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Here we publish a contemporaneous account of the Westham Parish Council meeting that took place at Stone Cross school on Monday 17 September. The 48 minutes that saw item 1 on the agenda, Westham Village pond discussed. In our view, much more was at stake than just the state of Westham Village pond. Tomorrow (Tuesday 2 October), we publish the Westham Parish Council response to the current questions about Westham Village pond two weeks later, in the aftermath of the meeting that will be remembered for some time.

The time is 7:25pm, Monday 17 September 2018, Stone Cross school, Westham Parish Council meeting. Councillor Gill Parsons has her hand cupped over her face, as she whispers to Vice Chair Gerry Garnier. The Westham Parish Council performance of Waiting for Godot is due to start at 7:30pm.

Welcome to Westham Parish Council
At a full council meeting led by Westham Parish Council on Monday 17 September at the Amenity Hall at Stone Cross School more was at stake than just the future of the precious village pond, the subject of so much controversy over the last few months.

The question of mis-management of the village pond was first on the agenda of the meeting, in acknowledgement of the fact that so many people had turned up to the council meeting,

The meeting was not just mis-managed, the meeting will threaten the future of Westham Parish Council.

Before the meeting began a woman stood up in the packed audience of nearly forty people and asked the councillors to move back a little with their tables and name markers. They were dominating at least half the hall with the public squashed into the remaining space.

Grudgingly Westham Parish councillors moved their tables back a little.

The start was an indication not only of the inadequacy of the arrangements for the meeting, but the inadequacy of the councillors to understand the context of the meeting.

Why did they not move back before the meeting began? The answer is that the thought never occurred to them.

7:30pm, consideration of closure
The meeting started at 7:30pm, Chairman, Keith Stephens then explained to the audience that he was to consider closing the meeting at 7:30pm. His thought was that the clerk to the council, siting on his right hand side had been the subject of abusive emails, He also said that because of the comments that had already been made by the audience, this led him to think that he might consider closing the meeting.

The suggestion was met with disbelief.

Had Keith Stephens closed the meeting at that point, he would have closed the story of his chairmanship and possibly the Westham Council and the councillors present.

7:35pm: Personally, I wouldn’t trust you lot with an empty bucket
At 7:35pm, Ian Fenner moved slowly and with purpose from the back of the audience to the front and to the table where Keith Stephens sat as he started to talk to the meeting.

With an element of alarm about his purpose he watched in silence as parishioner Mr, Fenner plonked a petition on his table, looked straight at him and with a finger said “here are 510 signatures on this petition and each one is a vote of no confidence in the council’s ability to manage Westham pond”, placing his finger right on top of the petition.

In silence from the councillors and audience he then turned to look at all of the councillors one by one. He turned to the audience and then back to the councillors and said to them, “personally, I wouldn’t trust you lot with an empty bucket”.

The public gallery broke into spontaneous applause.

Chairman Keith Stephens tried to gain some authority and invited members of the audience to speak for up to 2 minutes.

Nigel Greaves, a long term resident of Westham stood up with a gallery of pictures,. He showed the council the before and after pond.

Three years ago, he explained there was clear water, now as he turned to pictures of the pond he showed how much everything had changed.

He spoke about the number of times that he had seen through the seasons how much had changed. He spoke with clarity, precision and with passion. The care he felt towards the pond was apparent. Again big applause.

7:40pm: Audience alert and hostile
By 7:40pm the meeting was alert, hostile and as the comments were aired, shouted from the floor, the councillors looked on at their nameplates.

A quiet man stood up and spoke from the middle of the audience and made a plain and simple point. Did the council intend to set up a management plan for the pond? No was the reply from the chairman.

7:42pm: Council starts to listen
At this time Peter Marshall, Westham Parish councillor broke into the melee and asked if he could be given the opportunity to explain the background to the questions about the pond. For the first time, Westham Parish Council, through councillor Peter Marshall, started to listen.

As he spoke about the extensive background to questions about the pond, he explained the stopping point reached, the archaeological support necessary to see the project through in regard to finding the inlet to the pond. A question that goes back five or six years.

As he spoke questions were interjected and he listened, deferred to the greater knowledge of members of the audience at certain points. There were people in the audience that had lived in Westham for more than fifty years.

7:48pm: Chairman obfuscates
Chairman Keith Stephens obfuscated, sitting in his seat like a frightened child.

He only had one point to make, Nothing could be done because the whole question of the pond needed to be broken down into the constituent elements to be considered in any way.

He never once listened to what was being said to him from the audience.

Keith Stephens cut a cardboard figure.

Since the problems date to February 2013, the gasps of derision from the audience were obvious and palpable as he tried to deflect any argument put.

His basic strategy was awkward, ill considered and based on obfuscation, time after time after time.

This was now 7:48pm the quiet man stood up again and spoke from the middle of the audience and made a plain and simple point again. Did the council intend to set up a management plan for the pond?

As parishioners spoke, the questions kept coming.

Might the Council consider a lottery grant?

No, replied the chairman, breaking down the question into the constituent parts, because the Lottery would need to know the costs.

7:50pm, Parishioner Mark Simpson, common sense at last
Parishioner Mark Simpson spoke from the corner pillar of the audience, plain, warm, connected common sense.

He is a local contractor and responsible for health and safety issues. He works with volunteers.

As he spoke, people listened, he questioned the whole basis of what the council was saying and he questioned what the council had said. Not some of what the council had said with obfuscation, but all of what the council had said.

The audience cheered and clapped as he put the council in their place and made what they had said look ridiculous.

7:52pm: Council power dribbles away
A lottery grant would of course be considered. This is called a scoping exercise and the Lottery can help in this process as any organisation knows that has worked to fund a plan for an aspect of village life that is under threat such as a village pond.

The truth was that Westham Parish Council did not want to consider any plan that involved anyone other than themselves.

As their power dribbled away from them, what was not clear was whether laughter would end the meeting, or that tales of the unexpected would take over with a twist at the end.

The young councillor sitting next to me simply lowered his head more and more and started to only look up on occasion. He was drawing pretty circular patterns over and over again on his agenda sheet.

You do not serve yourselves, you serve the parishioners, I whispered to his beard. He went to look and say something and said nothing. The shame he may have felt he kept to himself.

The atmosphere was now turning sour and there was no management plan.

7:59pm: Councillor Ken Saxby, nailed to the masthead of the Council
At this point Councillor Ken Saxby raised his head and spoke the words that will be nailed to the masthead of Westham Parish Council for the next generation.

With the authority of a failed lower sixth form master from a minor Grammar school in 1974, he explained that for insurance reasons volunteers could not be employed to help with the question of the clearing of the pond.

If what he said was accurate we would not have the Lottery Fund, the fund would not be able to operate.

Mark Simpson, the savvy common sense contractor in the audience, whose job involves volunteers and health and safety, simply explained to him that this was not the case, trying to hide his exasperation.

For the third time at 8:00pm the quiet man stood up and spoke from the middle of the audience and made a plain and simple point again. Did the council intend to set up a management plan for the pond? This time in what was by then an act of defiance from the chairman Keith Stephens, he said an emphatic no.

8:02pm: Bollocks
At around this point Christian Belcher stood up in the audience, simply raised himself to make a stand. He said “everything the council have said about what type of pond we want and how the weather is the cause is a load of old Bollocks, it’s this simple they need to clear the inlet, clear the outlet and remove all of the silt’.

He sat down to sustained applause.

Councillor Peter Marshall remained the only councillor who had listened to a word that any member of the audience had said.

8:05pm: Waiting for Godot
Jo Belcher at this point began to ask the basis on which the council had monitored the pond daily, in the way that they expressed so often.

There were whispers to the right as Chairman Keith Stephens talked to his clerk, then he leaned and whispered to his left to Vice-Chair Gerry Garnier.

Jo Belcher: So you monitor the pond daily?
Gerry Garnier: I monitor the pond daily
Jo Belcher: Yes but how do you monitor the pond?
Gerry Garnier: Well I monitor the pond
Jo Belcher: Do you monitor the pond or do you just look at the pond?
Gerry Garnier: Well, OK, I look at the pond.

By now the audience was besides themselves, the respect had gone for the Council.

8:08pm: Common sense, clarity and perspective from Annemarie Field
At 8:08pm chief reporter, Annemarie Field from the Eastbourne Herald spoke in a personal capacity.

She offered a simple cogent clear as water thought, what was the timeframe that we would be seeing with anything done at the pond, were we talking about weeks or months?

8:10pm: Councillor Gill Parsons
Councillor Gill Parsons had said nothing all evening. Her one contribution had been at 7:25pm, before the start of the meeting, when, with her hand cupped over her face, she had whispered to Vice Chair Gerry Garnier. We can only hope that if she was talking about the presence of the Pevensey Bay Journal that what she had to say was of value.

Jo Belcher: You have not updated your Facebook page since June 2016, do you not think in these days of social media that this would be a useful thing to do so that people could have known about this meeting?

At this point, Councillor Gill Parsons decided to speak for the first time in the evening.

No doubt she would have something accurate and useful to say.

Councillor Gill Parsons: Yes I did post the message about this meeting last Monday
Jo Belcher: But the Westham Parish Council Facebook page has not been updated since June 2016

As Councillor Gill Parsons spoke again, her confidence seemed to escape her a little. She falteringly related again what she had said, but you could hear the element of doubt in her voice with the sentences falling away in a somewhat less audible way.

Jo Belcher, (re-iterates): But the Facebook page has not been updated since June 2016.

Councillor Gill Parsons looked on in puzzlement as if not quite sure whether she had perhaps put the post into her shopping bag and taken the message to the Post Office in Pevensey Bay to be second class stamped and sent urgently across the channel with the words “Danger, 1066, Normans arriving” in capital letters on the front.

For the record, the Westham Parish Council Facebook page has not been updated since June 2016, the last date at which a message was posted about a meeting was also June 2016.

8:11pm: Fourth time
For the fourth time, the quiet man stood up and spoke from the middle of the audience and made a plain and simple point again. Did the council intend to set up a management plan for the pond? This time in what was by then an act of defiance from the chairman Keith Stephens, he said an emphatic no,.

What was plain as a pikestaff to the audience was that the Council was intent on not listening to what the parishioners had to say.

Then perhaps the most disgraceful moment of the meeting.

One of the councillors said that some of the parishioners were clowns.

Was he referring to people in the audience? That was most certainly what the people had felt. There was an intake of a gasp.

Perhaps the councillor who called the audience clowns would like to resign. Perhaps he will just resign. He has no future as a councillor for a parish.

By now the meeting was at the point of critical dysfunction and everyone could sense what what happening. Critical dysfunction.

The councillors sat in shame, the audience was so worked up that there seemed as if there would be no resolution.

8:18pm: On Golden Pond
For the fifth time at 8:18pm, the quiet man stood up and spoke from the middle of the audience and made a plain and simple point again. Did the council intend to set up a management plan for the pond?

Chairman Keith Stevens, presumably on behalf of Westham Parish Council suddenly said yes. There was a vote and Westham Parish Council raised their hands to a management plan.

Perhaps the meeting had simply reached a critical mass. The audience, after a short pause broke into long standing applause and the agenda item was over.

The axis of the meeting had turned full circle and night had become day.

Clerk to the Council Alison Stevens had hardly looked up from her notes, apart from the quiet mutter.

summary
Nobody can doubt that the question of the village pond in Westham is complex, no-one can doubt that the arguments have going on for 5-6 years.

But here is the question.

Does Westham Parish Council really want a resolution?

The more that Keith Stevens talked and obfuscated, the more the point became obvious that he was covering his back, trying to divide and rule with the absurd notion through the entire 48 minute discussion that what was necessary was that the questions had to be divided into constituent elements.

The more that he made the same point over and again, the more what became obvious was that he had no authority at all, no vision, no strategy, no plan. All he was aiming to do was to defend his own position and that of the clerk, Alison Stevens.

That is not good enough. Parish councillors serve the parish, they do not serve themselves.

Westham Parish Council has been found wanting, in such a public and excruciatingly painful and obvious way  They should be ashamed of themselves, all of them, with the exception of Councillor Peter Marshall who listened to what people had to say.

The councillor who called people in the audience clowns should resign. He should resign now.

A management plan will now emerge.

There will be volunteers, there might even be the Lottery Fund, there will be Wealden Council, archaeologistsl, diggers, contractors, parishioners and most importantly as savvy contractor Mark Simpson pointed out, at last, goodwill.

Christine Fenner, Ian Fenner, Jo Belcher, Christian Belcher, Nigel Greaves, the quiet man who called for a management plan five times, many parishioners and many people who want to see the pond saved, Wealden Council, the archeologists, the experts called in to help , will all work together to find the inlet that has caused so much concern. They will work together now with a management plan and the clear water of Westham Village pond will return.

There is another missing inlet that will also be found, that is the inlet from Westham Parish Council to the parishioners. Without that inlet Westham Parish Council can not function.

There will be no surprise to find that the parishioners of Westham call an extraordinary meeting of the parish.

Ten signatures, with names and addresses pinned to the village noticeboard, with 21 days notice of the meeting, will do the job.

The clerk has to pay for the meeting, in a public space. As parishioners filter into the meeting (perhaps we will see as many as 100 people at the meeting), their names and addresses can be checked against their Westham addresses, this will be a public meeting anyone can attend, only Westham Parishioners can vote.

A vote at this meeting against Westham Parish Council will see the end of this council.

They will resign. They will be honour bound to resign.

A new council will emerge, no doubt some of the people involved in the new management plan might like to be consisted for positions.

Councillor Ken Saxby can straighten his 1974 tie. The councillor who called the audience clowns can slip way and chairman Keith Stephens can do something else.

Whatever he chooses to do, he will have learned the lesson. Listening to people is the first task of any parish council.

In 1894 when parish councils were first founded, there was a statement that still stands in the clear water of a village pond.

In 2018 we are now not just in the digital age with social media, we are in the age of localism and engagement and activity, at the parish level.

These points come into sharp relief.

A parish council that does not understand this new context will not survive.

This was also the context in 1894, the continuity. the non-partisan nature of parish councils are sacrosanct. As the money from county councils and Government dries up, new streams of money are coming from new dynamic places and they are meeting local purpose in new ways.

So why is there not a Kickstarter fund to find money for Westham Village pond? The money raised might come from across the country, perhaps as much as £20,000 within 28 days if the campaign to raise the money was done well. Most importantly in the process, not just money would be raised, there would also be hope and will.

Hope and will make good bedfellows because in important ways they connect people.

There was no connection between Westham Parish Council and the people of Westham. The woman who asked the councillors to move back because they were dominating the room was making a critical point.

What was interesting at the start of the meeting was that not a single councillor saw the problem. They simply sat behind their nameplates as if they could not see the context of the meeting, or perhaps with bewildered heads they were choosing not to see the context.

Notions of radicalism like social media, engagement and activity at the local level, the call for extraordinary parish meetings and the kinds of deeply held troubled questions that were sited in the meeting held at Stone Cross school, might sound like the death knell of the non-partisan parish council.

Anyone with a knowledge of the context, history, lineage and value of parish councils to a post Austerity age in 2018, with the broken sense of rural life that we experience, will know that there are lessons to be learned.

There was purpose, will and continuity in the proposals put forward from the audience in the meeting, entirely in tune with the purpose of parish councils. This is why parish councils were founded.

This is Liberal John Morley. MP for Reading talking about the value of the proposed  ‘Parish Act’ reported in the Times as “Mr Morley at Reading”. (25 February 1892).

“The Tories cannot conceal from themselves the fact that all over the land – in the towns, in the villages, in the country districts, in the urban districts – there is a resolute determination that Parliament shall put its hand in earnest to the great work of social regeneration … parish councils may sound dull and mechanical, we know that they will go to the very root of national life, and that when we have achieved these reforms a freer voice will be given to the community than it has ever had before. New depths of life will have been stirred in the most neglected portions of our community, and we shall find among the labourers of the fields, as we have found among the artisans of the towns, a resolution that the condition of our people shall, so far as laws can better it, be bettered ..”

In the days that followed this meeting there were parishioners, contractors, Wealden Council, archaeologists, experts, get well wishers and much interest right across the village

Pevensey and Westham Primary School put up a message that the village pond was to be avoided and a hazard, the advice given from the Environment Agency.

Westham Village pond is currently sealed off from the public.

Send in the clowns, there have to be clowns.

We wait with interest to see what will happen next. In our view Westham Parish Council is dead in the water.

The meeting held at Stone Cross school on behalf of the parish of Westham on Monday 17 September 2018 is unlikely to be forgotten for some time.

Simon Montgomery