Councillor resigns as hall row divides Hickling

A bitter row over a village hall building project in Hickling, near Stalham, erupted in extraordinary scenes at a parish council meeting.

Nick Baker, one of 10 councillors criticised in a report last month for failing to declare interests in Hickling council meetings as trustees of the project, resigned and stormed out of Monday night's meeting, saying he and his family had been victims of a concerted campaign.

And anger was equally vented by members of the public during question time at the Methodist Hall with villager Jane Aldridge accusing Viv Tallowin, parish council chairman when the �750,000 hall project was launched, of 'splitting the village and plunging it into debt due to your lack of vision and moral judgement'.

'The precept is now likely to go up a sizeable amount. Isn't it time to say sorry to the village and the new parish council,' she demanded?

Bad feeling has festered in Hickling since before the May parish elections when 10 of the 11 councillors were also trustees of the Recreation Ground Charity building the hall, making crucial decisions on the scheme - including transfering �144,000 to the charity and drawing down a loan of �180,000 - without declaring interests.

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Auditor Eric Lindo carried out an inquiry into the handling of the project - highlighting the issues but clearing the councillors of dishonest intent - after complaints to North Norfolk council's monitoring officer.

At the start of Monday's meeting he revealed he had now reported the issue of failing to declare interests to the district's standards board.

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Following the resignation of Mr Baker, a senior officer at North Norfolk council, only two of the 10 remain on the council to be formally investigated.

The split in the village has been widened further by a bitter dispute over how much the parish council agreed to put into the scheme.

The charity says the second of the council's three payments should be for �110,000, but the council is insisting it was agreed that it should deduct from that about �25,000 it paid out in professional fees on behalf of the charity to save it being charged VAT.

The charity's vice-chairman, Harry Purnell, warned the meeting that without that extra money there would have to be major compromises made on the hall, due for completion before Christmas.

However, council chairman Sandra Clarke replied: 'We do not have the money to pay you; if we pay you we would be forced to put the precept up by 200pc. I am not willing to let the parish council go bankrupt to fund the hall.'

She said a 200pc rise would mean households having to pay as much as �50 a year more - in a village with a large proportion of pensioners.

During his impassioned resignation speech, Mr Baker said: 'I have worked for hundreds of hours for the village...and I have honestly and diligently tried to make the project a success.'

Accepting they had not got it right all the time, he said he could no longer tolerate the personal abuse of him and his family; he would now devote all his energies to the hall.

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