We Got A Parish Poll, And What Happened At The Town Meeting

The Chatteris Annual Town Meeting took place on Thursday 28th April. The meeting was well attended by Save Wenny Road Meadow supporters and Friends of Wenny Road Meadow members.

We succeeded in securing a Parish Poll on the future of Wenny Meadow. In this update, Kirsty Patterson (Secretary, Friends of Wenny Road Meadow) shares her account of what happened at the meeting.

Thank you to Rob Morris for the photographs of the meeting.

The Annual Town meeting took place yesterday evening.

These notes come with the caveat that this is my own personal summary of the meeting from my perspective. I was, deliberately I think, wound up at times so there will no doubt be other people who may view the meeting differently from their own perspectives.

What happened?

We requested a parish poll on the question “Would you like Wenny Meadow to be designated as a Local Green Space and protected from development?” which received nearly three times the needed 10 members of the electors to support it.

As a formality, the Town Meeting also had to vote on the question before it could be put to a Parish Poll. The vote was passed with 31 yes, three no and three abstentions. The members of the Town Council (four out of seven were eligible to vote) did not take part in this vote.

What happens next?

There will be a public ballot on the question “Would you like Wenny Meadow to be designated as a Local Green Space and protected from development?” This will take place within the next 14-25 working days and will be an in-person ballot open between 4-9pm.

We will need to publicise the poll once we know when and where it will take place so please let us know if you would be happy to help.

I heard there was drama?

We had, perhaps naively, hoped that by moving straight to a Parish Poll there would be no need to debate the issue at the Town Meeting. It is now up to the electorate. However, it didn’t pan out like that.

The ‘Questions for the public’ which should have been agenda item 6 was moved to the end of the meeting. This was sensible, especially since two members of the Council left as they didn’t want to hear the debate, and the debate was lengthy. It meant a very late night though for those of us attending with children.

A few questions had been asked about housing and green space before I put up my hand. The Chair, Mayor Linda Ashley, nodded at me at which point I stood up to ask my prepared question. I was asked if my question was about Wenny Meadow and Cllrs Benney and Murphy left the room.

Before I was allowed to ask my question, Mayor Linda Ashley and Cllr Bill Haggata said they wanted to ‘show [me] something’. Cllrs Ashley and Haggata presented a pre-prepared speech including a large photoboard provided by the developer. They stated that Save Wenny Road Meadow have misled people, building on the meadow will increase the publicly accessible green space and Cllr Haggata read from the Biodiversity Net Gain Assessment. Cllr Haggata twice stated that there would be a biodiversity net gain of 10%. Unfortunately, Cllr Haggata has misunderstood the documents and was rebutted by a member of the public who read from the developers own letter: “As confirmed by our own report it is unavoidable to not have a net loss of habitat on this site”.

After more than 10 minutes I tried to present my question to the room. The Annual Town Meeting is a meeting of the electors, not of the Town Council. However, Mayor Linda Ashley and the Councillors present did not seem to be aware of that and tried to prevent me from asking a question to the Town Meeting. They stated that I needed to address my question to Councillors only. This was incorrect.

I was threatened with being removed from the room on four occasions for raising my voice. The first time was when Mayor Ashley said ‘when they build on this part…’ and I called out ‘The application has not yet been approved!’. I was also told if I wanted to address a question to the whole room I would have to arrange my own meeting.

Eventually, after further delays, I was allowed to ask my question: I would like to propose a Parish Poll on the question: “Would you like Wenny Meadow to be designated as a Local Green Space and protected from development?” I asked for 10 seconders and received a show of hands. I’m not sure of the exact number of people who supported this motion as the Town Clerk said it was not necessary to record the names and number of supporters but it was in the region of 25.

This should have been the end of the debate, since the question is now in the hands of the electorate, save for the formality of voting on the question at the meeting. I tried to move to a vote on numerous occasions, but this nearly didn’t happen at all. Mayor Linda Ashely even tried to close the meeting without holding the vote at one point.

During the course of the debate several accusations were made:

  • Mayor Linda Ashley repeated her assertion that the public has been misled about the size of the development. This is despite the fact our leaflets carried the developer’s own plans for the site.
  • Mayor Linda Ashley and Chatteris TC Finance Officer threatened to put up the Town Council Precept to cover the cost of the Parish Poll. They claimed the poll will cost £13,000. Firstly, this figure is over-inflated. Previous Parish Polls for towns much larger than Chatteris have cost in the region of £3-£5,000. The only expense will be polling staff for 5hrs (most likely two), a venue (the Library is available to the Council for free for this purpose) and the printing of ballot cards. Polling cards are not sent out so there is no postage cost. Secondly, how much are they going to add to the Parish Precept? £1.30 per person at worst. And then they would need to take it out again next year! This is what Town Council contingency should be used for and guidance says that Town Councils should plan for this.
  • A member of the public became aggressive and shouted at two people at the back of the room. He swore at a third member of the public when they asked him to sit down. He then lunged at a fourth member of the public, putting his face right up to their cheek, and snarled into their face. When electors called on the Chair to manage the situation the Mayor and the Town Clerk said they had not seen anything.
  • This same member of the public stated that “When Hilary Bailey was running this campaign she agreed that there would need to be compromise. I was good friends with Hilary Bailey and she would have been happy with this application. Unfortunately, this campaign has been hijacked and Hilary has lost interest and moved away.” This is simply not true and it is totally unfair to bring another member of the public into a debate when they aren’t even present.
  • Cllr Julie Smith questioned why we needed to have a poll. They pointed to the fact that the outcome of Parish Poll is not legally binding. I responded that I would hope that a mandate from the public via a Parish Poll would be taken on board by our representatives and that as a result they would adopt a policy to support the designation of Wenny Meadow as a Local Green Space. Another member of the public pointed out that LGS designation is a material consideration in planning matters. I also responded that if the Town Council was to adopt the mandate from a Parish Poll to support LGS designation then it would be contradictory to maintain their support for the planning application and they should withdraw their support.
  • Members of the Town Council stated that there is nothing that we, as a community, can do to stop the application from being approved. We were repeatedly told that it is going to happen and Cllr Gowler said we just have to accept it.
  • Mayor Linda Ashley stated that the developer would have nothing to do with the open space once the development had been completed and it would be up to ‘us’ what we wanted to do with it (including maintenance).

Cllr Petrou made a very calm statement which, although I did not agree with all of the points he made, was a well-reasoned argument. He then asked that the public be allowed to have their vote.

After several further delays 11-year old Evelyn eventually asked if the vote could be held so she could go home to bed.

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