Friday, 6 September 2013

Winchelsea by-election

The result was:

Richard Comotto 99
Anna Hargreaves 133

So the latter is elected until 2015. The turnour was 57%.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Winchelsea by-election

I have been asked today what I will do if not re-elected. Interestingly, in considering whether to stand again, I had weighed up the option of returning to reporting on Council meetings as a member of the public, as I used to do for the Village Voice. With the unelected Peter Turner back at the helm of the ship of fools, that would seem a promising opportunity to amuse residents.
The by-election itself will offer lots of good stories, eg the offer of a free meal for votes by a former mayor.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Parking in Pear Tree Marsh

On Monday 13 May, Icklesham Parish Council considered a request from a lady buying a house in Tanyard Lane for permission to park in the open ground next to the Council-owned allotments in Pear Tree Marsh in Winchelsea. The person she is buying from has temporary permission to park here. This request re-ignited an issue that has been festering for years.

Pear Tree Marsh is sited off Tanyard Lane, which is part of the A259(T). Most houses on Tanyard Lane do not have off-street parking and their occupiers have to park in one of the lay-bys on that road, where they are subject to burglary and vandalism. Indeed, the lay-bys  are the crime hotspot of Winchelsea.

Pear Tree Marsh was purchased many years ago by the Parish Council from the District Council, who applied a covenant to the sale that the site could only be used for allotments. However, in addition to several allotment plots, the site has a large area of open ground. Allotment-holders have always parked here. Indeed, many took on an allotment plot only to get access to parking. This resulted in derelict plots. The worst offenders included a couple of ward councillors and ex-councillors for Winchelsea, who invited friends to park in Pear Tree Marsh as well. Not unnaturally, this was seen as unfair by those without access.

Some years ago, I proposed to the Council that the situation should be regularised by opening up parking to all residents, possibly at a small charge. Should too many residents apply, priority would be given to those without off-street parking and, if necessary, places could be allotted fairly by ballot.

In the petty personality-driven politics of Icklesham Parish Council, the proposal was opposed by several councillors from other wards, ie not resident in Winchelsea, notably Cllrs Merricks, Stanford, Bronsdon and Sutton. There seems to be a fear that Winchelsea ward councillors might be allowed to do something for their electorate. Ostensible objections have centred around Rother's covenant. Of course, covenants can be varied and the Council succeeded in doing so in the case of Icklesham Recreation Ground.

Moreover, there are doubts as to whether the covenant does actually forbid parking, given that this does not interfer with the provision of allotment plots.

Eventually, the Council was persuaded to write to Rother to clarify the situation. And here, we came up against the Rother solicitor David Edwards. Those familar with the complaints under the Code of Conduct made against Winchelsea ward councillors will remember that Mr Edwards was legal adviser to the Rother Standards Committee. Mr Edwards advised the Committee that, once a parish council had made a decision, councillors were prohibited from criticising or campaigning against that decision. In the end, the judgements of the Standards Committee against the Winchelsea councillors were quashed by an Appeals Tribunal, to the profound embarrassment of the Committee (the Tribunal reasserted the democratic principle that councillors were free to engage in political activity, including campaigning against council decisions).

In the case of Pear Tree Marsh, Mr Edwards judged that, before the District Council could be asked to vary the covenant, the Parish Council would have to secure permission from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to convert the site from use as allotments, even though we do not wish to convert any plots to parking, merely to use unused and unusuable land within the site for this purpose. On this quibble, the non-Winchelsea councillors have built their objections.

However, Mr Edwards' interpretation raises the issue of the legality of allowing any parking on Pear Tree Marsh. It cannot be claimed that the existing parking is pursuant to the use of allotment plots, as it takes place overnight, when allotments are not cultivated. And some of those with access to parking are not allotment-holders, but friends. Why is one group of residents still allowed to park?

The new Clerk has undertaken to research the history of issue. For the foreseeable future, the unfair and unsatisfactory situation in Tanyard Lane will continue, perpetuated by councillors from wards other than Winchelsea. Another telling reason for a separate Parish Council.

Icklesham Annual Parish Assembly 2013

The notice for the Annual Parish Assembly went up in Winchelsea yesterday (Tuesday). There should have been seven days’ notice, so it was outside the statutory notice period here, but I am told a notice went up within the time limit elsewhere in the Parish. However, the late notice is just a symptom of a chronic problem at Icklesham Parish Council when it comes to the Annual Parish Assembly.

Icklesham Parish Council has always treated Annual Parish Assemblies as just an extra Council meeting. In fact, they are supposed to meetings of the parish, ie residents (the statutory name is Annual Parish Meeting). This is made clear in NALC and other guidance. Residents are supposed to be given the opportunity to bring items to the agenda. While the Chairman of the Parish Council reports to the meeting on the activities of the Council, the main business is supposed to be about non-Council activities in the parish.
It is not easy to get this meeting right, but many parishes try and some succeed (Sedlescombe is a local model). Icklesham have made half-hearted and unimaginative attempts in recent years but have now reverted to type.
The next Annual Parish Assembly will feature just one external speaker (from social housing association Amicus) and three councillors --- parish councillors Warren and Stanford, and County Councillor Glazier. The audience will largely be other councillors and the occasional bored spouse (plus both parish clerks, despite the fact that this is not a Parish Council meeting). Apart from listening to other councillors, they will be treated to the Chairman reading out a dull and heavily sanitised version of events over the previous year.

To be fair, Icklesham face a fundamental problem with Annual Parish Assemblies. Being composed of four disparate and very different villages, it will always be a struggle to find items that will get residents to come out on a Monday evening, even in the village where the meeting is being held. And residents from other villages have to travel up to two miles for the pleasure of attending. Not even outrageous expenditure on refreshments has been able to tempt more than a handful. Winchelsea Town Meetings were able to get 60-80 residents to attend because they could focus of issues of relevance to residents.

However, it often appears that Icklesham do not want residents to turn up to Annual Parish Assemblies, in case they try to get involved, particularly if they are Winchelsea residents. Too many members of the public make the Council nervous. Thus, in 2010, when 14-15 Winchelsea residents turned up in response to the Council’s declared wish to consult on a proposal to turn off the streetlights in Winchelsea at midnight, the meeting rapidly fell apart. See the report on this meeting below.

Extract the blog on the Annual Parish Assembly of May 2010
'The high points of the evening were the discussions of the Council’s decision to ignore the results of a consultation on turning off the footlights in Winchelsea at midnight and its proposal to borrow up to £100,000, on top of the £40,000 that they have already borrowed.
On the question of turning off the footlights at midnight, the background is that, in November 2011, Icklesham Parish Council sent out consultation forms to all households in Winchelsea asking whether they would support, for economic and environmental reasons, turning off the 17 footlights at midnight.  The cost of fitting timers would be recouped in less than 18 months and then there would be an annual saving of some £750 a year (rising with electricity prices). Responses were received from 66 households (ie about 24% of the village). The result was 2:1 in favour of turning off the lights at midnight. However, at a subsequent Council meeting, one resident opposed to turning off the lights early attacked the consultation on the grounds that it may have been fiddled because residents had been given the option of returning their forms via ward councillors. The resident also argued that the consultation was not valid because it did not ask whether residents wanted more lights.
Councillors from other wards joined in, complaining that the consultation forms had given too much information to residents! The Chairman judged the rate of response to be too low. The Council therefore decided to ignore the results of their own consultation and bring the question to the Annual Parish Assembly.
When pressed about this decision, the Chairman simply repeated the excuse that the turnout was too low and that some residents were unhappy about the result. When he was asked whether the Council had a policy setting a threshold on the level of responses to consultations, he simply would not answer. He just kept repeating that the response was judged too low and that some residents were unhappy with the proposal. He continued in the same vein when it was pointed out to him that the response to the Local Action Plan, on which the Council are basing much of their spending, had responses from Icklesham, Rye Harbour and Winchelsea Beach of less than half the response rate to the footlights question! Nor was the Chairman any more forthcoming when the absurdity was highlighted of ignoring a consultation of all households in favour of the Annual Parish Assembly where less than a dozen residents usually turn up. 
By the time the Chairman was questioned on whether it was appropriate to ignore a clear vote in favour of a proposal because the losers objected to the result, he was sinking fast and proposed that the Council be asked to reconsider its decision to defer the question back to the Annual Parish Assembly! It had to be pointed out that, as the question had already come to the Assembly, this particular course of action could not be reconsidered.
A vote was taken and the result was 10:7 in favour of turning off the lights. At this point, I requisitioned a Parish Poll in order to ensure that the Council could not again ignore the balance of opinion among residents.  Cllr Stanford complained that this would mean that residents of other wards would have a vote on the Winchelsea lights --- putting her finger on the problem of having a parish composed of four separate villages. Cllr Bronsdon weighed in to express amazement that I was willing to have the Council spend money on a matter of principle and, for the first of many occasions during the evening, said how “sad” he was at my action.
Eventually, the Chairman agreed that the Council would be asked to accept the result of the consultation and the vote at the Annual Parish Assembly [they did not]. I therefore withdrew the requisition for a Parish Poll on the understanding that, if the Council once again tried to ignore the balance of opinion among residents, that I would convene a special Parish Meeting and requisition a Parish Poll again.’


Friday, 3 May 2013

2013 County Council election results --- Glazier scrapes it

The result for Rye and Easter Rother (which includes Winchelsea) is in.











Keith Glazier






Mike MacKenzie






Nick Warren






Peter Hillier-Palmer












So Cllr Glazier is re-elected but with his majority slashed from 572 to 79 and his share of the electorate down to 13%. He will at least be grateful that he did not down as much as the LibDems, whose vote collapsed from 1,000 to 171.

In the County as a whole, the Conservatives have lost overall control, although they remain the largest single party. UKIP made the best showing and Labour did well in Hastings.


Unfortunately, the whole election has been marred by a very low turnout.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Not conserving Winchelsea

Icklesham Parish Council's Planning Committee has always shown a contempt for Winchelsea's Conservation Area status. Cllr Bronsdon (Rye Harbour) famously dismissed it as 'simply' about visual appearance. Cllr Sutton (Winchelsea Beach) argued that, as far as he was concerned, Winchelsea Beach was a conservation area.

However, the current Planning Committee broke new ground recently by supporting an application (RR/2013/433/P) by JC Leisure, the motorhome sales unit near Strand Bridge, to breach the Development Boundary --- ie build in open countryside --- by extending across the Brede. If accepted, this would be a major shift in local planning policy.

The application itself may appear innocuous: a change of use to parking. But once a change of use to a business purpose has been allowed, it is simple to get further changes all the way to allowing building. This is was happened at Ferryfields Caravan Park and, more recently, at the old gasometer site. All of these developments have helped to erode the medieval landscape setting of Winchelsea --- a hilltop 'bastide' surrounded by flat marshland, with little peripheral development.

A secondary role in this little story has been played by East Sussex County Council. They owned the land. When they sold it, they were asked by Winchelsea councillors to place a covenant to stop development. They refused, apparently as it might reduce the value to them.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Icklesham Parish Council meeting 12 November 2012

A bumper turnout:  10 members of the public. However, several were there to ask the council to write in protest to East Sussex against the proposed downgrading of the Ridge Fire Station. Two others came on behalf of the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve about the Rye Harbour car park. There was also County Councillor Keith Glazier (‘see no evil’), District Councillor Nick Ramus (‘hear no evil’) and District Council Paul Osborn (‘speak no evil’) plus Malcolm Johnson from the District Council trying to offload the Rye Harbour car park and public toilets onto the parish council.
Rother has cut the grant it was making to Icklesham PC for a traffic gateway at Rye Harbour from £737 to £370. Cllr Osbourn claimed the credit for getting even this grant but Cllr Bronsdon was keen to award the credit to the Deputy Clerk (now that reminds me of an interesting story).
The council has secured its first serious grants, £23,000 and £5,000, toward the new £55,000 Icklesham playground. The council had previously been contemplating borrowing up to £100,000 to fund this and other playground projects. The first grant was the work of the departing clerk and the second was down to Cllr Warren.

The resignation of the Parish Clerk
This was the elephant in the room. Steve Foreman, clerk since 2011 has resigned. Nothing at all was said at the meeting but there was a certain tension in the room, as though certain councillors were anxious that someone would raise the issue.
Steve is the fourth clerk lost by Icklesham PC in six years. The reasons for Steve’s resignation will be the subject of a forthcomng blog. Suffice it to say for the moment that Steve, who retired from the Audit Commission before becoming clerk, proved himself to be exceptionally energetic and efficient. He has also been very conscious of proper procedure and the need for impartiality. This has not endeared him to certain councillors and he has been subject to unfair and improper criticism. His position has also been undermined by the inevitable failure of the chairman, Jim Horsman, to do his duty.
Cllr Stanford could not resist an opportunity to take a pointless pop at Steve over his report on discussions about the Rye Harbour car park and toilets, where he had referred to representatives of the residents. Cllr Stanford was keen to stress that the persons concerned had not attended at representatives. Thus a molehill became a mountain.

Parish bus service
This expensive and ill-conceived experiment has been canned, not by the council, but by Rye Community Transport, who became depressed at the low rate of use. The highest number of users was 42, in June. In October, just two people made use of the service. Of the 100 under-16s projected to use the service in the first five months, only four did so.
The last two passengers cost their fellow council tax-payers £311 each! But what is even startling is the fact that even if usage had hit the parish council’s target of 60 per month, it would still have cost council tax-payers £9.42 per person. It would have been cheaper to hire separate taxis for each person!
The report by Rye Community Transport makes for sober reading. It accuses Icklesham Parish Council of not properly researching the demand for a bus service and queries the value of the survey carried out by the Rother Voluntary Association. A sharp contrast was drawn with the way that RCT develops new services. Unfortunately, lack of solid research underlies virtually all Icklesham projects. The vast expenditure on new playgrounds has gone forward despite a complete lack of knowledge of the number and age of children in the parish.

Parish Office
The council is still determined to inflate its overheads by opening an office and appears to have approved the idea in principal. The latest suggestion is the sports pavilion at Icklesham, which the Icklesham Trust wishes to rebuild. This is rather more salubrious that the previous suggestion, which was the public toilets in Winchelsea, should they be rebuilt. Some councillors also see the pavilion at Icklesham as a way for the parish council to inject some money into that project but there may be some reluctance in the Icklesham Trust to have the council so intimately involved. However, the council’s proposal may anyway be derailed if Cllr (Peter) Turner persists in his suggestion that, if there is a parish office in the pavilion, the toilets should be open to the public. Cllr Warren doubted that Icklesham Trust would be happy with the idea. What is it about the parish office and toilets?
One cannot help but get the impression that this is just another chance for Icklesham Parish Council to waste more tax-payers’ money. Very few parishes have parish offices: why Icklesham? No good reasons have been put forward. Indeed, the idea has never been properly discussed. A parish office in Icklesham would simply serve Icklesham. How many residents are likely to travel the three miles from Rye Harbour, or even bother to come up from Winchelsea Beach or travel from Winchelsea? Most people will continue to phone or e-mail, if they need to contact the clerk (and few bother to even do that).
Something to watch if a parish office is opened: will the clerk(s) continue to receive the unusual perk of being paid to travel to work?

Rye Harbour car park
Rother want to shift financial responsibility for the car park at Rye Harbour (and possibly the public toilets) to the parish council. There is of course a basic economic flaw in the whole proposition. Offering the car park to the parish suggests that, either Rother is admitting that it is so incompetent that even Icklesham PC could do better (remember, this parish council felt that locking of the gates to the Pear Tree Marsh allotments was beyond it) or is Rother just trying to shift the cost from their budget to that of the parish because the latter is not subject to capping.
Parish councillors recognised that, if the council took over the car park, they would have to charge for parking, but no one raised the associated cost of ticket machines and employing staff to service the machines and enforce parking charges or also installing barriers. As Rother would also have to start charging if they were to retain control of the car park, why should Icklesham Parish Council get involved? All they will get is the flak.
Then, there are the public toilets. These cost about £20,000 a year to run and, sometime during the 99-year lease, will have to be rebuilt.
Rother have floated the idea of covering losses for the first few years on a sliding scale (eg 100% of year 1 reducing to 0% by year 5 or 10), but no mention has been made of the capital costs of installing parking infrastructure. Nevertheless, the Council agreed to the idea in principle.
A Rye Harbour resident in attendance expressed her concern about car park charges leading to parking congestion along the streets of the village. She asked for residents to be involved in any discussions, which does not suggest much faith in the representation provided by Rye Harbour councillors. But then Cllr Bronsdon of Rye Harbour believes he does not need to consult, on the grounds that, if voters don’t like what he decides, they can vote him out at the next election. There would be some logic in that, except that Rye Harbour rarely has contested elections in Rye Harbour, in part, because no resident can be bothered to stand (Cllr Bronsdon lives in Rye and Cllr Stanford in Winchelsea Beach).

Parish post boxes
Readers will recall that, during the debate over turning off the footlights in Winchelsea, a resident and member of the former corporation in Winchelsea, Mr John Spencer, questioned the integrity of Winchelsea ward councillors by implying that they would tamper with survey questionnaires (the first of the three ballots) given to them by residents to return to the council. Mr Spencer later accused Cllr Comotto of submitting a questionnaire on behalf of his under-age daughter and tried to see how other residents had voted by making a Freedom of Information request to see everyone else’s questionnaire. Cllr Stanford proposed that, because some residents (ie Mr Spencer) did not want to communicate with the council via their elected councillors, the council should set up post boxes in each ward. £400 was budgeted. The cost has turned out to be £160 per post box. Another well researched project!
Even Icklesham Parish councillors baulked at £640. The idea then rapidly unravelled. Councillors came to the conclusion post boxes were impractical. Where would they be installed, who would empty them, how often and so on? In the end, it was decided to place a box, which will be made by a councillor at no charge, inside Rye Harbour Stores to see if anyone uses it. That still means that £400 has been taken from tax-payers because councillors did not bother to think through another silly idea!
The council also missed a point of principle here. Although Mr Spencer apparently does not like the representatives who were elected to represent Winchelsea, even his personal friend and fellow jurat Cllr Turner, why should the council help him to circumvent his properly-elected representatives? Does any other elected body make special provision for voters who don’t like their elected representatives?
Cllr Stanford’s proposal for parish post boxes also begs the question as to why unhappy residents cannot phone, e-mail or send a letter to the clerk. Cllr Stanford said the post is too expensive and, of course, not everyone has e-mail. But is there someone out there who does not have a phone or e-mail, cannot afford a postage stamp, and dislikes all their elected councillors? Surely, it would have been cheaper for the council to buy Mr Spencer a book of stamps?

And yet more money wasted
Another £500 of council tax has been poured down holes in Smeatons Lane.
The council went ahead and spent £540 on allotment software (support and maintenance costs will be extra). There is a problem apparently with continuing to run a spreadsheet for some 50-60 plots.
At the insistence of Cllr Merricks, the council registered its playgrounds as part of the ‘Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Fields’, in order to stop itself building on them in the future. This is an utter waste of money. The clerk advised the council that it was unnecessary, because sufficient safeguards are already provided by the restrictive covenants on these pieces of land but he was over-ruled. No other parish in Rother has registered its playgrounds. Moreover, the council took the decision to go ahead without finding out the cost. Their decision was therefore illegal. Now, the council has discovered that its titles to Icklesham Recreation Ground and Harbour Field at Winchelsea Beach have not been registered at the Land Registry and it cannot find its deeds of ownership. Curiously, Cllr P Turner was supposed to have sorted all these out when he was chairman over 10 years ago.
The council has budgeted £2,000 to ‘refresh’ its Local Action Plan. Can £2,000 bring back something from dead? The LAP achieved response in most wards which were lower than the turnout in the election of Police and Crime Commissioners! It was of course also the cause of the complaint to Rother Standards Committee by other councillors against Winchelsea ward councillors, which the latter won earlier this year, when an appeals tribunal overturned Rother’s flawed judgement and dismissed the accusations.
On 26 November, the council will hold a special meeting to consider its budget for 2013/14. There is a question mark over the legitimacy of the meeting. Expect more whacky ideas on how to spend your money.

Cllr Sutton
The council wasted more time on a proposal by Cllr Sutton that the council should employ a maintenance man for a day a week to do small jobs around the parish at the bidding of individual councillors. The council already employs a maintenance man to do small jobs, although only as and when he is needed, and under the direction of the clerk. It is illegal for work to be commissioned by individual councillors, but why should the long-serving Cllr Sutton (proud alumni of Winchelsea primary school) know that? The reason why certain jobs in Winchelsea Beach appear not to be getting done is because Cllr Sutton does not report them to the clerk.
Ironically, Cllr Sutton is one of the reasons why councillors are no longer required to conduct monthly inspections of their ward --- a perfection occasion to report faults --- having admitted, after several years, that he did not know what he was supposed to be doing and that he therefore did not bother. This item should not have come onto the agenda.

Cllr Ramus welcomed a letter from Winchelsea Heritage expressing concern about planning enforcement at Rother, which is apparently a matter of growing concern on the Planning Committee.

Youth Club
One positive piece of news. Cllr Lyward has her youth club up and running in Winchelsea Beach. However, the skate park may have been put back on the agenda by the meeting to set up the club.

Cllrs Austen and Chishick said nothing throughout the meeting, but Cllr Chishick had the excuse that he was abroad. Cllr Moore managed one contribution.