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March councillors gagged on deciding fate of historic fountain

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Exclusive – four Conservative councillors, two from Chatteris, one from Whittlesey and the fourth from Wisbech, decided the fate of March Fountain.

March councillors on the planning committee of Fenland District Council did not take part in the vote.

They were unable to take part either because they were legally assessed as being pre-determined or were forced to withdraw because of their membership of groups overseeing the wider regeneration.

Neither did the chair, Cllr David Connor, take part or chair the application for moving the fountain; he was obliged to hand over the meeting to his vice chair, Cllr Maureen Davis.

Artist’s impression showing new position of March fountain once work is completed

Artist’s impression showing new position of March fountain once work is completed

Planning officer Nick Harding said a number of members of March Town Council who are also on this committee are unable to take part because they have had a discussion within the council on the merits of this application.

“And we’ve advised them that they are predetermined but that’s background information and not connected with planning merits that’s just a factual context within which those members have stepped down today if that helps.”

Three independent councillors – including Cllr Mike Cornwell – who tried to block the move were defeated on a 4-3 vote.

Cllr Cornwell was joined in trying to stop the fountain being moved by two other independent councillors – Cllr Will Sutton (Elm and Christchurch) and Cllr Charlie Marks (Manea).

Both Chatteris Conservatives who voted to move the fountain are also cabinet members of Fenland District Council. One of these, Cllr Peter Murphy did not speak during the near 2-hour debate.

The other Chatteris councillor, Cllr Ian Benny, a former shopkeeper, is also a cabinet member.

Cllr Kay Mayor, a Conservative from Whittlesey, also voted to move the fountain.

Cllr Nick Meekins (RIGHT), ward councillor for Peckover (Wisbech), elected as chair of Fenland Council last year, With him is Cllr Alex Miscandlon, the chair.

Cllr Nick Meekins (right), ward councillor for Peckover (Wisbech), elected as vice chair of Fenland Council last year, With him is Cllr Alex Miscandlon, the chair.

The fourth councillor to vote to move the fountain was Conservative Cllr Meekins, who ironically had fought the 2019 local elections as an independent. He was enticed to re-join the Conservatives in 2021.

The following year he was elected vice chair of Fenland District Council.

In 2019 he said: “I don’t think my opinions of the Tory leadership on Wisbech and Fenland Council should come as a surprise to anyone who reads the local press.

‘Small group of uber Tories’

“In my view there are a small group of uber Tories who dominate the party locally, holding as they do key positions and ruling by selecting sycophants as candidates and threatening deselection to any Tory who may not completely toe the line, and being abusive/aggressive to non-Tory councillors,” he said.

Two years later he told the press that “I’ve come to realise over the last two years that the most effective way that I can contribute to that process is as a member of the Conservative Groups on both Fenland District Council and Wisbech Town Council.

“I’ve acted constructively and collaboratively over the last two years from the opposition benches, “I’ve generally been pleased with the way both councils have been run by the Conservatives and I’d like to contribute further to the councils, both for the residents I represent and for the area as a whole.”

The planning committee that agreed to move the fountain heard a multiplicity of reasons for either retaining it where it is instead of moving it 14 metres. Other sites were suggested but all rejected.

First to speak was Cllr John Clark – who earlier last month had quit the Conservatives.

 

CAPTION: From Left Cllr John Clark, Cllr Steve Tierney and current council leader Chris Boden

CAPTION: From Left Cllr John Clark, Cllr Steve Tierney and current council leader Chris Boden

Malletts: “The decision to move the fountain in front of Malletts, our property, was approved by five non-March resident councillors. No consideration as to how this could impact our business was discussed.”

Malletts: “The decision to move the fountain in front of Malletts, our property, was approved by five non-March resident councillors. No consideration as to how this could impact our business was discussed.”

“I cannot remain in a Conservative Group which wants to sterilise and rip the heart out of March and therefore I am resigning as a Conservative group member,” he said.

Cllr Clark told the planning committee that he had lived in March all his life brought up a family in the town and had run businesses here.

He said that at the March Town council meeting on the 5th of September 2022 the council felt that it believed that the total Broad Street project was open to legal challenge and possible judicial review because of the lack of meaningful consultation in the early stages of the scheme

“March Town Council members unanimously agreed that they would publicly oppose the project in its entirety with a view to getting the scheme aborted,” he said.

“A few weeks later an extraordinary meeting was held on the 17th of October.

The fourth councillor to vote to move the fountain was Conservative Cllr Meekins, who ironically had fought the 2019 local elections as an independent. He was enticed to re-join the Conservatives in 2021. PHOTO: Rob Murray

The fourth councillor to vote to move March fountain was Conservative Cllr Meekins, who ironically had fought the 2019 local elections as an independent. He was enticed to re-join the Conservatives in 2021. PHOTO: Rob Murray

“A special motion proposed by David Connor, also chairman of Fenland District Council planning committee, was prepared and signed by councillors to amend the resolution of the March Town council meeting on the 5th of September to oppose the project.”

He said the motion made “obsolete” the earlier motion to oppose it.

Disappointing consultation

Cllr Clark also described a public consultation meeting at the library as disappointing  and one March resident been told by an officer that it’s this plan or nothing.

He said that when he attended a consultation meeting on the market “whatever suggestions were made were talked down and I certainly came away with the impression that this it is this plan or nothing.

“In the 35 minutes I stood at the stall no one’s comments were recorded So it leaves me to believe that the consultation was meaningless.

“March residents are not against the refurbishment of Broad Street development but very concerned that their voices and ideas have just not been heard in preparing this proposed plan.”

Cllr Jan French said the regeneration plans for March had been out to consultation and at one stage the county council wanted to remove the fountain altogether and proposed to either put it in the marketplace or in West End Park

She said moving the fountain to near Malletts was necessary to enable the traffic lights nearby to be removed – these had caused problems for many years.

Cllr French said the proposed site for the fountain would also allow for the Remembrance Sunday parade to go ahead. It remains one of the biggest parades of its kind in Cambridgeshire.

Jennifer Lawler of March Civic Society said the consultations had breached regulations and that she had spoken to hundreds of people opposed to the major re design of Broad Street.

March Civic Society opposition

“Many people were shocked to hear that half of Broad Street would be pedestrianized and that the listed 1912 Coronation Fountain would be moved onto the pavement in front of shops,” she said.

“Every household should have received a letter setting out proposals for their comments.

“The project including the applications to be decided today (the second was for demolition of the toilets) are going ahead without the support of a large proportion of March population as evidenced in written comments at face-to-face meetings and comments to planning applications.

“This is about conserving the historic environment and the setting of the listed Coronation fountain in March conservation area – it’s not just about moving a relatively rare, beautiful iron work.

“The fountain is an historic landmark marking an event which took place in 1912 when the people of March came together to raise money by donations to mark the occasion of King George V’s coronation.

“Moving the fountain is comparable with moving a structure such as the Arc de Triomphe from its setting; it completely loses its impact if it’s moved onto a pavement at the side of the road in front of and close to shops.

“It will restrict views of and access to the shops and affect businesses and trade

“There are concerns it would be vulnerable to vandalism; not a concern in its present isolated setting where it can be seen by everyone arriving in March and is significant and important.

“If it has to be relocated people would like it to be in a prominent central position in Broad Street worthy of its listed status and heritage- a location nearer to the war memorial is preferred.”

Ms Lawler added: “The actual power of listed status and conservation area to safeguard March’s historic environment is now questionable.

“In this development they appear to be meaningless terms which can be overridden by planners; most people have very strong feelings about these changes.”

Stick to what is being decided!

One of the agents acting for FDC, Fiona Bage, said the issue being considered was the relocation or the fountain itself.

She said the wider highway works don’t form part of the planning application for which consent is sought.

Ms Bage said the intention of relocating the fountain is to “Improve the setting and appreciation of this historic asset as part of the wider Broad Street public realm works.  The existing site in between lanes of traffic does very little to enhance the setting of the structure.

“No works are intended to the fabric of the structure which will be very carefully dismantled and safely stored prior to it being re-erected in its new location which will be on the new pedestrianized area in front of 32 Broad Street

“The application is accompanied by a very detailed heritage impact assessment

“Crucially no concerns are raised by Historic England who are the national advisors on heritage matters or the council’s conservation advisor in this instance

“Concerns are raised that the structure will be in close proximity to the shop frontage in which it will sit but currently that existing shop front is bounded by a very narrow footpath and car parking spaces.

“The relocation will create an improved public realm here and improve setting to the shop fronts themselves and the fountain in my opinion would form a focal point bringing potential mutual benefits to those businesses.

Five metres from front of properties

“The structure will be set approximately five meters away from the front of the properties and will be a very organized structure as you can see now and therefore it won’t hinder any views or any access to that commercial premises

“No objections are raised from any statutory consultants to the application and the police designing out crime team have no objection to this team

“There’s a very high level of natural surveillance in the area and it’s not considered that the new location would give rise to any anti-social behaviour issues.”

Cllr Cornwell reiterated that he felt the consultations were “actually against the district council’s own consultation strategy I understand”

Phil Hughes, on behalf of Fenland Council, said the March area transport plan was consulted upon and that was done prior to submitting the overall scheme for Government funding.

“We asked people to submit feedback and we did get some and in terms of fountain relocation which is what the committee’s discussing today we had various feedback from,” he said.

“Leave it where it is which clearly isn’t possible if you want to achieve a junction at the northern end of Broad Street which is uncongested or move it to the marketplace move it to West End Park.

“In assessing where it ought to be moved to we took the decision with members to move it a smaller location as possible so it’s moving about 14 meters so it remains at the northern end of Broad Street

“And as you can see from the application historic England agree with its relocation to as close to where it currently is, so we retain its historical impact within the town of March.”

Too late to change our minds?

Cllr Mayor wondered if the council was “too far down the track to find a different place for the relocation”.

She asked: “How many other sites have already been looked at that we are not aware of that’s my question?”

Simon Machin, another planning agent on behalf of FDC, reminded the planning committee they needed to decide the application in front of them and “not generally about making a choice”.

“But having said that if I may just talk more widely it is unusual to move a list of building there’s no getting away from that it doesn’t happen very often,” he said.

“I’m sure that the starting point is if you’re going to move it (the fountain) you should move it the least distance from where it currently is because the further you move it away the less relevance it has to where it was originally placed in terms of that setting

“I think you also get to a situation where if you move it closer to the war memorial it may begin to conflict with the setting of the war memorial itself

“ I think where it’s proposed is firstly the shortest distance from where it is now and secondly it still sits within its own distinct setting.”

He said when the fountain was erected around “ horses and carts on a dirt road I would suspect and I would imagine that people were able to get close to it when it was first put there .”

All specialists had agreed “that where it’s going to be moved to is the right location”.

Complied with ‘legislative requirements’

Cllr Benny said of the consultation on the fountain being moved “I’m satisfied that we have complied with the legislative requirements and those also set down in our statement of community involvement”.

Cllr Cornwell said that relocating the fountain to the proposed new position “is slightly at odds I think with the layout of Broad Street”.

He said: “I’m confused with some of the way that this planning application has gone and the continual reference for things that we have no control of or in fact have no information about that that in fact go along with it.”

Cllr Cornwell said he found it “strange and slightly confusing” not to be debating the fountain together with all the Broad Street proposals.

Cllr Mayor felt as if “we got part of something and we don’t know what the rest of it’s about and I would have preferred to have seen the whole rather than the piece”.

Cllr Benny said he was “very much” of the opinion it should be for March councillors to decide what happens in March.

But he also argued the application in front of the committee was policy compliant and it was their role to determine it

“And looking at the whole proposal for March which I have done there is an awful lot of good in this and also to improve the air quality and to enable the traffic flow for March because March is going to be the biggest town in Fenland before long is going and that will mean more vehicles and we’ve got to manage that.

“And it will be a question of time before when that when those houses are built people would be pointing the finger at councillors and saying you should have done more to sort this out this is this opportunity.

“There is a lot of money in this that’s been given to March; this has been looked at by experts and consultees that support this, and I accept that it’s not to everybody’s taste.”

It was necessary to consider “the greater good and if we don’t take action to allow his to happen we are going to cause problems further down the road that will exacerbate the problems in March”.

Cllr Sutton argued there were plenty of reasons to be able to refuse the application and he also claimed many people’s views were “listened to; it was  this way or the highway. that that’s not a consultation chairman that is a demonstration of what is coming”.

He said the Localism Act of 2011 had made consultation necessary but in this instance, it was “shameful”.

“My question is what happened after this ‘consultation’ was anything changed? No, we’ve not seen any results or consultation.

“We are not seeing any change in this scheme from the consultation. So again, going back it wasn’t a consultation it was a demonstration a demonstration to the people of March and it is just not good enough.”

Anyone knows who actually supports this?

He also said he had yet to see a single letter in support of moving the fountain.

“How can we possibly impose this on the turn of March? It’s just not good enough, it is just not good enough

“How on Earth did we get to a position where we’ve got 8.4 million to invest in the March Town Centre and we get to put to a position where nobody’s been consulted, nobody agrees with the proposal.”

Cllr Sutton said he wasn’t saying the fountain couldn’t or even shouldn’t be moved “but to pick that up and plonk that in front of Mallets shop is a disgrace and it’s shame for this council to even be suggesting it.”

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