Sheep versus see-saws: will Marlborough get an expensive referendum to decide?
It was the first full council meeting (May 16) under the chairmanship of the new Town Mayor, Councillor Noel Barrett-Morton - and it was a tetchy, even at times a rather crotchety affair, as the coming year’s chairs and vice-chairs were voted on for the council's committees.
However, the main business of the evening was a return to that vexed and obviously vexing problem of grazing sheep on Coopers Meadow. It was in December 2014 that Marlborough.News reported agreement had been reached for sheep to safely graze again come Spring 2015 - and sure enough, in June 2015, we reported under the headline (apologies): 'The sheep are baaack'.
A recent meeting of the Amenities and Open Spaces Committee had voted to keep the present split on the meadow between play area and sheep - whose grazing is organised by Action for the River Kennet (ARK.) Councillor Stewart Dobson 'called in' the committee's decision for review by the full council.
The meeting began with a question from Val Compton who was alarmed that Councillor Margaret Rose had told the committee meeting that 'with so many sheep in Wiltshire, we don't need them on Coopers Meadow.' Mrs Compton asked councillors to be patient while the wild flower part of the meadow matured.
She was followed by town resident Simon Bell who walks his dog on the Meadow and could not understand why the previously agreed fifty-fifty split had been overturned: "I despair at the democratic process."
When the full debate came, Councillor Dobson was also 'concerned' that councillors had gone back on the previous fifty-fifty split decision. "This is the key park for anyone visiting Marlborough...yes we can keep the sheep, yes we can have a better play area - but bigger."
Councillor Marian Hannaford-Dobson wanted to agree a compromise: "At present six sheep occupy over seventy-five per sent of the central meadow with the children's play area confined to a small corner at the west end of the meadow." She wanted Area B of the plan drawn up by Estates Manager Richard Beale to house the play area.
We will not be drawn into Area A versus Area B or what the 'central meadow' really is. Suffice it say that Area B is in the west part of the meadow - near the car park and all those visitors. [Corrected paragraph.]
The debate got caught up with the money available to re-equip the play area (nearly £24,000 [corrected figure] in developers' 106 money which can only be used for recreation for children up to eleven years old), whether the area is or is not a traditional water meadow and whether taking over the George Street Car Park loos might change the whole issue. The Mayor summed up: "This is a water meadow - the sheep keep the grass down and the children like to see them there.'
At that point Councillor Hannaford Dobson returned to the fray: "I give notice that because this is such a controversial subject and no compromise has been affected that I am minded to call a Local Referendum..." - and she cited the relevant Act of Parliament.
Both she and Councillor Dobson appeared content that the cost of this was acceptable - a figure of £7,000 was quoted. The Mayor called her suggestion: "Quite ridiculous" - which did not amuse Councillor Hannaford-Dobson.
Summing up his case, Councillor Dobson hinted at some of the reasons for his stand on the matter: "A farmer gets free grazing rights - we get no money back...It's a public amenity - not ARK's - it's for everyone to enjoy."
No one dared to suggest what the question on the referendum ballot paper might possibly be.
Deputy Mayor Mervyn Hall proposed that the committee's decision should stand - so maintaining the current division of the meadow and the grazing licence should be issued forthwith. This was passed by eight votes to four.
As sure as lambs come around in Spring, this topic - with or without an attached referendum - will gambol on for months to come.
But the future looks quite uncertain. When Councillor Dobson asked for a named vote for the confirmation of Councillor Andy Ross to continue as chairman of the Finance and Policy Committee, he added darkly: "...for reasons that will become apparent later."
Civics lesson: a parish meeting must be held every year - Marlborough's last one was on April 25. To add to the complexity Marlborough Town Council also acts as a parish council. A parish meeting can be called by various means including: by the chairman of the parish council, any two parish councillors or any six electors in the parish.
During a parish meeting a 'parish poll' (aka referendum) may be called - under another set of rules. This would be run by the Returning Officer at Wiltshire Council and the costs - which are uncertain - picked up by the parish council.
However the Town Council is not legally obliged to take on board the outcome of a parish poll. So was the Mayor right?