As we move towards the summer under lockdown, Wallingford Council has also taken a step forward – hosting a council meeting online for the first time. Meeting via Microsoft Teams, the council held a full meeting involving councillors and members of the public.
With a total of 36 people present, Mayor Lee Upcraft helped the attendants through some stuttering technical issues, before opening the meeting and inviting the five members of the public who had registered interest in speaking to start.
Members of the public speaking involved a member of extinction rebellion – speaking in support of declaring a climate emergency, and a no-mow section of the Kinecroft.
The expansion of the pedestrian area of St Marys’ street near the Butchers in the town came up next, with the impact of this on local businesses being key to the objection.
A local business owner proffered the range of behaviours from the public regarding the compliance or not to the social distancing rules. She listed concerns of local traders, many of whom have small shops, and their concerns of maintaining social distancing once more shops open again.
A local county councilor spoke regarding the climate emergency, promoting action sooner rather than later to head off the expected impact, as well as supporting the move towards expanding the pedestrian spaces in the town.
This was not met without comment, with a number of people speaking against the declaration of a climate emergency, with or without additional action.
A district councilor also spoke on the climate emergency, declaring it non-political, as well as touting the proposed economic and well-being benefits of action taken now to enable new policies in the near future.
With the opening remarks taken, the declaration of a climate emergency, linked to the proposed expansion of the pedestrian area in town and it’s impact on local businesses was set up as the main issue from the public section.
Following some business covering the cancellation of the carnival, as well as the Bachelor family winning the Mayor’s artwork competition, the Mayor thanked the Wallingford 2020 group for their assistance in the community with respect to the Covid-19 lockdown – having provided over 1000 small jobs across the town. Jackie Bradney was highlighted for her work in setting up the group:
Under government guidance during the COVID lockdown, the Annual meeting – used to elect the Mayor – does not have to take place: this would leave the Mayor in place without a new vote. The current work load for the council was sited, as was the desire for local democracy to be held. The motion – to hold the meeting – failed, resulting in an extended term of office for Mayor Lee Upcraft until next May, 2021.
The Mayor then raised an interest in changing the membership of the planning committee, siting that members should lead by example. The committee was re-elected without the presence of Councillor Cattermole.
Colin Dolton was assigned to the Tourism committee, filling a spot left vacant previously.
The work of council committee meetings to continue online while face to face meetings are restricted was on the agenda, a move supported and voted for. Following was the acceptance of minutes, schedule of future meetings and other technical votes.
The finances of the council were next, with current spending plans leaving general reserves of around £90,000 for the end of the year. The Mayor highlighted that spending is above income, with the reserves having been eaten away over the last few years.
The impact of Covid-19 on the financial situation – both income and expenditure – were discussed, however the final details of these were not available yet.
The council agreed to send a letter to the MP David Johnston stating their disagreement with the current situation regarding the planning system – work on local plans are suspended, while the planning process is going ahead, potentially leading to a loss of income to the council from developers’ contributions.
The Regal redevelopment committee was working hard up until shutdown, however relied on a public consultation to be advertised in Window for Wallingford for progress. With only 20 responses to date, a business plan is not currently forthcoming for the new development.
The current plans from architects for the redevelopment are now costed at £4m, with the council to return to the architects regarding cost inflation.
The St Mary’s Street closure – ‘The Meat’ of the meeting was finally reached. The proposal was to close St Mary’s and St Martin’s Street, except for deliveries, in part to allow traders to have an on-street presence, but largely to allow social distancing to continue and keeping the town center open for business.
The suggested temporary closure plan to the end of September was debated, including the possible knock-on effect of people ignoring or bypassing the town center all together. The traffic knock-on was also discussed, with traffic concerns being stated on nearby roads.
The council was largely hung on needing the outcome of the survey of local businesses, which was not available. Torn on making a decision which would impact both the local traders and the town as a whole, the council decided to postpone a decision pending further input from local traders.
Declaring a climate emergency was also on the mammoth meeting. The council’s neighbourhood plan already supports sustainability, however a motion to declare an emergency was called. Partially supported with evidence of the rise in air quality as a side effect of reduced car travel in the town during lockdown, a Councillor laid out a position of principal to add the town councils’ voice to both district and national government.
Responding views included that this is out of council’s remit, and that it is just grandstanding, however support to declare ongoing intent in taking climate change seriously were also voiced.
Concern that if the motion passed would be used to reduce or block traffic on the bridge and local roads was voiced, as well as that the issue is already politicised. This led to a well voiced discussion about councillors personal politics as well as the independance of council.
The motion was voted on, being passed 7 votes to 6, with the Mayor casting the tie breaking vote.
The Wallingford Beach project was next up, now 2.5 hours into the meeting. Taking on liability under the bathing waters act was a concern in opening up and promoting the beach. With run-off from fields amongst other issues, the potential for liability claims was raised.
The provision of lifeguards, waste mangement and more was brought up with the council weighing up letting people use the space anyway, without the council taking on additional costs.
The council moved to support the designation of the beach as a bathing water, providing the district council took responsibility for the site.
Coming up to three hours on the meeting, the Mayor called to defer the remaining agenda items.
Full minutes of the council meeting will be available in due course on the Council’s website.