From our Reporter at the Parish Council Meeting
Before the meeting started, I took a long hard look at the members of the PC, and the clerk, and thought "This lot will never get the Gay Bulleid Award." And why? Simply because it requires some completely different terms of reference to acknowledge many of those in the village who work for the public good without being "good". What I am saying is that the GB Award has an aura of "goodness" about it, which is beyond many who are active in other ways. This is not a criticism of the GB award. I once, personally, all by myself, collected the Award from the WI President and therefore can fully appreciate the great pride, and also the enormous humility, felt by those to whom it is awarded.
But what about the others I ask? For example the School, the Parish Council, the Youth Club, the Red Lion, the Village Hall, the Crier, Drama (is the Baroness at the back awake and LISTENING?!!!), Art, Music, Toddlers Group, Cubs, Church, Chapel and many others. I will be suggesting to the PC that the possibility of a New Award should appear on the agenda of the next Annual Village Assembly. It would require a name other than GB and the worthies after whom it could be named are legion. For starters - ED, HH, KW, MM, JN, AC, HS, JB, FD, SP - any of these may do. There are always very good reasons why people do not attend the Annual Village Assembly. Perhaps in this case some will give this some thought and come up with suggestions.
So, what was so wonderful about the last PC meeting? It displayed at its best the conscientious attention to local concerns and welfare not only by our PC but also by our CCC and ECDC representatives. The meeting had a good start with Steve Lang filling the long-time vacancy on the PC. The whole village should give a big hooray for this.
James Fitch began the serious stuff by regretting he was still unable to report on the CCC budget. He said "The Government speaks with two voices" as "ministers fight against each other" and that the county still has no clear idea what the Government insists it does or how much money will be provided and in any case there was likely to be a cap. I did not follow all the detail and James may be reporting more fully in his piece. But no matter what your politics may be the complexity of forming a budget against such interference and uncertainty from central government was amply illustrated. As the sporting term goes "they appear to be on a hiding to nothing."
Then Charlotte spoke. While the CCC problems and decisions may be too large for all to grasp this is not the case with ECDC. Charlotte outlined a proposed decision by ECDC which on the surface appeared foolhardy and in ten or twenty years time absolutely disastrous for ECDC rate payers. There is obviously a great conflict in The Grange and the more we know about it the better. ECDC has long served us well and we must try to ensure this continues. Charlotte was unhappy about two things. Firstly the decision that there should be 0% increase in ECDC rates. She understood many people will cheer about this, but thought it foolhardy and that ECDC should learn from the dilemma in which CCC now finds itself. Because CCC in the past did not increase the rates as they ought they are now in an impossible position. She foresaw that in a few years time ECDC will be in the same position. Because, while ECDC has a balanced budget for 2004/05, there is a forecast shortfall for 2005/06. By 2006/07 the shortfall is forecast to be about £500,000!! What a future to look forward to. This shortfall would have to be met from efficiency savings, increased government grant (Ha. Ha.), a cut in services, or from the ratepayer - unless any excessive rate increase is capped - in which case services would have to be cut.
The second ECDC decision which appeared to fire up Charlotte was the decision to demolish The Grange, turn it into a 220 space short stay car park (earning an estimated £130,000 per annum), and to move the offices to an industrial estate outside Witchford on a twenty year lease with a starting rent of £430,000 per annum (plus service charges and repair costs). The council will also rent land on this site at £2,500 a year (plus service charges) for possible use as a Park and Ride site. Both rents are reviewed every five years and can only go up.
At present The Grange is rent free though there are annual costs of running it and the place does require some urgent repairs and refurbishment. Meanwhile a traffic and transport feasibility study is being conducted but "THEY" refuse to delay any decision on The Grange until the Study is completed even though a 220 short stay car park may not be wanted, or a Park and Ride site at that location. Admittedly Charlotte was presenting her case but she maintained that the figures did not stack up and that in ten or fifteen years and thereafter her constituents would suffer badly. She reckoned that just to pay the rent would add about 14% to the rates. Charlotte wanted the decision to be referred to the Full Council but "THEY" refused. Sets of figures are available but Charlotte warned that these appear convincing only on the surface and include the money from the sale of another piece of land in Ely which could be kept or sold whether the Grange was demolished or not. "Just like selling the family silver" came a voice from the back. The PC was quite shocked and wanted to know who "THEY" were. "THEY" are the Policy and Resources Committee which has nine members: 4 Lib Dems (including Charlotte), 4 Conservatives and one Independent.
What Charlotte fears is that the project will have gone so far by the time it reaches the Full Council for final approval that outside bodies will demand and possibly need to be paid huge compensation if the scheme is withdrawn. It could be that dreadful predicament - is it cheaper to go-ahead rather than cancel? This is why Charlotte was anxious for a wider discussion of the idea before it goes too far. She urged Parish Councillors to raise it at the next Parish Forum (a regular meeting between representatives of parish councils, and officers and members of ECDC) and to look at the figures very carefully. Someone said it sounded like "a business plan which any business person would have thrown out".
Some years ago the structure and organisation of ECDC was changed. We were all asked to vote on three possible options (as far as I remember) but few possibly understood what the difference might be. Is this the result of the reorganisation? Can any committee commit ECDC to a huge radical change before the Full Council is consulted? Could this have happened before the restructuring? I hope the Grange issue will be on the agenda of our next Annual Village Assembly.
Then on to FOOTPATHS - a subject one might have thought rather innocuous at best and very boring at worst. But not a bit of it. It started with the question whether there is vehicular access along Coopers Lane because the horse owner needs access to the field and Mr Lewis needs access for oil delivery. Appropriately enough it was referred to Mr John Cooper of the CCC Countryside Services Team who has reported that Coopers Lane is "Footpath No 12" on which vehicular access cannot be granted. Mr Lewis wanted to know when the barriers at the other end of Coopers Lane were erected and will be pursuing this further. There was only one half remembered story about the barriers, Karen will look through the minutes, but I think a brief talk to John Norris will provide the whole story. Meanwhile I could not help thinking this is a very local problem, which, with a little understanding and compromise, could be resolved without involving CCC.
Of course this is not high drama, unlike the next footpath issue. This was truly amazing and something you only expected to read in the newspaper about some awful behaviour in some other village. But here it is, here, now, in our village, and it appears to have been going on since 1995. There is a lane off Mill Hill and addressed as Mill Hill which goes up to and past the old Smock Mill (the one which does not work). At the end, past the Mill, there are plots of land the owners of which have always had unlimited access since the Enclosure Award of 1814, and this, including vehicular access, has been confirmed by other documents. Mr T. Nightingale who owns the Smock Mill disputes this and has been hampering and preventing access ever since 1995. Documents were circulated at the meeting which alleged and recorded totally unacceptable threatening and frightening behaviour. Walter Bradley had been the main recipient of the aggression but there are others who have experienced similar difficulties, the latest of which is Mrs Brownsdon, daughter of Fred Day. She had driven to check her father's plot of land and had been blocked in, abused and threatened by Mr Nightingale who claimed she had no right to be there. She called the police but Mr Nightingale persuaded them that he and not Mrs Brownsdon was in the right. "Ah!, so he's got a slippery (or was it silvery) tongue as well" said one councillor. Charlotte Cane was annoyed that the police had not kept any record of another occasion when they had been called for the same reason. Though agreeing that "The bloke was out of order" and wondering "What's he got to hide" the PC thought that an affray of this nature was not anything over which they had any control. But both PC and ECDC agreed it was deplorable behaviour, reflected very badly on the community, and that once a couple of points have been established both would write to Mr Nightingale and to the Police stating the facts. This may not achieve anything because Mr Nightingale has never replied to a number of solicitors' letters sent to him over the years. The fact appears to be that it is not a public right of way but there is access, including vehicular, for all landowners and their representatives.
There was much else but from now on I must just cherry pick. It was announced that the Sports and Recreation Club had had a meeting (a huge cheer with a large dose of irony went up from PC) and that they were contributing about £700 to the new play equipment though no mention was made of any willingness to change into shorts and run around the recreation ground. The PC was not too fussed about this because of the danger from mole hills. Various quotes were considered and in the end traps were considered the best remedy. Sadly there was no guarantee the moles will not return. Karen had forgotten to print out a list of all the incoming correspondence so, with a big grin, she said they would have to listen to her going through it all - in detail. One of the bills to be settled was the half yearly bill (£44.15) for the cemetery water. This was fortunately covered by the £40 contribution from the horse owner and the £25 from two allotment holders. If the PC worked on this, the cemetery water could become a nice little earner.
In "Any Other Business" a member raised a complaint about the holes in the Village Hall driveway. "What holes?" asked the Chairman. "The holes along the driveway". Trevor explained that they were not holes but "necessary traffic calming measures" because a number of mothers had complained how fast many cars are driven down the drive. Uncomfortable though the holes may be, no reasonable person can possibly complain about what must be the cheapest traffic calming measure ever introduced in the village.
PS. An ECDC Parish Forum (described above) was held soon after the February PC Meeting and from an impeccable source I have been informed that the Chairman of the Forum refused to allow any discussion of "The Grange". So there you have it.