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Fenland town mayor and councillor to stand down in May

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Whittlesey mayor David Mason, town council leader and Fenland District councillor, is to step down.

He told Fenland Council leader Chris Boden that “for personal reasons” he is quitting politics.

In recent months Cllr Mason has been under pressure from some colleagues within the Conservative group, one stating that “in my opinion Mason is not fit to lead Whittlesey council”.

Cllr Mason will not seek re-election at the May local elections, despite being widely expected to stand.

“After considerable deliberation I have decided that I do not wish to commit for a further four years in local government for personal reasons,” he told Cllr Boden in an email seen by CambsNews.

“I will therefore not stand for re-election as a town or district councillor in the forthcoming elections in May.

“I am giving early notice of my decision to hopefully allow you sufficient time to find a suitable candidate(s) to contest both Whittlesey Town Council and Fenland District Council seats and I wish you luck in your endeavours.”

He was first elected to Fenland Council in 2015 but four years later was returned unopposed in St Andrews ward.

Most recently he has served as chairman of the overview and scrutiny committee at Fenland Council.

But there have been rumblings for some time that all has not been well between Cllr Mason and some of the decisions imposed by Fenland leader Chris Boden.

Handing £1m to give their community an uplift sounds like the stuff of dreams – but not so in one Whittlesey as it turned out.

Wrangling over how the money should be spent prompted an outcry after the flagship plan – a £500,000 heritage centre – was abandoned.

It led to one town councillor emailing colleagues telling them he was quitting the Conservative group and planned to become an independent

Cllr Jason Mockett wrote that he had been “shocked, disgusted, embarrassed” and was extremely disappointed at the ensuing arguments over how to spend the money originally designated for a heritage centre.

That Cllr Mockett reconsidered the following day (“for your information and clarity, I’m still a member of the FDC Conservative group” he messaged me) his anger has not gone away.

And he might still have carried out his threat to quit had not the North East Cambridgeshire Conservative Association (NECCA) reminded him of two things.

Firstly “resigning” to town councillor colleagues was not going through the proper channels, and secondly his thoughts of retaining Conservative Party membership but remaining as an independent would not have been acceptable.

Cllr Jan French, chair of NECCA, told me: “NECCA has never had a resignation from Jason”.

She also added “A day is a long time in politics,” and so it turned out.

But in or out of the party, Cllr Mockett focused attention on the splits within the town over how the remainder of the £1m should be spent.

The same month Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority was asked to approve the reallocation of £455,000 from the cancelled Whittlesey Heritage Centre project to fund improvements to community assets in the town.

The Combined Authority heard in detail how a project team had looked at the centre’s proposed location, the gap in funding and market conditions and concluded it was “unlikely to produce a facility in a timely, affordable manner.

“The project will not give good value for money to the taxpayer and work on the heritage centre has been suspended.

“As the heritage centre either in its original form and location, or in a reduced form and different location has now been halted, local elected members have discussed other options for the remaining funding to improve community assets within Whittlesey.”

These included a request from Fenland District Council to spend £45,000 on local sports clubs, £110,000 for “energy efficiency improvements” to the swimming pool, and £145,000 for community 5-a-side synthetic pitch, fencing and carpet replacement (£145,000).

It also agreed to splash some cash (£125,000) at the Manor leisure centre and put in £30,000 for practice nets and improved facilities for cricket.

But all that, within a matter of weeks, changed.

As independent town councillor Roy Gerstner explained.

And it was at that point the differences of opinion between Cllr Mason and his Conservative peers surfaced.

Cllr Gerstner said the support for using the funding for youth facilities came about after he and Cllr David Mason, supported by other town councillors, put the proposals forward following talks with Fenland Council.

However, as Cllr Gerstner explained on his website, the Growing Fenland Group (Whittlesey), had other ideas.

From left: Cllr Jason Mockett, Cllr David Mason and Cllr Roy Gerstner

This is the group set up by Fenland Council to allocate the £1m (the other three Fenland market towns each received £1m and each has a similar group).

In the case of Whittlesey, the group consists of three councillors and five members of the public.

And when they debated uses of the aborted heritage centre, and the accompany funds now available, they had other ideas.

Cllr Gerstner says when Cllr Mason met the Growing Fenland Group (Whittlesey) there was no support for his re-allocation to leisure uses.

Their own option, says Cllr Gerstner, was to use some of it towards Market Place improvements, financing the display of Must Farm artefacts, and £200,000 towards the next stage for consultants to put together a case for a Whittlesey relief road/bypass.

“This option was voted through and will now go the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority,” says Cllr Gerstner.

“Disappointed – yes very much so – however ‘we’ will carry on the campaign and hope that we will get support from ALL Whittlesey town/Fenland/county councillors in our quest for future funding.”

He added: “Some councillors have received a vast amount of ‘abuse’ because of this decision – I do not wish anyone especially councillors to be subjected to abuse – I have had it myself.

“Have a grown-up argument by all means… robust – yes – but abuse No.”

The dissent, however, does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

None more so than from Cllr Mockett who in a social media post wrote that “Cllr Mason and his team of two already wasted £40,000 on the doomed heritage centre project.

“The same person pressured and persuaded (in my opinion) the council to give Andrew’s church £10,000 of OUR money for repairs.

“In my opinion Mason is not fit to lead Whittlesey council.”

Cllr Jason Mockett

In his, now withdrawn, resignation email Cllr Mockett had suggested “we should be pulling together as team to achieve common goals and objectives not infighting backstabbing each other”.

He also claims Cllr Mason continued to support the heritage centre when it became clear costs doubled and running year on year would have needed support from town council should have pulled back six months -plenty of time to consider options.

And for good measure, added he “no longer wished to be involved with the Conservative Party locally”.

To understand the depths of Cllr Mason’s support for a heritage centre and his understandable view when it was dropped, this article in a local newsletter last year perhaps explains his passion.

Major boost for motorists as the new bridge over King’s Dyke Level Crossing, Whittlesey, opened in July. A highlight of last year for Cllr Mason

Whilst remembering recent history, I feel it is important to celebrate our heritage in and around the town and villages. So, for the past three years, Cllrs Alex Miscandlon, Eamonn Dorling and I have been planning a Heritage Centre,” he wrote.

“I am pleased to report that, with the support of Whittlesey Town Council, Fenland District Council and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, funding has been secured for this project.

“Also, land gifted by Forterra on the edge of the Kings Dyke Nature Reserve has been earmarked for development.

“We have assembled an experienced team to deliver the project. This consists of a project manager, architects and landscape designers, quantity surveyors, civil engineers, and electrical and mechanical engineers. We will seek formal planning permission and plan to construct the centre late in 2022.

“The idea of a Heritage Centre was first inspired by the Must Farm Bronze Age findings. However, the finished product will indeed be a celebration of Whittlesey.

Founder and Chair of Whittlesey Emergency Food Aid, Cllr David Mason (eighth from right) and Fenland District Council Chair, Cllr Alex Miscandlon (tenth from right) join volunteers and other individuals who helped make the service’s move to larger premises possible, at its official relaunch at The Manor Leisure Centre.

“In the coming months, Whittlesey Town Council will consult with Whittlesey Museum on how the centre can support the museum. We will also discuss how it can produce interesting material that will attract visitors and strengthen the local economy.

“We also recognise that the centre will be a facility for local school children to learn of their heritage. In addition, it will enhance the profile of the nature reserve itself.

“Whilst looking back at the past, it is imperative that we consider the future.

“With this in mind, we are designing the Heritage Centre to be eco-friendly. It will also be as near to carbon neutral as can be managed using the latest available technology.”

It is a less than fitting tribute, perhaps, to his time in public life that the heritage centre turned out to be a pipe dream.

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