The group who organised a referendum in Bourton on the future location of its new village hall have said that the resignation of seven of the none parish councillors as a result was ‘probably inevitable’.
The councillors quit in protest over the holding of the poll in August – in which a majority backed the Sandways site over the council’s preferred Jubilee Field site – which they described as a ‘travesty’.
However, the Democratic Site Selection (DSS) which organised the vote has defended the referendum as ‘scrupulously’ honest and said it reflected the will of the village.
The group says that the formation of a mostly new parish council would provide an opportunity for a fresh start for the village on the issue.
In a statement it says: ‘ Our first hope is that a largely new parish council will work in a manner which is far more sensitive to the feelings and needs of the village community. There is an opportunity now to set aside the aggression of recent months and to move things forward in a genuinely positive way, truly representing the interests of the village as a whole and bringing residents and community groups into the council’s deliberations.’
It adds: ‘It is a pity that there had to be resignations but it was probably inevitable given the way that former councillors set themselves at odds with a great many people in the village.’
Following the resignation of the councillors Dorset Council will take over the running of the parish council until new councillors are co-opted or elected.
The Democratic Site Selection statement in full:
BOURTON DEMOCRATIC SITE SELECTION GROUP (DSS)
The Bourton Referendum and the Resignation of Parish Council Members
Our first hope is that a largely new parish council will work in a manner which is far more sensitive to the feelings and needs of the village community. There is an opportunity now to set aside the aggression of recent months and to move things forward in a genuinely positive way, truly representing the interests of the village as a whole and bringing residents and community groups into the council’s deliberations.
It is a pity that there had to be resignations but it was probably inevitable given the way that former councillors set themselves at odds with a great many people in the village.
The council will also need to carry out a thorough overhaul of its working practices; something which the remaining two councillors are very keen to see done once the council is again quorate. Some things have not been done properly in the past. For example, very important votes have been taken repeatedly on motions which never appeared on meeting agendas and of which some councillors and the public have had no prior knowledge. That is simply not permitted. Members of the public who have tried to raise concerns have been abused, scorned and bullied by councillors in a sometimes extreme manner.
All that has to stop. A parish council is not a small elite set up to impose its own will. It is supposed to serve its community.
As far as the new village hall is concerned, it is clear that the parish council never had the authority to choose the site in the first place. Its role is confined to expressing a view on relevant planning applications and concluding a 106 agreement with the landowner for the transfer of the land when the site has been chosen.
Our position is very simple. A village hall is for the community. It will be used essentially by the community and will be its central facility. That is what a village hall is. It follows quite obviously that the wider community must be properly consulted and make the final decision. It will, after all, have to get behind fund raising efforts and live with the result for a long time. It cannot be right for the site to be chosen by just five parish councillors, which is what happened last October. That decision was all the more maverick because it set aside the majority preference as expressed by the public at the limited consultation meetings that had taken place at that point.
That brings us to the referendum. This drew votes from nearly 60% of the parish electorate; a wholly unprecedented level of response for Bourton. Over 80% voted for the Sandways site. That is the big fact staring us in the face. How could anything be more conclusive? 435 people showed that they wanted to vote, despite many attempts to dissuade them, and 349 of them wanted Sandways.
The referendum was conducted with scrupulous honesty and funded entirely out of the pockets of our supporters. These are our responses to some of the statements made by the former parish councillors:
Far from seeking a “particular outcome” it was made clear, as it has been throughout the work of our group, that we were facilitating a democratic decision. We would accept the result whichever way it went and urged others to do the same. To quote the letter that went with all voting papers – “…we do not seek to impose our personal views on our fellow residents or set out the case for either site. Our aim is simply to ensure that the views of the majority are democratically taken into account”. Is that not clear enough?
It has been suggested by the former parish councillors that “…there were no numerical controls on the voting form or envelope…” and that this left “…the process open to fraud”. Needless to say, no evidence of fraud whatsoever has been produced. The fact is that all envelopes containing voting papers were addressed to specific individuals and were returned to a totally independent member of Dorset Council by post without ever passing through our hands. Had we numbered the papers it would have been said immediately that we were thereby able to identify how individuals had voted. That was the last thing we wanted. Our aim was for this to be a proper secret ballot through which voters could make up their own minds without any undue pressure.
The suggestion that we claimed that two Dorset Councillors would oversee the whole referendum is false. The words “oversee the process” were taken completely out of context. The paragraph in which they appear in our referendum message was clearly concerned only with receipt of votes and the count. One Dorset Councillor, acting in an entirely independent capacity, did indeed receive the votes directly from the voters and two Dorset and one Gillingham Councillors carried out the count in a wholly professional and above board manner.
It has no bearing whatsoever on the results of the referendum but the statement that you received from the former parish councillors seems to be seeking to brand us as criminals who have misused the Electoral Register. We find it very difficult to believe that the writers of those words have not grasped how things work in small villages! We have discussed this with Dorset Council Electoral and Democratic Services and gone through the way we handled the distribution of voting papers. We started with old versions of the publicly available open Electoral Register which our supporters already had. These were enhanced to some extent with information from the internet. 192.com trawls contact details from not just the Electoral Register but also from Companies House and other public sources where personal details have to be provided by law. A good many other addressees had to be filled in and we found plenty of problems with the old Electoral Registers, because of people dying and moving but the main solution was local knowledge. Our group has supporters in all parts of the village, some of whom have lived here for many decades or all of their lives, and they do know their streets and the people who live in them. Bourton is a small village, not a metropolis!
It took some real effort and we missed a few people the first time round. That, however, was quickly put right and we got voting papers to virtually everyone in the end.
The real issue now is the future. It was always going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to make successful funding applications for a new village hall without being able to demonstrate the support of the community. That position is now reversed. The referendum has provided splendid evidence that the community is right behind the building of a hall on the Sandways site. It is something funders need to see and now they can.
The other very welcome outcome is that the whole process has encouraged more people to take part in village affairs, in some cases for the first time. A refreshed parish council determined to work with the community and this experience of real democratic involvement together point the way forward.