All five councillors on Walberswick parish council quit after protracted row

Wednesday, October 3, 2012
8:32 AM

A SUFFOLK village is today without a parish council after every member quit following a lengthy wrangle with a group of residents.

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The resignation of all five Walberswick parish councillors was the latest twist in ongoing feud over procedural conduct, and correspondence including requests for information, that led to the council cancelling meetings, increasing tax and even withdrawing the village Christmas tree.

In a frankly-worded letter which was read out at a meeting on Monday, chairman David Webb claimed that, over the last two and a half years, the council had received communications of a “harassing, and in some cases very offensive nature” from a small group of individuals.

Mr Webb said the volume of requests, made mainly under the Freedom of Information Act and Data Protection Act, had “severely damaged the council’s financial position” and “jeopardised its ability to conduct normal business”.

But a handful of residents claim information had been held back, questions had gone unanswered and councillors had acted improperly.

Last year, it was revealed that Walberswick’s parish clerk, Jane Gomm, who still remains in position, had worked more than three times her contracted hours dealing with requests on varying topics, initially regarding a controversial planning application for a small housing development in the village, but later about other issues including the running of the parish. To add to the strain a number of complaints were lodged by people unhappy with the parish council’s responses.

Correspondence increased after an argument over planning with Mr Webb and his late brother, Keith, a former parish councillor, who was found to be in breach of the parish code of conduct after he remained in a meeting to debate a planning application despite declaring an interest. It led to confrontation and complaints investigated by the monitoring officer.

David Webb was also found to have breached the code by not declaring interests in a discussion about proposed changes to the physical limits boundary, and by not leaving the meeting when that interest arose.

The monitoring officer concluded that recording of interests seemed to have been rather “lax or careless” at the time, and that Mr Webb had apologised and corrected his declaration procedure.

The council blamed the cost of responding to the requests that followed for the tax precept demand rising, the cancellation of meetings and a halt on all donations to local causes.

John MacCarthy said his dispute with the council began last May when a complaint that insufficient notice had been given of a previous council meeting was ignored.

He later argued the council had wilfully withheld information he was entitled to, and had ignored requests for details of discussions made during a closed session of a council meeting he was barred from attending.

Alan Walpole similarly complained that he had been excluded after writing what he described as “balanced and reasonable questions that never got a sensible answer” regarding the original planning application. Mr Walpole continued: “If the parish council had apologised for issuing me with an exclusion notice, they would not have needed to increase expenditure in the clerk’s pay.

“My name has been dragged through the mud and I have been blamed for ills that are solely the council’s responsibility.”

Meanwhile, villager Luke Jeans leant his support to the parish council, saying that, in his opinion, legislation allowing the public to question the council had been used “totally irresponsibly” by some residents. He added: “Freedom of information is good in principle but as far as I am concerned it has proved damaging in this case. I think the rest of the village will be very upset.”

Suffolk Coastal District Council will advertise the vacant seats. If a further written request from at least 10 people eligible to vote is received within 14 days of the notice’s publication, a by-election will have to be held.

The council will consider whether to use powers under the Local Government Act to appoint people to act as parish councillors on a temporary basis.

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