Shaftesbury council rejects town poll and prepares for legal fight
Shaftesbury Town Council has rejected Thursday’s parish poll – calling on it to ‘fund and support’ a judicial review against North Dorset District Council for wanting to sell the cattle market site to a supermarket without consulting local people first – and vowed to fight the High Court action brought by local action group Justice for Shaftesbury.
Justice for Shaftesbury had sought to force the town council to support it in its attempt to try and stop the sale of Dorset’s last cattle market so that local people would have a chance to have their own say about what should happen to the site before it is lost.
But the argument degenerated into an increasingly bitter power struggle between the town council and Justice for Shaftesbury that left many residents both angry and confused about which side to support while the original target of attack, North Dorset District Council, was largely forgotten.
In Thursday’s parish poll 63 per cent of the 1004 voters who voted in a low 15.67 per cent turnout voted for the town council to take action. But at a special council meeting on Friday, 10 August, at the start of which Justice for Shaftesbury leader Peter Yeo called for the resignation of the whole council, eight of the council’s 12 councillors voted unanimously not to support Justice for Shaftesbury’s High Court action but instead to ‘robustly’ defend its actions against the charges made by the group.
The vote came after councillors heard that the council’s Bristol-based barrister had advised town clerk Claire Commons that the chances of any successful action against NDDC were ‘bleak’. Mrs Commons also told councillors that because Justice for Shaftesbury has named the town council as a defendant with NDDC in the group’s action, councillors had no option than to reject the result of the poll because otherwise it meant the town council taking action against itself which would be unlawful.
The finally agreed resolution read: ‘This council resolves that Shaftesbury Town Council will not support and/or fund the joint review already submitted by Justice for Shaftesbury to which Shaftesbury Town Council is named as second defendant.’
Amid concerns that individuals might be subject to costs, councillors agreed to meet regularly every Tuesday from 21 August to plan how best to challenge the Justice for Shaftesbury action. Members agreed to decide how best to defend their position, including how to pay any legal costs, in a series of what they are calling ‘milestone meetings’.
The final agreement came after a lengthy debate at the start of which the council’s chairman and mayor Councillor Piers Brown left the room on the grounds of his perceived conflict of interest in the cattle market sale as a member of NDDC’s cabinet that made the decision to sell on 23 April. The debate was then chaired by deputy mayor Councillor Lester Taylor, the main leader with former mayor Councillor John Lewer, of the council’s ‘No’ campaign.
Following the debate, joint founder and leader of Justice for Shaftesbury Peter Yeo said he intended to continue the fight and called for a second parish poll ‘to deal with the breakdown of democracy, integrity and trust in our town council.’
‘Justice for Shaftesbury will be continuing with our judicial review at the High Court and will now fund it further with our CrowdJustice page and other donations from those who believe in democracy,’ he said.
’The town council have once again totally ignored the democratic will of the people of Shaftesbury. The parish poll had 62 per cent of voters saying “yes” to STC funding and supporting a judicial review of the decision by NDDC to sell the cattle market site.
‘Yet at last night’s extraordinary meeting the very councillors who went along with keeping us uninformed of the secret sale of this publicly-owned land amazingly voted not to spend a small percentage of our taxes held in a reserve fund to support the will of their citizens by saying they could not fund something which has, by their own decision not to start legal proceedings themselves before the critical cut off date of 23 July, ended up with them being named as a defendant.
‘Justice for Shaftesbury took action because STC once again failed to act in this town’s best interest.
‘This would not have happened if STC had launched the action against NDDC following the unanimous vote of 125 citizens at the town meeting on 10 July and they would not have ended up named as additional defendants. Now, on the advice of our London barrister, they are on it too because they tried to thwart a judicial review application by waiting until after the parish poll.
‘One would have thought they would be glad to fund the review, not only to overturn the shockingly improper decision to secretly sell off the still very much-needed cattle market and its car park but also to clear their names in this whole clandestine deal.’
Co-leader of Justice for Shaftesbury, former mayor Lester Dibben, attacked both NDDC and the town council after the vote, claiming they were both attacking each other for not consulting local people when they were both to blame.
‘NDDC have had two years to consult and inform the electorate of Shaftesbury who are the owners of the site and not done so,’ he said.
‘STC failed to tell people at the town meeting in June that had already taken legal advice on the site in February 2016. Then despite resolving to spend yet more money to investigate the judicial review process they failed to do so by the deadline.
‘This process is entirely due to the failure of STC and NDDC to consult those they claim to represent and no one else. If neither councils has done anything wrong why are they publicly blaming each outer?’
Concillor John Lewer declined to comment after the meeting and Councillor Lester Taylor has not so far responded to a request for comment.