Campaigners against the sale of the cattle market site to a supermarket have won an overwhelming victory in a parish poll demanding the town council ‘fund and support’ a judicial review into the sale by North Dorset District Council, writes Richard Thomas.
After five hours of voting the final result was 623 votes in favour of the town council supporting a judicial review with 380 votes against.
The total of 1004 votes on a turnout of just under 16 per cent saw 62 per cent of voters voting ‘Yes’ and 38 per cent voting ’No’.
Immediately after the vote ‘Yes’ campaigners, led by former mayor Lester Dibben and former soldier Peter Yeo, were celebrating what they called ‘a victory for democracy’.
‘No’ voters, led by Shaftesbury’s deputy mayor Lester Taylor and ex-mayor John Lewer, were nowhere to be seen after having been turned away at the count in Shaftesbury town hall by election officials working for North Dorset District Council who ran the poll.
Both sides in the campaign had spent large sums of money printing and distributing as many as 9,000 leaflets urging the case for and against the poll that asked voters ‘Do you want Shaftesbury Town Council to fund and support a judicial review of the sale by NDDC of the cattle market site?’
New lobby group Justice for Shaftesbury was behind the ‘Yes’ campaign and six town councillors, supported by town clerk Claire Commons, led the ‘No’ campaign.
A barrage of social media comments in recent days showed a deal of confusion among many people about what exactly the poll was for and what it hoped to achieve.
Town councillors argued that the vote was a waste of time because the council did not have to abide by it and it would see large amounts of taxpayers money being thrown away because a judicial review would be bound to fail.
‘Yes’ campaigners were equally scathing of the town council for failing to take the district council to task for not consulting local people over what they would prefer to see on the site before it sold to the highest bidder, believed to be Lidl, and for not fighting to save what campaigners claim is the town’s last major piece of public land from being lost forever to better community use.
The increasingly bitter campaign, that also saw the district council publicly accuse the town council of knowing all about the sale as far back as last November despite claiming it knew nothing until April, resulted in a complaint to Dorset Police by ‘Yes’ campaigners that ‘No’ campaigners were trying to influence voters by standing directly outside polling stations with ‘No’ stickers and the message ‘If you want to know why ask me’.
Polling officials at two stations are claimed to have told ‘No’ campaigners to move away from the polling station as against election law for having the potential to intimidate voters. A town councillor at The Royal Chase hotel is alleged to have refused to move until forcefully confronted by officials.
Shaftesbury Town Council has an emergency council meeting tonight, Friday 11 August, to decide what to do about the poll. But ‘Yes’ campaigners have complained that eight town councillors, led by deputy mayor Lester Taylor, have already made a mockery of the vote by publicly declaring they will vote against the call for a judicial review.
Responding to the poll result, Councillor Michael Roake, North Dorset District Council’s Cabinet Member for Environment, said: ‘Naturally, we are disappointed in the outcome of this poll. It is now a matter for Shaftesbury Town Council to consider the result and decide whether it feels that a considerable amount of public money should be allocated to this, particularly in the light of an incredibly low turnout. Only around 10 per cent of the Shaftesbury electorate have supported the Judicial Review suggesting that the concerns raised about the sale of the site, reflect the views of a fairly narrow group of interests.
‘We will be vigorously defending any Judicial Review and are confident in receiving a positive result. We will continue the sale of the site while this process is undertaken.’