They're fighting on the beaches in Walberswick (aka 'Notting Hill on Sea')
Council at war in coastal retreat favoured by the rich and famous
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Wednesday 02 January 2013
With its sweeping vistas of sand dunes leading to the North Sea and tea room-bordered village green, the closest that the Suffolk seaside village of Walberswick has traditionally come to confrontation is its renowned crabbing competition.
But more recently, the village dubbed Notting Hill on Sea due to its significant population of luminaries from film and fashion, has been in the grip of a ferocious row which, were it not so bitter, sounds like a script by comedy writer and longterm Walberswick visitor Richard Curtis.
The dispute centres on the parish council and a feud over its proceedings, in particular the handling of planning applications in this corner of East Anglia where an influx of monied second-home owners – from ITV director of television Peter Fincham to film-maker Paul Greengrass and radio DJ Simon Mayo – has seen property prices rocket beyond the reach of all but the wealthy.
The arrival of the metropolitan glitterati has brought undoubted glitz to Walberswick life, with Curtis recently donating an unfinished Blackadder script to a charity auction and a village fashion show for Comic Relief attracting garments from Twiggy, Geri Halliwell and Clive Anderson.
But while the great and the good come for the bracing sea air, local democracy in the village has come to resemble something closer to trench warfare.
After an acrimonious two and a half years in which both sides have traded accusations and insults - including a statement from one councillor suggesting he might use letters of complaint from one resident as toilet paper - the council decided two months ago to resign en masse.
The local authority, Suffolk Coastal District Council, has now taken the extraordinary step of appointing four unelected temporary councillors so the parish body can continue to function amid continuing anger and attempts to build a fragile peace.
Appealing for calm, one of the new co-opted representatives, Michael Gower, said: “Arguments have bedevilled the atmosphere in the village. A lot of hard words have been said in public and in private and we must find a way to move forward. This won’t be easy.”
The stand off is all the more remarkable given that Walberswick, which sits at the end of a country lane opposite the famously gentrified Suffolk resort of Southwold, is renowned for a well-heeled Arcadian existence which has drawn a host of celebrities to its weatherboarded seaside streets.
Mr Curtis, whose hits range from the Blackadder series to Love Actually, has a home in the village with his wife, Emma Freud, whose family has had a longstanding link with the area since Sigmund’s daughter Anna moved to Walberswick before the Second World War.
In their wake have followed a steady trickle of household names, including the film director Paul Greengrass and DJ Simon Mayo. Former Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves regularly comperes the dog show at the annual summer fete.
But behind this air of rural calm, ill-feeling has festered.
None of the more famous Walberswick residents contacted by The Independent felt able to comment publicly on the parish council row.
On one side of the confrontation stands a group of residents who have raised concerns over the transparency of the council’s dealings and its treatment of planning applications. On the other side are longstanding members of the council who claim they have received “harassing” communications and been left unable to carry out their duties.
The dispute has its roots in claims that the parish council was failing to adhere to rules governing record keeping and the declaration and recording of interests on matters including planning applications.
In order to obtain information, village dissidents have submitted Freedom of Information requests. Councillors say the volume of those requests - claimed to exceed 100 - has threatened to overwhelm the body and imperiled its finances because of the amount of overtime paid to the parish clerk to process the documentation.
The bitterness caused by the row was highlighted in a complaint made by one homeowner about an alleged outburst against her during a public forum in the village hall from one of the parish councillors, Kevin Webb, after she raised questions about plans to build houses on a plot of land behind her house.
Suffolk Coastal council documents from the investigation into the complaint show Mr Webb, who died earlier this year, was claimed by the homeowner to have said: “You do nothing for this village, you moved here five years ago and have done nothing at all in that time. You are not on the parish register, you don’t vote here, you have no right to tell us what to do. I went off to my holiday house up the river last week, it’s just as well I had a copy of your letter because we didn’t have any loo roll and it came in useful.”
Mr Webb, a lifelong Walberswick and a local builder, denied that he had raised his voice or attempted to bully the homeowner. When asked about his comments, a document setting out his response said: “He said he had not actually said that he would use [the] letter as toilet paper. However, he had implied that he might do so.”
The concerns of the residents have at least in part been found to have some justification.
An investigation by the standards committee of the local authority earlier this year found that the parish council had been “rather lax or careless” concerning the declaration and recording of interests at meetings. It also found that Mr Webb’s brother, David, a former chairman of the parish council, had breached conduct rules by failing to declare an interest relating to a planning application linked to his brother.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has also criticised the council for failing to disclose some requested information and failing to deal with some of the FOI requests in the appropriate manner.
One of the complainants, former City worker John McCarthy, said the requests he made were valid and that the resulting row had left him feeling ostracised from parts of the community. He said: “All I have sought is answers to requests that have been recognised as valid. The entire thing has been kafkaesque. I would like an apology from the council for the way I have been treated.”
Figures on both sides of the row denied that it amounted to a pitched battle between longterm residents of Walberswick and more recent incomers able to afford a property market of eye-watering intensity.
Properties in the village with a price tag below £350,000 are rare, effectively pricing young locals out of the market. One four-bedroom home bought for £175,000 in the mid-1990s sold recently for nearly £1m while a modest three-bedroom semi worth £250,000 in 2003 is currently on the market with a price tag of nearly £700,000.
The consultation period closed last week for a development of five new houses, each costing up to £700,000, on a plot of land previously occupied by a single property. One resident said: “There is a lot of money to be made out of building property in this village. The risk is that it is allowed at any cost to the environment and landscape.”
David Webb, who said he had had no financial interest in his brother’s business, said mistakes had been made by the parish council but claimed the row had been blown out of proportion.
He said: “It is a storm in a teacup that got out of hand.”
The councillor, who was elected unopposed to a vacant parish council seat earlier this year, added: “There is a big problem for the village about property prices. It is quite impossible for normal working people to buy a home. We did a survey which suggested about 43 per cent of properties are second homes or lets. Of course, the vast majority of people who have moved here are perfectly nice people. But there is an issue about keeping young people in the village.”
With plans afoot to move back to an elected parish council as soon as possible, it remains to be seen just when the hatchet will be buried in Walberswick.
In the meantime, those involved in the row can think only wistfully of the lines of verse that appeared in Punch magazine in 1880 extolling the village’s charms to Londoners. They read: “O Walberswick’s a village of very little tillage/ In the northern part of Suffolk, and it’s very picturesque/ And you fly from all the gritty, dirty by-ways of the City/ To forget, in pleasant rambles, dreary duties at the desk.”
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