Walberswick faces rise in council tax precept due to information requests
A north Suffolk parish council has more than doubled its council tax bill – and axed its Christmas tree – following a deluge of costly Freedom of Information requests from members of the public.
Hundreds of applications have been made under the Freedom of Information Act in recent months by a small group of residents in Walberswick, near Southwold, leading the parish council to review its budget.
It has also led to concerns that the issue is 'tearing the community apart'.
Villagers gathered for the last public meeting of the year to hear the financial impact of what one resident called 'ridiculous requests' being handled solely by parish clerk Jane Gomm, who has worked an extra 72 hours, received 10 letters of complaint and dealt with 12 ongoing complaints since the beginning of November.
News of the council tax increase, from �7,742 to �16,000, was met with jeers of incredulity after it was also announced that money donated to the council for community benefit will need to be reassigned, that council meetings would cease until April and that the village Christmas tree had been cut from the budget.
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Among those gathered in the village hall was John McCarthy, who confirmed himself a member of the small group of persistent applicants. He claimed at the meeting the council had wilfully held back information he was entitled to.
Afterwards, he said the council had ignored repeated requests for details of discussions made during a closed session of a parish meeting last September, adding: 'I made a request for information on what that session was about and what legal advice the council had taken but it was refused.
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'Another closed meeting was held which I was barred from attending. I requested a review, and a report was written for which I made a request but was told some information was unavailable.'
Mr McCarthy said the dispute began last May when his complaint that insufficient notice had been given of a previous council meeting was ignored. But Chairman David Webb hit back at Mr McCarthy's claim, saying he had 'distorted the truth'. He added: 'His original complaint about notification refers to our previous clerk who was, at the time, new to the job, posting notice of a meeting without the full statutory three clear days. Yes, that was a mistake for which we apologise.
'We held a special meeting to which the district planning officer was invited to talk about general planning issues. We had just two days' notice but apologised and explained. It was the first meeting Mr McCarthy had ever attended and he has been complaining ever since.
'We were inundated and I took advice. We may have got it slightly wrong by imposing a blanket ban. This has not been a pleasant experience but I intend to see it through.'
At Monday's meeting, councillor Brian Tibbles said the actions of the applicants had been 'absolutely fatal to the community and should no longer be allowed to continue'.
Council colleague Alvin Hunt added: 'This is tearing the community apart for no reason whatsoever.'
Since August, parish clerk Jane Gomm, who received a round of applause for her efforts, said she had filled six or seven files with correspondence and that at least one request for information had already been responded to.
She said: 'When I took over I felt the best course of action was to deal with outstanding requests in the hope people would get the information they wanted and that would be the end of it – unfortunately that has not happened.
'I have read all the correspondence but can still not understand what the original problem was. There is no clear message as to what the real issues are.
'This work has been done at enormously more cost than the council has budgeted for.'
Meanwhile, amid all the clamour, an election has been called to fill the two vacant seats on the council.
Mr McCarthy was the only attendee of the 10 villagers who called for the election, which will cost �800 to stage.
WHERE THE CUTS WILL HIT
Walberswick Parish Council has never exceeded its annual budget but will have to:
• Increase its council tax precept from �7,742 to �16,000
• Borrow a �2,000 advance from the district council on next year's budget
• Reassign money donated to the council for community benefit
•Turn down a donation appeal for Age UK Suffolk
• Use the chairman's own allowance to pay for �50 of vouchers given to a local woman each year for cleaning the bus stop and toilets
• Cancel all meetings until the end of the financial year and increase delegation to the clerk to facilitate the transfer of business
• Cut Christmas tree from budget for this year and next – though a tree has been donated by a member of the public for this Christmas