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Wednesday February 16 | 2022
Parish council accused of dirty tricks as referendum sparks a political row leave it to planning officers who may lack the local knowledge to decide what is best for our parish’. She also defended the actions of replacing Mrs Strouts posters, saying: “The ‘yes’ campaign seemingly wanted to ensure all voters understood the vested interest of those encouraging a ‘no’ vote. This was not confusing, it actually clarified the issue for many.”
By Victoria Roberts ACCUSATIONS of ‘dirty tricks’ have been thrown following a row in a sleepy Tunbridge Wells parish over a referendum for a proposed Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP). The plan for Benenden, population just 2,000, proposed by a steering committee, has suggested that the village choose sites for development instead of allowing the planning authority of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) to do it. Those in favour argued this would protect the countryside and ensure the parish would get the affordable housing the parish needed, and allow any new builds to be offset against the parish’s housing targets. A referendum was held on February 3, giving residents of the parish two options, vote ‘yes’ for the plan or vote ‘no’.
Redundant The plan gained 80.5 per cent support on a turnout of 52 per cent. But opposition group Friends of East End (FoEE) group have called foul on the ‘yes’ campaign orchestrated by the Parish Council. The group has argued that TWBC planners ‘should allocate sites with input from the village, not the other way around’, and pointed to recent data showing falling housing needs for the parish that could make the NDP redundant. Organiser Hazel Strouts said the pro-NDP group put up posters imitating her ‘No’ campaign’s black and white colour scheme and
font, to undermine the FoEE message. “This is akin to forgery,” she claimed, accusing the Parish Council of ‘dirty tricks’. “Of course, you accept the result of a democratic election, but this was not democratic.” She also accused the local parish magazine of bias as the co-editor Peter Thomas is married to Parish Council chair, Nicola Thomas. “The February editorial was quite virulent, whether he meant to or not, he leant his authority to his wife’s position.”
She also said another parish councillor, Graham Beveridge, had ‘almost wrestled her to the ground’ when he saw her putting up her campaign posters. Replying to the accusations, Benenden Parish Council chair Nicola Thomas told the Times the police had said Mrs Strouts’ claim about Cllr Beveridge was a civil matter, but added: “We are one of few Neighbourhood areas to choose the difficult route of allocating sites.” She explained that it seemed ‘safer for us to take control of the selection process, rather than
Ms Thomas said she and a fellow parish councillor had recently met with a small group of residents in the East End area ‘to discuss how we move forward, and the results of this were very positive,’ she said. “We chose to allocate sites for homes and the Parish Council wanted a strong turn-out and clear mandate either way. With 56 per cent turn out and 80:20 vote in favour I am delighted the residents have spoken loud and clear. I am certain that we will stand up to any scrutiny.” Meanwhile, her husband and parish magazine co-editor Mr Thomas disputed that FoEE had not been able to put its points across, pointing to editorial coverage in different issues. “Was it virulent? I think it just told one or two long-overdue truths that Hazel didn’t like,” he told the Times. He continued: “Sadly this kind of rant from Hazel is nothing new to us in Benenden it is just the latest in a long line of personal attacks that have only got worse since the parish voted by an 80 per cent majority in favour of the NDP.”