Executive Board told to think again

Decision to withdraw land for Honiton Community Centre debated at Knowle.

EAST Devon District Council’s powerful executive board has been told to reconsider its decision to withdraw an offer of land for the proposed Honiton Community Centre.

Following a marathon, three hour debate on the topic at Knowle, in Sidmouth, last Thursday, the council’s overview and scrutiny committee further recommended that a partnership between the town and district authorities over the project be reinstated – and that the district makes efforts to help Honiton find an alternative site, if the long stay car park behind Lace Walk is not considered suitable.

District councillor Marion Olive, who is chairman of Honiton Community Centre Association, had the executive board’s decision to withdraw the land ‘called in’ for reconsideration.

The meeting heard from town and district councillor Vivienne Ash and deputy mayor Councillor Vernon Whitlock that the decision had pulled the rug from under the town council’s feet at the eleventh hour, without warning and without consultation. Councillor Whitlock said there had been a memorandum of understanding between the two councils and that the executive board’s decision had come as “a complete bombshell”.

He stressed the land had been offered after the district council determined there was no other suitable site for the �1.95 million project and asked why it was deemed unsuitable now.

“We are likely to end up with no halls in Honiton,” he said. “We feel there is overwhelming support for a community centre.”

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Honiton Town Council has already increased its precept and will do so again to meet loan repayments on borrowing of just under �1 million, the meeting heard.

The result of the town poll was considered in detail during the meeting.

After hearing that under 11 per cent of the electorate took part, members of the overview and scrutiny committee did not feel the result should lead to the collapse of the project.

But strong words were said against the scheme. Resident Peter Townsend described it as “the wretched community centre” and accused Honiton Town Council of suffering from “prima donna syndrome”.

Referring to first floor council offices in the proposed building, he said: “The whole project exists merely as a bunker.”

He added: “The country is in recession and nearly went bust. In the next six months we can expect some very serious (financial) storms.

“Honiton people are having to pick up the tab for this pipe dream.”

Ken Sherman, chairman of the Northcote Lane Area Residents’ Association, and residents Syd Taylor and Sheila McBrearty also spoke against the proposed location, off Dowell Street.

“What is the cost?” asked Mr Taylor. “I don’t think anybody knows. We keep getting the visions, but I still haven’t seen any convincing cost estimates.”

Former town councillor Margaret Mundie and resident Val Groves spoke in support of the project, with Mrs Groves saying she was representing the youth of the town.

District councillor Barry Nicholson said research, which led to the land offer, had been conducted by the late Ron Gigg 12 years ago and that the “situation has changed now”.

Councillor Sara Randall Johnson, leader of East Devon District Council and a member of the executive board, said the project had been a long one with no significant moves taking place to get the centre delivered.

Councillor Randall Johnson criticised the town council for not forming a fund-raising partnership with the community to part-pay for the building.

She said the decision to withdraw the offer of land was a direct result of the town poll, which showed an overwhelming majority of those who took part were against the scheme.

And she drew the committee’s attention to the part the community played in Axminster to deliver the Flamingo Pool.

“The decision the executive board took was to say to the town council we are sorry we can’t go on, year after year, making land and money available when you don’t realise the project,” she said.

“We have been trying to help Honiton Town Council with this for 15 years, without fruition.”

Councillor Whitlock strongly denied there had been no progress.

A member of the executive board told the meeting the plan for the centre was “no better than a shed shoe-horned into a corner”. And he said the building could impact on the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, which the district council had invested money in.

Councillor Ash, who pointed out the architect of the plan had been appointed by the district council, said: “I don’t know where to start. I am absolutely horrified by what I’ve listened to. I am deeply concerned about the personal comments made about the town council. The distortions of the truth that have gone on are unbelievable.”

Referring to claims that not enough consultation had been carried out over the plan, Councillor Ash said: “My house is full of documentation. People aren’t interested in hearing the truth. The poll result was obviously disappointing. It was inevitable, with such a large scale plan, that there would be opposition.”

Town and district councillor Peter Halse said: “We have got to go forward together. We cannot go forward as a town council on our own.

“The way the decision to withdraw the land was taken undermines trust. I believe that, out of this mess, we can move forward.”

District councillor Bob Buxton, a member of the executive board, said councillors involved with the community centre plan were “blinkered”.

He claimed usage of other community halls in East Devon was around 50 per cent and that there was “a huge burden of loss danger”.

“Three years ago, Honiton Development Trust was approached by town councillor Michael Teare who asked if it would take over the scheme,” said Councillor Buxton. “We declined, because we didn’t think it was a viable proposition.”

Councillor Eileen Wragg praised Honiton Town Council for “sticking to its guns against all the odds”. “It is scandalous that Honiton hasn’t got a community hall,” she said.

Councillor Roger Giles said of the executive board’s stance: “It was a poor decision, implemented in a poor way.

“There is obviously a lot of passion here,” he said.

“I didn’t hear anybody against the principle of a community centre. If that energy and passion could be capitalised, it would be a wonderful thing.”

When asked if a Conservative whip had been used to encourage the executive board’s decision, Councillor Randall Johnson admitted it was perfectly normal for a political party to hold meetings before and after council briefings.