Police have been accused of turning Kent into “a forgotten corner of North Korea” after stepping into the middle of an online row over plans to build a new Tesco in Margate.
Three local Conservative Party councillors have been questioned under caution, officers scrutinised pages of blog posts, Twitter feeds and Facebook messages and there are even claims that the local Police and Crime Commissioner became involved.
The extraordinary row surrounded plans to build an 82,000 sq ft branch of Tesco near the seafront in the seaside town. While it has been opposed for years by local business owners – and even the high street guru Mary Portas – it has been supported by those who say it will bring new jobs and attract more shoppers.
The row seemed like it was over when the communities minister Eric Pickles gave Tesco the green light last year – but that decision has been challenged in the High Court.
But now, Dr Simon Moores has said he, Mick Tomlinson and a third Tory councillor have been questioned by police under caution for conspiracy to harass.
They have been the subject of a complaint from Louise Oldfield, a Yorkshire-born owner of a boutique bed and breakfast in the town who opposes the Tesco development. She says she has received “threats of assault” over the years she has battled the supermarket plans.
Writing on his blog Thanet Life – one of the forums where the online row has played out – Dr Moores explained: “Apparently, it’s alleged that together with two other council colleagues, I have somehow conspired to harass the worthy lady owner of a Margate B+B, by making untrue and defamatory comments damaging to her reputation and business.”
Those who support the “YES to Tesco” campaign left comments under stories on Dr Moores' blog, some of which could have been regarded as offensive to Ms Oldfield.
Dr Moores said police officers also showed him the Facebook page of Mr Tomlinson, a former mayor of Margate, who “chided” Ms Oldfield for “exaggerating the size and position of the proposed Tesco”.
The third councillor, who has not been named, was reportedly questioned by police for “Liking” that comment on Facebook.
Dr Moores said it was extraordinary that these three pieces of evidence were the basis upon which they were questioned under caution.
He wrote: “You might be forgiven for wondering if, overnight, Thanet had been revealed as a forgotten corner of North Korea with a simple 'ticked' opinion perceived as a criminal offence?”
The councillor also claims on his blog that “strong circumstantial evidence” points to police only taking an interest in the row after the intervention of Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Ann Barnes, who denies any involvement.
While arguments over the Tesco plans will no doubt continue, it is now up to the Crown Prosecution Service as to what happens next with the harassment investigation.
In the meantime, Dr Moores told the Guardian: “Should someone feel offended or even harassed by anything you might have innocently published, watch out, because the police may come knocking on your door.”