East Grinstead samples art of democracy

Ian MacKinnon reports on a novel electoral battle in West Sussex
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For all the novelty of yesterday's vote, the streets of East Grinstead, West Sussex, were not gripped by polling day fever. Bewildered looks spread across faces of the electorate when quizzed on voting intentions.

Nor were shop windows a riot of propaganda urging voters to swing one way or another. Indeed, those seeking backing for their respective campaigns were easily outnumbered by similar adverts for a kick-boxing contest.

Yet, just before 4pm, as the polling station signs went up outside 14 halls around town, small knots of people gathered to register their votes in a move which could shape the future of the inhabitants' lives for years.

What marked out this poll was that it was not for some dusty town hall politician, but a referendum on whether the local authority should press ahead with plans to build a community arts centre. The scheme to develop the old school site at Chequer Mead has been five years in the planning and the funding - pounds 680,000 from the National Lottery and pounds 500,000 from the district council - has been secured.

So what's the problem? At the 11th hour a group of residents expressed their concern at the on-going costs which will have to be met by the town council in subsidies, about pounds 50,000 a year, amounting to pounds 4 annually for every council tax payer.

In an effort to head off the council, which became solidly Liberal Democrat at the last election, the campaigners discovered that under an obscure section of local government legislation they could demand a referendum on the scheme if they could muster six signatures and 10 votes in their favour at a public meeting.

Inevitably things started to go awry. In the town of less than 20,000 voters, all manner of claim and counter-claim was made as the campaigners accused one another of skulduggery. Sandra Poulter, a leading light of the Chequer Mead Alliance campaigning for a yes vote in favour of the project, accused her opponents of underhand tactics yesterday as she stepped from the polling booth. "I know they have been haranguing people in the street," she said. "It has started a lot of ill feeling. It's quite intense."

She accused the "no" campaigners of the Chequer Mead Referendum Group of distributing misleading leaflets which had scared many voters when they saw the sums of money that the project could cost.

Of equal concern to Jean Glynn, the mayor, is the fact that such a small group could force the local authority to hold a referendum costing about pounds 5,000. "I'm fairly appalled that so few should be able to do this on an issue which we thought had been fully rehearsed over a period of years. The Referendum Group seems to be a disparate bunch with different agendas," she said.

Brian Hockey, leader of the Referendum Group, said it was the council that had been playing fast and loose with the facts, suggesting that the annual costs would be far greater than those "optimistically" advanced by the yes campaigners.

"Let's get one thing clear," he said. "We're not anti-arts, we are anti- waste. That's why our slogan is 'Keep East Grinstead White Elephant Free'. We feel that it's important the people should be asked about this. The other lot have said the referendum's a waste of money but it's only 20p a head, that's a small price to pay for democracy."

He, too, had his allegations of foul play by his opponents, accusing them of hijacking a recent public meeting he had called, orchestrating a vote of 128 to 42 in favour of the centre. But among the rank and file of the East Grinstead electorate his arguments appeared yesterday to have struck a chord with at least some who said they had voted against because the centre would cater for a minority.

On the other side of the coin there were those, queuing even before the booths opened, who planned to vote for the centre because they said the town desperately needed such a facility.

"There's nothing here. It's completely dead," said one woman. "That's why everybody moves away. It's madness to be against it."

Late last night it emerged that many felt the same way. Those in favour of the arts centre carried the vote by 1,745 to 1,448.

The issue did not appear to have split the good people of East Grinstead too far, however. The turnout for the vote stood at 16 per cent.