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Bishop's Stortford town meeting: 'Our town council is demonstrating a high degree of action rather than using our very disappointing district council as an excuse for inaction'

Every year, Bishop's Stortford Town Council is required by law to hold a public meeting where the electorate receive reports of the year’s work and are given the opportunity to ask questions on matters of concern. This year’s meeting was on Monday March 6 at South Mill Arts and I went along.

In a previous life as a town councillor I attended nine town meetings, even chairing one as mayor. They could be a lonely experience, where the number of councillors present frequently outnumbered the electorate.

This insulting lack of interest is disheartening for voluntary councillors, and it often showed in their faces. At a typical meeting, the council committee and trustee reports would follow the mayor’s report. Then, written questions from the public were addressed, the floor was thrown open to those present to ask further questions and it was all over in around 45 minutes.

Chas Gill counted 46 members of the public in the South Mill Arts auditorium for last week's annual Bishop's Stortford town meeting (62952855)
Chas Gill counted 46 members of the public in the South Mill Arts auditorium for last week's annual Bishop's Stortford town meeting (62952855)

Not much the wiser, but with their apathy tanks topped up, everyone went home. It was generally a disappointing, depressing but mostly frustrating event for all, best forgotten soon after leaving the room.

Unfortunately, the ‘big’ stuff that concerns Stortfordians is generally outside the remit of the town council, except in their role as a statutory consultee on certain matters such as planning applications, but that doesn’t stop the public from coming along to air their grievances and expecting action to be taken.

The fact that the town council has no authority suggests that all it’s good for is the management of allotments, park benches, litter bins – and very little else. This gives the cynics ammunition whilst creating a ‘why bother’ attitude among the silent majority, who might otherwise attend the meeting.

In fact, subject to funds, the town council can be responsible for much more, including leisure and sports facilities, parks, museums, tourist information centres and community halls.

I am delighted that our town council has a finger in all these pies right now and is demonstrating a high degree of independent action rather than using our very disappointing district council as an excuse for inaction.

Much of this independence has probably been bought by the £6.8m received from the sale of redundant allotment land at Farnham Road to Herts County Council for Avanti Meadows Primary School, leading to a certain mature confidence among our younger town councillors, who have clearly developed in their roles over the last four years.

For the first time in a long time, I’m beginning to believe we have a town council that is trying to do what it says on its tin and that our local community will be the better for it.

Of particular note was the undisguised dissatisfaction expressed by councillors about the way East Herts Council (EHC) has mishandled the entire Old River Lane (ORL) project, which is becoming a debacle. Once in active partnership with EHC to achieve the vision of a new ‘cultural quarter’, the town council now recognises that the end product is unlikely to add anything of cultural value to our town and has decided to ‘walk away’ from it.

It has wisely declared that it is important for our growing community to have access to the arts and has therefore decided to create and pursue its own cultural strategy, with South Mill Arts as the primary theatre for the area, backing this up with a £2.9m cash injection, enabling the trustees to continue to improve "their already excellent offering".

This, together with significant spend to help create a further sports and leisure facility and to complete major improvements to Castle Park, is a good indication of what a well-intentioned and wealthy local council can do.

The unusual increase in public attendance this year – I counted 46 – was largely to keep the pot boiling on objections to the ORL project. I was unpleasantly surprised at the way the meeting reduced itself to a disorderly shouting match during the open forum, with councillors looking a little alarmed at times whilst struggling to bring the meeting back to order.

It might have helped if the council’s answers had been properly prepared for questions submitted well in advance by the public. If the town council wants us to take them seriously then they need to extend to us the same privilege.

Despite this, I was encouraged by what I saw and heard. I am, of course, fully aware of what is at stake for the controlling political party at the upcoming elections and how this can be influenced by the currency of false promises. I want to be wrong about this.

And so, to James Parker, our outgoing town council chief executive. I know how much brain power his job requires and the skills needed to get it right, and I have found him to be an invaluable asset and good friend of Bishop’s Stortford.

Intellectual ability aside, seeing him, sleeves rolled up, walkie-talkie in hand, leading and managing the town carnival parade and, even in his final days in the job, becoming the roving mic operator at the town meeting, typifies the all-round contribution James has made.

I thank him for all of that whilst wondering why the town council didn’t do the same publicly, thus making it a pleasant and well-deserved addition to the minutes of the meeting. Thanks, James, with best wishes for a long and happy retirement.

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