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From My Perspective:

Local Elections DO Matter

Tony Fielder Published: 01 April 2023

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Tony Fielder

Those political leaflets have started dropping into our letterboxes – yes, it’s election time again! This May the elections are for councillors to represent us on the South Norfolk Council and Wymondham Town Council for the next four years.

Of course, this magazine has to be impartial. As the number of people who vote in local elections is usually fairly low, your editor was seeking a different view – why bother to vote?

Wymondham is the largest town in South Norfolk and Broadland combined. As noted in the March 2023 issue of this magazine, the population of Wymondham increased by nearly 50 per cent in the twenty years from 2001-2021. This recent growth results from the planning policies in the Greater Norwich Development Plan and the 2015 local Action Plan for Wymondham. The “deal” in those plans was quite clear – Wymondham was asked to accept major housing developments, and as a “reward”, we would get investment in “green infrastructure”, not just protecting but enhancing and linking the valuable countryside features around our town. Some of this could be community projects, involving volunteers. Apart from the Ketts Country Walk, none of this “reward” has happened – we are still waiting for South Norfolk’s green infrastructure strategy for the A.11 corridor, which was promised in 2022 - but more houses keep arriving!

You will recently have received your annual Council Tax bill, most of which represents spending by Norfolk County Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner. By comparison, Wymondham Town Council and South Norfolk take only a small “slice” of the bill - but it’s still important.

Some impressive projects have been completed in and around Wymondham, including the artificial sports pitch and improved and extended tennis courts at Kett’s Park, improvements to the Leisure Centre, the cycleway along the B1172 to Norwich, and now the planned town centre regeneration. These have mostly been funded by the levy on new housebuilding, known as “CIL” across the three councils of South Norfolk, Broadland and Norwich City. Our Town Council also receives a share of “CIL”, and so far has mostly set this money aside for improvements to Browick Rec, and for the new cemetery.

During lockdown, it became obvious that there is a crying need for informal countryside recreation, especially short circular walks for families and dog walkers. Every field near the town seemed to have a beaten track round the edge, and in many cases landowners have allowed continued use of these informal walks. The consultation on Wymondham’s forthcoming Neighbourhood Plan showed that people who live here value easy access from the town into the surrounding countryside. But compared to other parts of Norfolk, Wymondham has very few public footpaths where your right to walk is protected in law, and doesn’t just rely on the goodwill of the landowner. Greening Wymondham would like to see more support for smaller, less-expensive schemes to improve the environment and access for informal recreation.

But the focus by the town council and South Norfolk on “big ticket” projects, while of benefit to our town, tends to benefit particular groups, such as those engaged in organised sports, and of course also benefits people in surrounding villages. And there are no detailed estimates for the cost of the new cemetery and Browick Rec – so the funds set aside for these are just guesses. At the same time, the town council requires voluntary groups asking for quite small amounts of financial support to submit very detailed costings, which are gone through with a fine-tooth comb.

What often surprises me is that our town council seems to see itself as somehow separate from the people it represents. It publishes far less information than similar councils in Norfolk. It doesn’t regularly consult residents on what its spending priorities should be, and it has no published strategy to manage its assets or fund improvements. Don’t get me wrong – the town council is managed responsibly. It has sensibly built up reserves to spread the cost of expensive items –such as maintaining the Market Cross.

Some town councillors constantly claim that Wymondham council has no money – but it has substantial reserves. New housebuilding is delivering hundreds of thousands of pounds of “CIL”, and recently about about 250 new houses are built each year, which produces an extra £25,000 from Council Tax. But the town council seems strangely reluctant to use these reserves for smaller projects, which could be of general benefit to the town and the people who live here. It is obvious that the town council cannot now afford to improve all its parks at commercial rates of pay – it must rely on volunteers to carry out some of the work. Yet the town council’s attitude to volunteers seems less than welcoming, even grudging.

For example Greening Wymondham have been pressing the town council to look at improving our parks and open spaces. We started with Kett’s Park Wood, which was donated to the town by the developers of Harts Farm, but has not been managed. We raised money and arranged contractors to improve the path through the wood, and persuaded the town council to fund selective felling and renewal. The sums involved are small – but it felt like a struggle.

I think it is important that the South Norfolk councillors we elect this May, of whatever Party, should press for Wymondham to receive its fair share of resources and improvements to our environment. I would like to see us elect a town council that asks residents what its priorities should be, that is more open about its activities, and is more welcoming to the many groups of volunteers who do so much to enhance our town. So if you agree, get out and vote!

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