Stretham is a quintessentially English village -just off the A10 from Ely to Cambridge, 4 miles south-west of Ely and the centre of a minor political earthquake.
The centre of the village is described in guide books as “a pleasant triangle of land with the church, the pub and the post office clustered around the Cross”.
But as May 4th approaches it is anything but tranquil for on that day residents are being invited to vote in extraordinary circumstances to elect its parish council for the next four years.
In 2019 there was little enthusiasm for being a parish councillor and only 10 applied for the 11 seats and so all were elected unopposed.
But fast forward to 2023 and villagers face a bewildering array of candidates wishing to be a parish councillor.
Of the 11 seats on the parish council, voters will have the option to choose from 22 names on the ballot paper. It is, from all accounts, the only parish among 37 in East Cambridgeshire which is being contested.
“It excites me that so many residents are keen to make a difference in Stretham and there is a real chance to end this ‘chumocracy’ we have seen with co-opting and the like in the past few years,” says Cllr Doug Stewart one of the candidates.
“The question I would like to know is: Is this the most contested parish council election in the country, 2/1 candidates to seats?”
Last year Doug easily won a by election for a seat on the parish council and he will be defending that next month with 10 others who share his concerns about decisions made by the council.
Crucial among those has been the enthusiasm of the parish council to sell off the parish hall and build a new, vastly improved but expensive, replacement.
A parish poll last year found support to pause spending on a new hall until after this May’s election, but it was a result rejected by the council.
A bullish statement from the council says an application for a Public Works Loan application to help build the hall “has been submitted to provide some of the funding for the project”.
The parish council says it project group “has reviewed the operating budget – noting that it is expected that the Hub will generate a surplus and therefore not impact the precept.
“And considers that it is reasonable and achievable, while noting that the income in the first year of operation is not likely to achieve the full usage expected of the long-term plan.
“Some funding may be available to cover first year startup operating costs”.
Crucially the statement also says a new doctors’ surgery, part of the proposals, are moving ahead and “we have agreed terms and specifications for the GP consulting rooms and are finalising contracts”.
Cllr Stewart is not alone in believing decisions are being made too hastily, but he and his colleagues now standing for election accept support for them and their cause is not unanimous.
And hence the reason for 22 candidates on the ballot paper – those 11 clearly wanting the project to go ahead declaring themselves a ‘pro surgery and hub’ candidates.
The parish council remains optimistic it will retain the status quo of support.
“Mereside Medical has provided a letter of intent to lease the GP premises as designed in the planning application and expect to be there for a long time,” says a council statement.
“The agreements for land transfer are in progress and we expect them to be ready soon.
“The Stretham and Wilburton Community Land Trust (SWCLT) has confirmed that they will provide the land they own for free to the council, although we will cover legal costs related to the transfer.
“We now have draft funding agreements from ECDC. We need to finalise milestones and Project timings next.
“The parish rooms have been put up for sale. Although this is a historic site and it would be nice to keep them, the cash from the sale will go towards the new building which will be much more fit for purpose.”
The parish rooms are being advertised for sale with a guide price of £225,000.
Located on the High Street, agents say it “could be used for a variety of uses under the E planning class or potentially converted to other uses, including residential, subject to planning”.
The parish council is confident of its income and expenses budget for the Hub “and initial sums show that this can break even or even make a bit of profit”.
Huge sums are involved, for example £1.4m to build the village centre, has been offered by East Cambridgeshire District Council.
Lib Dem opposition leader Lorna Dupre has been broadly opposed to committing funds at this stage, preferring to await the results of the parish council election.
“We are asking that no money is put forward until the new parish council has had a chance to review what is on the table,” she said.
A majority of 317 from a 29.49 per cent turnout voted to pause further activity until after May but parish council chairman Cllr Janet Parish dismissed the poll outcome. She felt the hub should go ahead “without delay” and was necessary to secure the new surgery for GPs.
Prior to his election, Cllr Stuart had battled for some time to get greater public scrutiny of the hub and the parish council.
It led to him to complaining to East Cambridgeshire District Council over remarks that had been made prior to his election by parish council vice chair Charles Roberts, a former leader of East Cambs Council.
After an investigation by monitoring officer Cllr Roberts was cleared of misconduct allegations but not before the substance of the complaint had been made public.
Cllr Roberts had described Cllr Doug Stuart at a parish council meeting as “a disgrace; you seek to destroy what is good in this community”.
He also accused Cllr Stuart of plucking “things from the air to suit your own twisted arguments” and labelled him “the most ill-informed resident in the village”.
Cllr Stuart said Cllr Roberts had “tried to defame my character by lying about my actions, my intentions and claiming I committed criminal acts.
“There was no basis or evidence for any of these accusations and they were used to protect himself and the council and community land trust which is heavily linked with the parish and district council.
“I am sure some people who have believed the comments and now see me, a local businessman, as a liar. All completely made up.
“This will have damaged views on myself and my local business.”
Cllr Stuart said all he had done previously as a member of the public was to attend meetings and ask questions.
Maggie Camp, East Cambridgeshire District Council looked at the complaint together with independent panellists.
She told Cllr Stuart: “We noted that Cllr Roberts accepts the words used.
“Whilst we believe he could perhaps have chosen his words more carefully; we are mindful of Cllr Roberts’ right to freedom of expression”.
Ms Camp said this was protected under the Human Rights Act and quoted case law to support her conclusions.
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