LIFE accuse Witney Town Council of ‘undisclosed agenda’
30th June 2011
For immediate use
Witney Town Council Statement – proposed LIFE Rally
The Town Council's reasons for refusing Life’s application to use the Leys are purely operational. This is reflected in the minutes of the Amenities committee on 8 November 2010 (available on our website). The Leys is primarily used for sports and recreation and is already oversubscribed by local teams.
The decision took into account the impact an event of the size envisioned by LIFE would have upon Witney. This considered traffic flow and parking within the town and other requirements, such as toilet facilities and access necessary to support a national event of this size.
The infrastructure of the Leys cannot support parking or facilities for 10,000 people (the figure presented by LIFE as possible for the event). As a national celebration of their 40th year it is reasonable to expect that attendees would gather from across the country.
The Council has a calendar of other regular annual events that are permitted such as the May Fair, Circus, the Witney Carnival and Witney Feast which has historic rights over the land. These events attract mostly locals from Witney and its surrounds and in much smaller numbers than those proposed by LIFE. Attendees of Witney Feast though possibly approaching a similar number are again, for the most part local and spread across two days.
Any additional event requests are carefully considered by Council on their own merits. At the same Amenities committee meeting, a request was made to hold a steam fair on the same site and this was also refused. The Committee at that time were concerned with over use of the facility, especially as winter weather conditions always take its toll on the pitches, leaving teams struggling to reschedule postponed matches and ground maintenance proving a problem to timetable around these late fixtures.
As an event like this would also need the consent of the West Oxfordshire District Council, LIFE were advised to speak to them to ensure they obtained the right licensing and that they sought their permission and advice.
The decision made by the Amenities committee in November would have been ratified by full council at its December meeting. Once the Council makes a decision it cannot overturn or reconsider this for 6 months unless four councillors put a special resolution to Council as set out in standing orders.
Sharon Groth, Town Clerk, commented;
“While it would be lovely to grant all the requests the council receives to use the Leys and other spaces for events, the Town Council's decision to turn down LIFE’S application to use the Leys was based on entirely practical concerns.
The committee took into account the unsuitability of the infrastructure of the Leys which is intended for sports and recreational use at a local level, to provide parking, access and facilities for a potential crowd of 10,000 people as suggested could be the case by LIFE.
The matter was given careful consideration by the Amenities committee and the decision made by them was later ratified by full council.”
His Grace has quite a bit to say about this, but first he would like to publish LIFE’s response to this press statement. It comes from a Trustee who has received nothing but half a year of silence from Witney Town Council and has ‘been beating (her) head against a brick wall for months’ (quote from private correspondence):
We think the press statement issued today by the Witney Town Council is extremely bland. It says nothing of any real defence, and the Council does nothing to explain its total lack of response to any and all communications from LIFE following their refusal to grant permission in December.His Grace has hyperlinked the Council’s statement to the two relevant sets of minutes, which clearly establish that Councillors Buckle, Adams, Eaglestone, Chapman, Mills and Curry were of the view on 8th November 2010:
On any scale this appears odd, while they appear to undermine their case completely by admitting they regularly give permission for other similar events to be held on the same ground, and for which they are happy to have numbers up to 10,000. If, as they maintain, potential numbers are a concern, we can only repeat LIFE's willingness, yet again, to co-operate to minimise disruption. We have already said we would be willing to cap the numbers at an agreed level, and make admission by ticket only, subject to prior registration. In light of all this, therefore, we are forced to conclude that the reasons put forth are less than transparent, and that there is some other, undisclosed, agenda at work.
...that the request from Rally for Life be refused as the Leys is unsuitable for the numbers of people expected to attend, due to lack of car parking and the fact that the sports areas will probably be required by the regular teams.And, unsurprisingly, just three weeks later on 1st December, Councillors Mills, Adams and Eaglestone sat in judgment upon their own prior decision, along with their fellow councillors Dunn, Barton, Harvey, Churchill, King, Dorward and Knowles, and came to the same conclusion: LIFE are barred. The full Council minutes record no further discussion or consideration of the matter: it was clearly a rubber-stamping process.
The Council now seeks to mitigate potential allegations of discrimination by disclosing that the Amenities Committee also refused a request to hold a steam fair on the same site. Yet in that case, the Minutes clearly state that the Amenities Manager ‘confirmed that she had offered other sites and dates; however, these had been declined’.
No such offer was made to LIFE.
In fact, following the Council’s letter of rejection in December, LIFE tried to telephone the Council several times, but could never get through. They sent four emails and letters offering alternative dates (to avoid sports fixtures) with proposals to limit crowd numbers and encourage alternative modes of transport to minimise parking problems, but no response was ever received. On the only occasion a phone call succeeded in establishing communication with the Town Clerk's office, LIFE were told the Town Clerk was on extended holiday and wouldn't be back for around a month, during which time there was no one deputising for her. Numerous other attempts have been made by phone over the past six months to discuss the matter, all to no avail. LIFE have indeed been ‘beating their heads against a brick wall’.
What is clear is that Witney Town Council is ignorant in dealing with correspondence, rude in dealing with members of the public, and duplicitous in their official response on this matter. The charity have clearly attempted to address all of the practicalities, but no response has ever been received. And this Press Statement is the first time the Council have ever raised ‘toilet facilities’ as an objection. While many local people may indeed walk to the annual Witney Feast, presumably the 10,000 who attend that all excrete with approximately the same frequency as those who would attend LIFE’s celebration. The lack of toilet facilities is an absurd objection.
Whether this is a group of essentially ‘pro-choice’ councillors who were trying to somehow ‘guard' their MP by suppressing LIFE’s message is unknown. But the evidence rather suggests a clear case of discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief, and so an infringement of the Equality Act 2010.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights is binding on public authorities and provides for access to information about, and scrutiny of, the exercise of their functions. Moreover, the Convention protects freedom of expression on political issues and matters of public interest. Indeed, in the case of Wingrove v United Kingdom (25 November 1996) the court held that:
...there is little scope under Article 10(2) of the Convention for restrictions on political speech or on debate of questions of public interest.His Grace suggests that LIFE commence legal proceedings forthwith. He will support them all the way. Unfortunately, the local taxpayers of Witney will end up footing the bill, but that is entirely the fault of Councillors Buckle, Adams, Eaglestone, Chapman, Mills and Curry. At the very least, Councillors Dunn, Barton, Harvey, Churchill, King, Dorward and Knowles should have properly scrutinised the decision of the Amenities Committee and asked their colleagues why the Steam Fair was offered alternative sites and dates while LIFE was summarily rejected. Are steam engines in Witney really worth more than unborn babies?