Village plans for fire-hit pub approved after explosive meeting
- Credit: ARCHANT/PURCELL/JULIAN EVANS
A parish council is facing questions over its stance on a project to revive a village’s only pub with around £1.5million of community cash and lottery grants.
Wickham Market Parish Council was questioned over the ethics of its decision-making at a heated extraordinary meeting on Thursday over the plans for Grade II listed The George, which was ravaged by fire in 2013.
It came amid a ramping up of tensions in the village, in a week that saw the ousting of a planning committee chairwoman and the rescinding of an original vote to oppose the pub plans.
Tensions have been mounting since an earlier meeting on May 24 when councillors with shares in The George were unable to vote or discuss the proposals.
It led to the council formally objecting to the scheme, which is backed financially by more than 400 people from the village and beyond.
But this week councillors voted to replace Lisa Sanders, who chaired the May meeting, in her position as planning committee chair - replacing her with former parish chairman Richard Jenkinson.
Committee chairs are chosen each year but parish clerk Jo Peters admitted in an email to a resident that voting to replace Ms Sanders had “shocked" her.
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Shortly afterwards, a ‘special motion’ was applied for to rescind the May decision and discuss the plans again - this time, allowing shareholding councillors to vote.
The only exception was for Mr Jenkinson - who was banned from taking part in discussion or voting because his pub shares are so significant he had to declare a pecuniary interest.
Parish chairman Ivor French told Thursday’s meeting that a decision to hold another vote had come after advice from the Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC).
He said some councillors had disclosed a pecuniary interest incorrectly and the original vote was now void.
“I wish to apologise for misinformation we were given along with the procedural errors that took place,” he said.
“This application is important to the village, and I feel the correct legal procedure should be adhered to.”
However, when questioned by the public on whether it was ethical for shareholding councillors to vote when they had a financial interest, he said that he personally did not think so.
“I see it as another way if you like, that they are going to get the vote,” he added.
It is not the first time tensions have flared at the council.
As reported by this newspaper at the time, meetings were marred by rows in the summer of 2019, with a monitoring officer complaint response describing the council as being in a “state of some dysfunction with a rather toxic atmosphere”.
In January 2020, the council joined SALC on the advice of ESC’s monitoring officer, a move they hoped would “enable it to function more efficiently and effectively while upholding the Nolan Principles of Public Life”.
A council spokeswoman said: "WMPC is a busy productive parish council and operates within all procedural and financial protocols as it sees fit. It works closely with SALC and receives exemplary internal and external audits.
"The Parish Clerk is CiLCA qualified and has in-depth knowledge of her role. All councillors are volunteers and work to achieve the best outcome for the village."
During Thursday’s talks, despite the George Management Committee resubmitting some aspects in response to public feedback, fears were raised by both councillors and the public over the size of the plans and their suitability for the village.
However, councillors voted to support the project with a list of concerns drawn up alongside their approval document.
It led to next-door neighbour Barnaby Rudston storming out of the meeting, asking if there was an appeals process, and later emailing the council with “grave concerns” over the partiality of the vote.
He had raised specific concerns over the suitability of councillors voting on plans they had already financially supported and made a theatrical demonstration of how noisy the pub’s ventilation system might be. He used the council’s microphone to amplify the noise of a vacuum running at the specified 77 decibels featured in the plans.
Colin Owens, on behalf of the GMC, said a qualified acoustician had been consulted and that noise was within legal limits.
Fellow neighbour and George shareholder Andrew West was clear the village needs a pub, but he feared the proposals were for a “gastropub” and had “doubled in size”.
He also raised questions over accessing Heritage Lottery Fund cash for the plans: “It’s going to cost £1.5million of public money, mostly charity money. That to me is an obscene use of charity money for good uses. This is a gastropub, not a good cause."
Another member of the GMC added that the pub was an “incredible opportunity” for Wickham Market, was owned by the community and shareholders were not looking for a return.
He added that the HLF supports the plan, recognising the importance of saving the Grade II listed building.
Fiona Judge, responding to concerns from brewer Dr David Taylor about profits going into shareholders’ pockets, said she is a shareholder and not expecting to get returns.
Another resident said the current pub is an “eyesore and insult to Wickham Market”, with the new plans set to “bring economic viability to the village”.
East Suffolk planners, who have been recommended to approve the plans, will make their decision on Tuesday.