EDITOR’S COMMENT: Local democracy the loser as decision on Jubilee Park in Woodhall Spa is made behind closed doors

Jubilee Park in Woodhall Spa
Jubilee Park in Woodhall Spa

The Horncastle News had planned to publish an article today (Thursday) on the latest developments regarding the Jubilee Park saga in Woodhall Spa.

Unfortunately, we can’t.

We were ordered to leave a parish council meeting last night (Wednesday) when councillors held key discussions about the park’s future.

The News had been tipped off the council would move into private session, effectively barring the press and public from a vital section of the meeting.

Reporter John Fieldhouse met clerk Amanda Bushell and chairman David Clarke before the meeting to raise concerns about the reasons for excluding us from such an important stage of the democratic process.

We have reported the saga for the last 18 months and, in particular, the chaos and confusion of recent weeks as the parish council has constantly changed position in a process that one leading local politician said had “made a mockery of natural justice.”

Three respected council members had resigned, along with the park manager.

At no time during those meetings were the press and public ‘barred’ from discussions or important votes regarding the future of the park - a vital community asset.

Last night was different.

Your Horncastle News tried to argue the discussions were in the public interest. We pointed out a precedent had been set by allowing us to cover ALL previous meetings.

We also pointed out the council’s reason for banning the public did not meet any of the criteria for holding a meeting in closed session under the Local Government Act 2000.

Mrs Bushell was adamant the council had taken spoken to the National Association of Local Government whose legal advice was they could exclude the press and public - and should have done exactly that at previous meetings.

Coun Clarke requested our reporter shouldn’t be allowed to speak during the meeting, to detail our opposition to the exclusion.

He said that if we wanted to take the matter further, we would have to write to the clerk.

The opening stages of the meeting were another chapter of a confused and chaotic story.

The council wanted to re-open negotiations with a company that just two weeks ago, had walked away from talks following a dispute over part of a lease agreement for the park.

The problem was in the meantime, another company - comprised mainly of councillors - had been set up.

Coun Clarke had hoped the representatives of that second company would agree to withdraw their interest.

Two councillors - who are interim directors of the company - refused.

Following whispered discussions between the clerk and chairman, the council changed the entire running order for the meeting.

In what Coun Clarke admitted was a “dangerous move,” councillors also agreed to suspend an important standing order which effectively gave them the power to rescind a previous vote taken on the lease issue.

When it came to the key agenda item - the wording of which was changed at the last minute - a motion to move into private session was proposed, seconded and passed.

Incidentally, the proposal to move into private session was not included on the agenda which is against accepted rules and regulations.

The public, the press - and two police officers who were present - were asked to leave.

Apparently, two interim directors of the company - which we understand has still to be registered - were allowed to stay.

No doubt Coun Clarke will stand up at tonight’s annual parish meeting and say a deal safeguarding the future of the park has been agreed.

Quite how that process has been achieved will have to remain shrouded in doubt and secrecy.

Councillors might argue that Jubilee Park was the winner last night.

If that is the case, the loser was very much democracy and the campaign for “open and transparent” local government, something residents in Woodhall Spa have been worried about during this entire process.

The worry is, of course, that if another controversial issue comes before the council, it could simply move into private session.

Why have a meeting? Why not gather around the bar in a local pub?

Why does this matter? Why is the Horncastle News angry, frustrated and upset?

Well, the parish council is responsible for spending your hard earned money.

If in doubt about that, just check your council tax bill when it drops through the letter box and see how much you are paying for an open, honest and transparent council.