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Authority accused of gagging councillors

PUBLISHED: 07:00 24 February 2003 | UPDATED: 16:20 24 February 2010

By Liz Hearnshaw

A COUNCIL has been accused of "gagging" its members over a multi-million-pound redevelopment scheme designed to enhance a popular town centre.

By Liz Hearnshaw

A COUNCIL has been accused of "gagging" its members over a multi-million-pound redevelopment scheme designed to enhance a popular town centre.

The claim was made yesterday after a letter, signed by two senior members of St Edmundsbury Borough Council, was sent to all members asking them to refrain from making individual replies to criticisms levied at the scheme for a prime site in Bury St Edmunds.

Instead, councillors were asked to add their names to a joint reply, answering a group of 32 people who criticised the plan for the long-awaited Cattle Market redevelopment in an open letter to members earlier this month.

The council's letter, signed by its leader Ray Nowak, of the Labour group, and Andrew Varley, Conservative vice-chairman of the Cattle Market redevelopment committee, asked members to read and sign the response before a meeting on Thursday.

It said: "To demonstrate the cross-party support within the council for the process undertaken to date and to the achievement of the redevelopment of the Cattle Market site, we intend to invite all members to sign a letter responding to the issues raised (in the residents' letter).

"For this reason, we would urge all members not to get involved in individual responses to that group of local residents."

Clare resident David Ridley, one of the group of 32 people who signed the open letter to councillors, claimed the restriction was tantamount to a gagging order.

In their letter, the group objected to the plan for a multi-purpose public building at the heart of the town centre site, saying it would struggle financially and lose taxpayers' money.

"As a group, we have asked our councillors what they think about spending millions on a concert hall, and then we find out they are not allowed to tell us their opinions. It seems the members are being told what to say," alleged Mr Ridley.

"We feel the least the council could do would be to delay the final decisions regarding the Cattle Market until after the May election."

The council's public consultation exercise, which has been in progress for the past two years, was also criticised and members were accused of having "totally mistaken priorities" concerning the entire scheme.

"What is clearly remarkable is that this is all-party. The Conservatives seem to be right behind the Labour group in wanting this vast quantity of money spent on pop concerts in Bury St Edmunds," said Mr Ridley.

"There is all this talk about the council consulting public opinion, but our views are not being taken seriously."

But Mr Nowak said the whole council stood by the extensive work done so far on the project and added: "We are responding in a collective way because the letter we received was written collectively to the whole council.

"We therefore thought it was better to respond to this group with the view of the council, rather than having lots of letters going backwards and forwards from individual members.

"So we decided to see if we could write a letter every member felt comfortable signing. If any individual members want to write their own letters following this, they are obviously more than welcome."

Mr Nowak insisted all party political boundaries had been broken down regarding the Cattle Market, with both leading and opposition groups united behind the scheme.

"This is not a party-political issue. We have worked really hard to get it to a point where everybody is happy with what is being discussed," he said.

"Of course we will listen to a group of 32 people, but their opinions will have no more or less weight than those of any other group."

liz.hearnshaw@eadt.co.uk


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