War of words over St Lawrence Street saga

A Horncastle town councillor has accused a district councillor of making verbal threats against him and branded his comments as ‘pathetic.’

It’s all quiet in Horncastle’s Market  Place where the failure to secure a road closure has led to strong words between councillors
It’s all quiet in Horncastle’s Market Place where the failure to secure a road closure has led to strong words between councillors

At last week’s town council meeting, Horncastle’s three East Lindsey District councillors – and a county councillor – were criticised for failing to support the campaign to close St Lawrence to traffic.

As extensively reported in the Horncastle News, the town council has been campaigning for 18 months to ban traffic to create an ‘al fresco’ style cafe culture in the Market Place.

Two town councillors – Alan Lockwood and Richard Barker – have been particularly vociferous, claiming the district and county councillors have failed in their duties.

Eating out: Three friends enjoy the al fresco experieence at the Cornmarket in Louth where businesses have had to turn customers away

There were verbal spats at last week’s meeting.

Eventually, town councillor Matthew Wilkinson urged the meeting to abide by the Nolan Principles which outline acceptable standards of behaviour.

He added there was nothing wrong with strong debates but personal attacks went too far.

However, district councillor Richard Avison claimed some comments – made last week and in previous meetings and in the Press – amounted to ‘bullying and harassment’.

He did not make any direct references, or name any individual councillors.

Coun Avison added he ‘did not hide behind the Press’ and warned some of the comments about the non-closure of St Lawrence Street had damaged the town council’s hopes of securing support.

He also warned the comments could ‘come back and bite’ the town councillors who made them.

Coun Lockwood said he believed Coun Avison was referring to him and accused him of making a direct threat.

Coun Lockwood was then heard to describe Coun Avison’s comments as ‘pathetic.’

Coun Avison refuted the claim and told Coun Lockwood ‘he would know’ – if he’d wanted to make a direct threat.

Town mayor Coun Fiona Martin – who is also a district councillor – stepped in and urged councillors to show respect.

Coun Lockwood criticised the comments but Coun Martin pointed out ‘a number of heads’ were ‘nodding in agreement’ with Coun Avison’s views.

Coun Martin apologised to the meeting for not intervening earlier to stop the personal attacks.

During one exchange, Coun Barker accused County Councillor Bill Aron of a blatant failure of his duties by not supporting the street closure.

Coun Aron – who faces an election battle on May 6 – hit back and said there was ‘not one iota of truth’ behind the allegation.

The St Lawrence Street saga has led to fierce debate, heightened by the fact the county council – supported by ELDC – has given permission to close Louth’s Cornmarket to traffic.

Both Coun Lockwood and Coun Barker have accused the county council – the authority responsible for road closures – of favouring Louth.

At last week’s meeting, they again asked for details of who (from the county council) attended a key site meeting when the decision to veto the closure of St Lawrence Street was made.

Town councillors are unhappy they were not invited to that site meeting and have described the fact no minutes were kept as ‘unacceptable.’

Last week’s meeting heard claims Coun Aron had attended, along with a senior highways officers and the portfolio holder for highways, Coun Richard Davies.

However, Coun Aron would only confirm ‘five or six’ councillors and highways officers had attended.

Coun Barker responded by saying there was no point pressing Coun Aron for more details because he ‘would not be the county councillor after the May 6 election.’

Town councillors are still determined to press ahead with the closure.

Clerk Amanda Bushell was unable to attend last week’s meeting because of illness but she submitted a report following discussions she’d had with a legal advisor and district council officers.

The report stressed it was important that if the town council wanted to mount a legal challenge to the county council decision, it would have to demonstrate there was genuine support for the closure from businesses and residents.

A recommendation to close the street was included in Horncastle’s Neighbourhood Development Plan although that was produced five years ago.

Mrs Bushell also stated in the report that it was unfair to compare Louth’s successful bid to close the Cornmarket with the St Lawrence Street application.

She pointed out the Louth scheme was led by the town’s Independent Traders’ Association and not the local town council.

The report added: “The (town) council would need to demonstrate public support for the closure, and also support from the businesses who would take advantage of the road closure for outdoor seating areas.

“The Neighbourhood Development Plan contained a policy supporting the pedestrianising of St Lawrence Street, but the plan was adopted five years ago and residents were not able to vote on specific policies within the plan,.

“The town council is advised that if it wishes to challenge the decision by LCC, it would need to provide up-to -date evidence that the closure is something which the town’s residents and businesses want to happen – not just what the town council feels is right for the town.”

Coun Martin revealed ELDC officers were in the process of talking to businesses owners in Horncastle to gauge the level of support for the closure.

Both Coun Martin and Coun Avison stressed they had done everything they could to support the closure but it did not come within the district council’s remit.

Coun Barker said he had spoken to several businesses owners at the start of the process who told him they were in favour of the idea and would happily provide outdoor facilities.

However, Coun Martin and Coun Aron indicated those businesses should have applied for outdoor licences before the county council arrived at the ‘no’ decision.

Coun Aron suggested it would help the town council’s cause if the businesses applied now – before the county council potentially considered a U-turn.

Coun Barker said town councillors would not have ‘wasted the last 18 months’ if they’d had that information at the start of their process.

He added it was unfair to expect businesses to apply for licences when they had no idea if the street would even be closed.

Coun Barker said it was like ‘putting the cart before the horse’ and added: “We need to get on with this, or we will have ‘lost’ another summer.”

Speaking after the meeting, Coun Barker said the success of the Cornmarket closure proved Horncastle was missing out.