GALLERY: On a night the people of Whittlesey gave their clear, unequivocal response to supermarket-gate

HAD a referendum on devolution from Fenland been on offer in Whittlesey tonight, then permanent – and dare I say joyous- separation would be the outcome.

A packed Ivy Leaf club of approaching 300 people gave vent to their anger at the planning committee of Fenland Council for ‘supermarket-gate’ and the row over whether Tesco or Sainsbury’s can open there.

I chaired the 90 minute and took occasional notes but there was little doubt of the mood- an intense fury at councillors from outside of Whittlesey who they felt had let them down.

The Cambs Times got considerable praise for its campaign to expose ‘supermarket-gate’ but for the planning committee of Fenland Council there was nothing except contempt.

A motion proposed from the floor and passed without a dissenting voice insisted Fenland Council issue approval notices immediately to Sainsbury’s and to Whitacre Management for a country park and business units.

As for Tesco the mood was hostile and almost wearisome- many arguing that the supermarket previously had plenty of opportunity to open a store there but had now missed the boat.

Other speakers called for an intense letter writing campaign to Fenland Council to protest at their decision to allow both Sainsbury’s and Tesco to build, only then to snatch the outcomes away and insist on going back to the drawing board.

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Robert Oxley of Sainsbury’s insisted that was not fair and in answer to a question said “no I don’t have a lot of confidence” in the council and the way it has gone about matters.

David Lewis questioned the ‘mysterious manoeuvres’ within the council that had got us to this stage, and Ian Rudderman raged at the likely cost to taxpayers of a judicial review, should one be called.

Liz Dent for Harrier – who wants to build the Tesco store-, insisted the voting was fair and proper and that councillors needed to observe development laws.

But former Labour councillor Jez Hibbert said the disarray on the committee “was an accident waiting to happen for a long time. The vast majority of councillors have no concept of planning”.

Deposed planning committee vice chairman and Whittlesey councillor Martin Curtis said a 14 per cent response from a survey of over 3,000 residents showed overwhelming support for Sainsbury’s.

He also spoke of refusing council leader Alan Melton’s invitation to resign and then waiting to be fired.

The allegation he had been “too close” to Sainsbury’s and hostile to Tesco because of “past history” with the Sears family who run Harrier was categorically untrue, he said.

He gave a robust response to my questioning on this issue – accepting he said the allegations had been made and needed to be countered.

A surprise intervention came from Councillor John Clark, the Cabinet member for finance at Fenland Hall who arrived with Cabinet colleague Councillor Ralph Butcher.

Cllr Clark insisted the planning decisions were “unsafe” and in response to further questioning said he had always supported Cllr Melton as leader.

He said it was now important the planning committee rectified their mistake but also stressed the importance of localism.

He fell silent, temporarily, when I asked him if he, were he simply a businessman and not a councillor, be happy if once given planning permission then had it removed.

Cllr Clark, planning an early briefing meeting with Cllr Melton, argued in favour of localism but left hanging his response to the second planning committee which threw the decision into turmoil.

“Was I disappointed with the later committee decision led by the planning lady?” he asked, a reference to sacked Cabinet me member Councillor Jan French who steered the committee into approving Tesco.

It was a passionate, at times fiery meeting and summed up probably best by Roy Gerstner, an independent candidate in next week’s by election.

“It has been a travesty to the people of Whittlesey,” he said. “You have been short changed.”

The chairman should, he argued, have stopped the second meeting before a vote was taken and insisted it be re heard.

Mr Oxley summed up for Sainsbury’s by arguing that their approval should stand, subject to Government office approval, and that the “unsafe decision” in favour of Tesco be reviewed.

John Timothy for Tesco said the current situation was “not ideal” by his company had been keen to come to Whittlesey for many years and still hoped to do.

For the moment Sainsbury’s are pushing Fenland Council to release a series of documents not least the counsel’s opinion which argues that past decisions are written off as null and void.

If that fails the High Court may be but a short step away- and with each legal bill landing on Fenland Hall’s doorstep the next question may well be not whose head will roll next but how many?

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