Monday, 8 August 2011

Parish Poll Campaign Almost Over

The past few weeks have been fascinating. For those looking in from outside, I am sure their overwhelming feeling is one of bemusement - 'people in Thetford are holding a referendum on where their bus station is located' - how very odd. What started with a couple of people asking for a 'Parish Poll' at a Town Council meeting soon became over 150 people attending a Public meeting just 7 days later at the Town's Guildhall - overwhelmingly demanding a vote on the bus station's location. The vote was called - and will be held tomorrow - Tuesday 9th August from 4pm - 9pm. The campaign has been fascinating to watch, and indeed to be a part of. Almost immediately, Breckland Council painted this issue as 'old Thetford, v.s new Thetford' - the Leader, William Nunn, appearing on Anglia News labelled those calling for the poll as 'stuck in the past', that stereotyping soon encompassed Dads Army, and if you did not support the bus station moving - you were branded as "old, boring and part of the Dads Army brigade" - that really set the theme for the 'Yes Campaign'. Quite nasty and really quite personal. For example, myself and others supporting 'No' have been quite regularly slated on Facebook - both the 'Yes' and 'No' campaigns established Facebook 'pages'. (Note the Royston Vasy image on the Thetford Parish Poll Facebok event page) Apparently if you did not want the bus station to be moved, you did not want a cinema, you did not want investment, you therefore want Thetford to die - odd, given that so many on the 'No' campaign have done so very much to promote Thetford, (think Dads Army, Leaping Hare, think Thetford Society, dare I say - think Thetford Community Association and Benjamin Foundation - two charities I have worked for supporting young people in Thetford) However, no-body could comment on the Yes campaign Facebook page unless they 'liked' it, (i.e. they signed up to say they supported it) and even if you did 'like' it, but the organisers did not like you - so to speak - you were removed, and your comments deleted; it very much presented one side of the argument. The 'No' page on the contrary, which I set-up, did not delete a single comment or member. Another interesting twist in the saga came at the July meeting of Thetford Town Council. Several members (at risk of being partisan - I will say that they were Conservative) argued in favour of the Town Council doing nothing at all, not even doing anything constructive to inform people that a vote was taking place and encourage participation. Odd you may think given that a few weeks before the Council voted with a majority to support the bus station staying where it was. Sitting on the fence was the preferred option - in my humble opinion, it is precisely because of such action over many years that organisations such as Breckland Council and Moving Thetford Forward feel they can do whatever they like to our town. We have several splinters from such fence sitting! I did not hear of those same Councillors arguing at their Breckland Council meeting for a similar stance - indeed, Breckland/MTF (forgive me, I fail to distinguish between them) rushed to have pictorials produced and displayed at both the Bridge Street site and the Cosy Carpets site within days of the Parish Poll being called - presenting it as a fait au complait and no doubt reinforcing the view amongst many that the decision has been made and "what's the point" - if I had a pound for every time I heard that I'd be a rich man - hey, I could fund a new bus station ;). The Town Council did vote and committed £400 and booked the front cover of the About Thetford magazine to inform residents that the poll would be taking place - some members voted against this - against informing the electorate of their right to vote in a democratic poll. In addition, those of us supporting the No campaign did organise ourselves quite well and enlisted the support of a friend of mine - Jon Chambers, who designed for us very quickly a simple Vote No campaign flyer and accompanying website - - that flyer was delivered to 10,000 houses in Thetford - much to the alarm of those supporting Yes, who probably had not envisaged the extent to which 'No' would go to in campaigning (the entire 'No' campaign incidentally has been funded by personal donations). The leaflet offered to take people to the polling station if they needed to (if people had transport, mobility, disability issues etc) which was again attacked by those on the Yes side - hardly democratic. The issue has really captured the attention of many in Thetford with a succession of letters appearing in the Thetford and Brandon Times, with some from No campaigners and some from Yes campaigners - The Times did itself credit by publishing so many of the letters. What a shame so many people in Thetford do not receive that newspaper so that they too could have had access to such information. However, I was disappointed that both the Thetford and Brandon and Bury Free Press published the article by Moving Thetford Forward/Breckland Council on both their front pages, depicting the saga as Thetford's battle to move forward - 'Let our town move forward' - cried Neil Stott and Kevin Ward - neither Thetford residents, both with vested interests. A really crucial element of the No campaign was demonstrating that the bus station could remain on its current site, access could be improved (the original reason for wanting to move it) and the site could support regeneration - we enlisted the support of local architect John Atkins, who came up with some fantastic proposals in a rapid period of time - they were not detailed, fully costed etc - but showed what was POSSIBLE. However, the press allowed Breckland Council/MTF to comment on the proposals - no such right was afforded the previous weeks with the councils plans were presented in the newspapers - understandably, the council rubbished the plans - "a visual depiction of a pipe dream" - Mark Robinson, Conservative District Councillor and MTF Board Member (Mark, we both know that you did not write that statement, but they attributed your name to it - I've never heard you talk in a way that resembles the quote they used). So, despite all of that, everyone in Thetford will have the opportunity to go to their local polling station tomorrow. Given that there were no formal poll cards issued, no ability to vote by post or by proxy, given that it is August and many people are away, giving that the hours of the poll are limited to 4pm - 9pm, I am not expecting a huge turnout - not least because democratic involvement in Thetford is low anyway - perhaps that has something to do with the view that the local Council/s' do not listen and we are combating 20 years of induced apathy. Personally, I would be pleased with a turnout of anything over 10%. Do I expect the No campaign to win? I do. But by how much will be the interesting factor. If the turnout is over 10%, and if the No vote wins by more than 60-70%, and IF more people participate than those that have so far participated in any Moving Thetford Forward consultations, I seriously hope Breckland Council and MTF are gracious enough to admit that they need to look at things again, and look at their approach to consultation - and the extent to which they listen (and act upon) feedback. If, after tomorrow, they continue to arrogantly charge ahead, I am not sure what will happen, but I do not think the people of Thetford will continue to take it laying down. Tomorrow for me represents a new dawn for Thetford, a day when collectively as a town it declares enough is enough, our destiny must be shaped with us, not for us.