Square-bashing with the RSM

Our elected (with no votes) parish council held its latest meeting on Monday night after a hiatus over the summer put down to the unavailability of a suitable venue, given that the village hall was being used as a COVID vaccination centre. The hapless councillors, unlike colleagues in neighbouring parishes, were – rather conveniently for them – unable to find anywhere else to hold a meeting. They also postponed the Annual Parish Meeting, which should have been held by the end of June, until 18th October.

And don’t mention the fact that parish council minutes have not been published regularly and the supposedly “community-led” Neighbourhood Development Order Steering Group minutes have either not been published or are late. Or that for many months the PC chairman, Chris Neill, failed to declare a conflict of interest over the proposed housing developments in the village. Or that the chair of the NDO Steering Group, Lieutenant Colonel Giles Baxter (rtd), also failed to declare a conflict of interests. And while all this has been happening, it seems that a major new road is going to be built along the western and northern edges of the village, the Culham Science Centre is to expand exponentially and a solar farm is planned for Burcot. Did we hear anything about these issues from the councillors? Did they consider it when deciding to back the ‘get-richer-quick’ scheme designed to facilitate the withdrawal of the Gibbs Estate from the village? Not as far as I can see.

Those of us who hoped a modicum of reason would have seeped into the brains of the councillors over the summer of silence were sorely disappointed. The PC meeting should have been a opportunity for parishioners to air their concerns on each of these threats to village life. Instead, it started with a sales pitch by the PPS, the Swindon Council-owned company that wants to build a massive solar farm on green belt land at Burcot Farm. They cannot put forward any reason for selecting Burcot Farm other than that the farmer wants to lease his land to them instead of farming it. Presumably he will make more money that way.

However, it is not ‘low-grade’ farmland, as PPS’ own literature specifies that they should use for such developments. Also, the battery array is potentially dangerous, and they are desperately trying to play down the noise pollution that will be created by banks of cooling fans running 24/7 to keep the massive lithium-ion battery units – 18 of them, each 40-feet long – from exploding. Solar power is good, but not when it destroys the countryside and good farming land. Concerned parishioners who had self-funded a visit to a PPS solar farm near Swindon had many objections. This development will disturb our enjoyment of a quiet, rural environment. Even though the councillors kept silent, the discussion overran its allotted time.

So, as soon as the PPS people finished, after about 45 minutes, post office proprietor and PC chair Chris Neill decided that he was not going to allow the following agenda item, “Public Participation,” despite the fact that Christine McCulloch had written to the PC secretary and had been told that there would be 15 minutes for public participation in the meeting, during which time she could speak about the NDO development. Other parishioners had also wanted to raise issues. But oh no, Mr Neill, a former regimental sergeant major (RSM) in the British Army’s postal service, decided otherwise. “We need to get on with our meeting”, he shouted in his best parade-ground voice. “We have run out of time for further participation. We have had a statement from Christine, but I’m sorry, Christine, we have run out of time, OK? This is a parish council meeting. There is plenty of opportunity for you to write to the PC.”

Despite this salvo, Christine objected and pointed out that she had already written to the PC. But our puffed-up martinet stood his ground. “I’m sorry, the 15 minutes are gone. This is not up for debate. I am sorry, that is the way it is. I’m sorry, but we have got a full agenda. We have a time limit. I’m sorry, that’s it. That’s my ruling and its final.” The amount of sorrow expressed by the RSM, its seems to me, was in inverse proportion to the number of times he expressed the emotion. The other (elected, but with no votes) councillors sat on their hands during this charade of democracy. Shame on them.

Worse was to come. RSM Neill then mentioned he was waiting for the county councillor, Rob Bennett to arrive to address the meeting. As the RSM no doubt fiddled with his swagger stick, Mr Bennett spoke up to explain to the startled chair that he had been at the meeting for some time. He told the RSM he thought it only right that the PC should hear Christine out. “Don’t interfere in parish council matters”, he was told brusquely by our valiant square-basher. County councillor Bennett then offered to give up his allotted time for Christine to speak, but this kind offer was also ignored.

Having marched his regiment of parish councillors all over the democratic rights of the people they are supposed to represent, Mr Neill moved on to next business. What a farce! The sooner we get rid of this lot of self-centred councillors, not one of whom has any backbone, the better. The deferred Annual Parish Meeting, not yet advertised, but rumoured to be held on 18 October at 19.30 in the village hall, will be an opportunity for parishioners to air their views. The countdown to the next elections has begun.

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