Fuses blow as most of Area Board grant for Marlborough Christmas lights is approved

Written by Tony Millett on .

A Danish town's display of Christmas LED lights (2012) (Photo: Kim Hansen)A Danish town's display of Christmas LED lights (2012) (Photo: Kim Hansen)Marlborough Town Council's application for a £5,000 Area Board grant towards new LED bulbs for the town's Christmas lights as the old bulbs become obsolete, caused some sparks at the meeting on Tuesday evening (September 27.)

The Town Council already has a budget line for the lights of £11,000 funded by the council tax precept.  But the full cost of updating the lights - and making them environmentally friendly as well as welcoming - was just short of £19,000.

At a pre-meeting of Wiltshire Councillors it was decided the application did not comply with the criteria and it was removed from the agenda.

However, the matter was raised by Councillor Stewart Dobson.  And at question time Councillor Mervyn Hall told the Board that other Wiltshire town and parish councils had applied successfully for Area Board grants: "We deserve an explanation as to why Marlborough is different."  Chairman Councillor James Sheppard put it back on the agenda as an 'Urgent Item'.

It had apparently been claimed that town and parish councils could not apply for grants - some quick research by the Town Clerk, Shelley Parker, showed 40 such applications.  "Why", asked Councillor Justin Cook, "had Westbury's grant for Christmas lights been approved?"

It was said that grants to local councils had to be for expenditure that was not part of their statutory duties.  Not since the Puritan parliament 'abolished' Christmas - and mince pies - has a government tried to tell councils how they should observe Christmas.

It was said that grants had to be for new projects - and here the coloured lights turned into a very grey area. Were LED lights a new project?

There was a bit of heat and less light about the role of the retailers in the Christmas lights.  It apparently been claimed by a long-serving Wiltshire councillor that the lights were just for the benefit of the retailers.

The councillor's claim was strenuously denied by Councillors Stewart Dobson ("...something that has to be knocked on the head straight away") and Marian Hannaford-Dobson, who stressed how many people came into the town from the villages for the switch-on and for Christmas shopping.  She also pointed out that the shops pay the electricity bills for the lights.

The grant was approved, but reduced to £4,720, which is the cost of the 1,600 LED bulbs the council needs to buy - and to make a point about criteria for these grants.

The meeting ended with a lot more heat about the way the issue had been handled.

Councillor Jemima Milton: "This sets a dangerous precedent.  It's wrong that there are more Marlborough town councillors here than other people.  It's not the way we should be running the Area Board."

This turned into an allegation by Councillor Sheila Glass (Ramsbury and Axford) that town councillors had "packed" the meeting and the grant has not been on the agenda so no one knew about it: "I'm sorry, it's not right."

Marlborough's deputy mayor, Councillor Mervyn hall, responded that the idea the meeting had been packed was just wrong: "There are only seven councillors here.  I didn't know it was going to be discussed till I got here.  I'm here to talk about the Neighbourhood Plan."