The Town Council's Role

It’s a shame that the Strawberry Field matter has turned into a dispute between Football Club and objectors. But it must relieve Lyme Regis Town Council to be out of the limelight, because the Council appears to be the main cause of the controversy.

Appearances can deceive: but to the outsider, the story looks like this.

The Council buys the land

In spite of advice from West Dorset District Council, the Town Council decides to buy a long lease of an agricultural field for sports development - well knowing that planning approval is doubtful because the site is outside the town development boundary and prominent in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The decision ‘to sign the lease forthwith’ is taken at a full Council meeting on 10 October 2001. Only later, in December, does the Council invite interest from local sports groups, with just the Football Club responding. Later still, in March 2002, the Council submits an Outline Planning Application to develop the field ‘for recreational / sports use ...’. It could, of course, have taken both those steps before committing £55000 of taxpayers’ money to the purchase. It then withdraws the application on the advice of West Dorset District Council.

What can the Council now do with its expensive potential white elephant? The Football Club, facing genuine difficulties, is looking for a new senior playing field. So make it an offer it can’t refuse. Let the club take on the work, and the risk, of a planning application; in return, it can have the field for a nominal rent - anything to cover the Council’s embarrassment.

The Football Club is tempted

The club - perhaps unwisely, but understandably - takes the bait. It thereby inherits a difficult planning application, which is made harder still because it contains more than the club actually needs: the proposals include a floodlit Multi-Use Games Area which, according to the Council’s Minutes, ‘is not under the club’s direct control’ and ‘not part of the Club’s lease from the Council’. It seems that, in this respect, the club has to act as planning agent for the Council.

The uphill task thus handed to the club requires a campaigning style which, inevitably perhaps, sometimes crosses the line between robust debate and dishonourable dealing. Where might the ‘bitterness’ which the club chairman recently regretted have begun? Possibly just before the district council elections, when the West Dorset club delivered in Uplyme a ‘newspaper’ containing slurs on an East Devon councillor. Was that not, arguably, ‘interference’ - the very charge levelled in The Lyme Regis News letters columns against objectors, called ‘busybodies’ for simply defending the landscape in accordance with planning policies - a defence which should be (and in other smaller instances, has been) led by the Town Council itself?

Conflicts of interest appear at District level

Councillors Lovell and Meech are Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the District Council committee that must decide the application. They have also been ‘fighting [the Football Club’s] cause’ at the District Council. How do we know? Because that’s a quotation from the club’s planning application!

But they are also members of the Town Council and its Strawberry Field sub-committee. When doubts are raised about the multiple involvement of Messrs Lovell and Meech, we are told that councillors can ‘wear two hats’ - and there’s a video to prove it! Councillors Lovell and Meech nonetheless avoid the application at Town Council, thus appearing to maintain their purity for the District planning meeting. It’s great theatre, but entirely misleading.

Either the Town Council is itself confused, or it’s creating a red herring to confuse the public: because, of course, nobody disputes that councillors can wear two hats - if they have no prejudicial interest in a matter.

But here they do.

First, simply as District Councillors their prior support for the application should alone be sufficient to disqualify them from also deciding upon it.

Second, the Town Council of which they are members is not a neutral consultee; it is implicitly party to the application. It owns the land in question - and Councillor Lovell as Mayor was delegated to negotiate the purchase with the then landowner. It has required certain matters relating to the Multi-Use Games Area and to car parking to be included in the proposals. It appears willing to help pay for the work involved in preparing the application. Because it purchased the lease on the field before obtaining even Outline Planning Permission to develop it, Lyme Town Council, and each individual member of it, has an enormous personal incentive to see the Football Club’s current application succeed at West Dorset District Council.

The ‘two-hats’ distraction masks the real point: that Councillors Lovell and Meech appear to have predetermined the issue. According to Town Council Minutes, Councillor Meech even advised colleagues how to promote the original application: ‘... when West Dorset District Council Planning Committee considers the application, several councillors should be there to support the proposition, each speaking on different aspects consecutively.’

Councillors Lovell and Meech are now Chairman and Vice-Chairman of that same committee. They may yet change their minds; but that would not alter the fact that they have compromised their position in relation to this application.

Damage is done to the town

So behind the controversy stands the Town Council - its original, no doubt well-intentioned, recklessness followed by moves to save face by proxy, tempting the Football Club into a Faustian bargain and on this occasion leaving others to do its own work of protecting the town’s attractive surroundings. It has carelessly created division within the town and with its neighbours. Concern for its self-interest, not least its ‘civic dignity’, has replaced civic duty.

This is a tragedy. Lyme Regis is a wonderful town, both for its natural attributes and the talents of its inhabitants. Just consider some of the magnificent voluntary and unofficial activities that it generates. The Lifeboat and Lifeboat Week; the Town Mill; Regatta and Carnival; the Marine Theatre; the Development Trust; Candles on the Cobb; the Majorettes; the Community Players; the Film Society; the Club for Young People; the Museum; the Pantomime Society; the Town Band; LymeNET; Woodmead Halls; the Dramatic Society; the Lyme Regis Society; Artsfest; and certainly the Football Club itself.... The list goes on and on.

And then there’s the Council. How can such a vibrant town have such a mediocre Council?

Damage is done to local democracy

Why does this matter? It matters because central government is draining away local democracy. Compare Lyme Regis and Uplyme with equivalent French towns and villages in terms of the civic responsibility that they are able (and funded) to exercise: we in England look pitiable. We need first-rate local government. Strawberry Field has put some of us, who distrust Whitehall and value local responsibility, in the awkward position of asking for the application to be called in for independent judgement because local decision-making has been compromised.

Some years hence, every detail of our local life may be determined by officials in Bristol acting as agents of Whitehall. If so, this demeaning state will have arisen partly because too many local councils have displayed inept and morally questionable performance such as Lyme Regis Council’s handling of Strawberry Field.

What of the future?

If the application is granted, the Football Club will have its facilities; but saving the Council’s blushes will have come at a high cost not only to the protected landscape but also to the long-term health of local government. If it is refused, the responsibility for the waste and damage will lie not with club or objectors but with the Town Council which created this mess; and the rest of us should buckle down together to help the club in its continuing search for a better solution to its own real difficulty.

Chris Boothroyd
25th November 2003

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