Urgent probe demanded into polling

AN “urgent investigation” has been demanded amid claims that a polling station mix-up might have influenced the outcome of a closely fought by-election.

In the early hours of yeserday morning, Tory Stefan Oliver learned he had clinched Suffolk County Council’s Tower division with a majority of just 55 votes over his independent rival David Nettleton.

The vote saw a 5.5% swing from Conservative to Labour.

But within hours of the declaration, calls were being made for an urgent investigation into why St Edmundsbury Borough Council had decided against using the New Bury Community Centre in the Howard Estate as a polling centre.

The community centre sits in the heart of the estate, which has a high proportion of independent and Labour voters, and has for years been the main polling station for residents.

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Of the 3,400 people eligible to vote in the area, just 214 did so - and Mark Ereira-Guyer, borough councillor for the estate and the Green Tower division member on Suffolk County Council, claims the change in polling venue played a large role in the low turnout.

He said the decision to site the polling station at the Northumberland Avenue Methodist Church rather than the community centre not only left his constituents “disenfranchised” but might also have swung the result for the Conservatives.

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Mr Ereira said: “The turnout on the Howard was 6% - possibly the lowest turnout anywhere in the country.

“This is because people went to the place that they always usually go to vote - the community centre - and then found out it was not there. This was a real deterrent to voting on a cold, rainy and generally miserable day.

“The turnout across the division was 20% - so clearly this change in voting venue had a massive impact on turnout. “The winning candidate only won by 55 votes. The actions of St Edmundsbury have disenfranchised the voters of the estate which I represent on the borough council and done a huge disservice to local democracy.

“I am demanding a thorough investigation into how this occurred.”

Ivy Goodman, chairman of the community association committee, said the council had asked whether the centre was free and she had told them that while there was a group in that night she could nevertheless accommodate a polling station in the back of the building.

Ms Goodman said never heard back from the council.

However, the council claims it was told the centre was all booked up. A council spokeswoman would not be drawn on whether an investigation would be held.

She said: “On October 1, we were told by New Bury Community Centre’s booking agent that the building would not be available for the Tower by-election on November 11.

“As a result we booked the nearest available building which complied with all our requirements, the Northumberland Avenue Methodist Church.

“This change was printed in bold letters on polling cards.”

Stefan Oliver was unavailable for comment at the time of going to press. David Nettleton, who finished runner-up, said he did not feel the location of the polling station had been an issue.

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