhere to them or stand down as elected representatives of the townsfolk, since the legitimacy of their position depends on their acting in accordance with the legal and executive framework of the Council's structure and decision making process......point is we don't live in a democracy with rule by the people, but in a representative democracy where we elect individuals to posts to make decisions on our behalf, and for that to work well, there has to be a continuing and active dialogue from a citizenry that is awake and suitably prepared to challenge decisions of those elected and call them to account. Good luck...Julia Cazorla

Fiona Sinclair said...

The problem is the supermarkets have so much power. I guess they want to be closer to the town center to cut out the opposition.

I wonder if the council needs the money for other things?

It is wrong that a piece of green land is to be eaten up.
In Faversham Tescos at least too over the old brewery and made a sympathetic job of it.

Surely this might be a time for more direct action. Making a more creative fuss ..if of course the rest of the tow
n can be bothered.

Gwil W said...

The word Schmiergeld* immediately springs to mind.

Ger: spread money i.e back-handers.

Oh George, why am I such an old cynic?

George S said...

Julia - there is an action group. I didn't link to it last night but have done this morning. See new last line of post. I was doing so many things earlier I couldn't do much more than sign a petition, and though I am still doing far too much, attendance at yesterday's meeting has spurred me on to write this post.

Fiona - Yes, they said they did need the money for other things but there wasn't much there not only covered or possible to cover from other sources. Clearly the supermarket in question - let's name it, ASDA - must have offered a very large sum, contingent on it being only for that particular site, not the two brownfield ones. I think the town can be bothered.

Gwilym -The English version of schmiergeld was on plenty of lips last night. The silence of the councillors who, having heard everything, voted down the amendment without arguing along the lines Fiona describes - a possible argument for the public good albeit at a sacrifice - suggests to me that they are acting under legal advice. That would only be necessary of there was something to be silent about.

Anonymous said...

I smell a rat. It sounds (as you say in your last comment) as if there's some sort of secret deal going on.

A few years ago here in Lancaster we successfully stymied an application by teh Priory Church who wanted to build a car park on a green hilltp site immediately outside the C12th Priory Church.

How we did it was to apply for the area to be made a Town Green, a form of protection for areas that have been enjoyed in common for several years. We failed, but it's quite a powerful instrument because once the application goes in, all work has to be stopped until the outcome is known.

Our application was rejected (surprise surprise) but by then we had managed to tie the Church up in very costly specialist barristers who had to come up from London, as the precise legal issues were beyond the expensive local firm of solicitors they engaged, used as they are to conveyancing and divorces.

It's quite an undertaking and can feel like it's beginning to take over your life, but in our case, it was worth it in the end. We generated such a lot of publicity that I hope it shamed the Church into quietly dropping the idea.

Best of luck!

Dafydd John said...

Costa moved into premises in Aberystwyth 2-3 years ago and opened for business before getting any planning permission from the council. Their attitude then was: go on then, what are you going to do about it. Shortly afterwards a small independent cafe directly opposite closed. Needless to say, I never go there. Sadly, many do.

And now we have Tesco looking for the trough. Houses and buildings have to be demolished to make way for them. But there's one brave soul who insists that she's not going anywhere!