Locals at War in Richard Curtis’s Parish
Interesting to see a national – the Indy – pick up on Walberswick
With its sweeping vistas of sand dunes leading to the North Sea and its village green bordered by tea rooms, the closest the Suffolk seaside village of Walberswick normally comes to confrontation is its renowned crabbing competition.
But more recently, the village dubbed Notting Hill on Sea due to the luminaries from film and fashion who have second homes there, has been in the grip of a ferocious row which, were it not so bitter, might have been dreamt up by the comedy writer and long-term visitor Richard Curtis.
The dispute centres on the parish council and a feud over its proceedings, in particular the handling of planning applications in this corner of East Anglia where an influx of monied second-home owners – from ITV director of television Peter Fincham to film-maker Paul Greengrass and radio DJ Simon Mayo – has seen property prices rocket beyond the reach of all but the wealthy.
The arrival of the metropolitan glitterati has brought undoubted glitz to Walberswick life, with Curtis recently donating an unfinished Blackadder script to a charity auction and a village fashion show for Comic Relief attracting garments from Twiggy, Geri Halliwell and Clive Anderson.
But while the great and the good come for the bracing sea air, local democracy in the village has come to resemble something closer to trench warfare.
After an acrimonious two and a half years in which both sides have traded accusations and insults – including a statement from one councillor suggesting he might use letters of complaint from a resident as toilet paper – the council decided two months ago to resign en masse.
The local authority, Suffolk Coastal District Council, has now taken the extraordinary step of appointing four unelected councillors so the parish body can continue to function.
Appealing for calm, one of the new co-opted representatives, Michael Gower, said: “Arguments have bedevilled the atmosphere in the village. A lot of hard words have been said in public and in private and we must find a way to move forward. This won’t be easy.”
On one side of the confrontation stands a group of residents who have raised concerns over the transparency of the council’s dealings and its treatment of planning applications. On the other side are longstanding members of the council who claim they have received “harassing” communications and been left unable to carry out their duties.
The dispute has its roots in claims that the parish council was failing to adhere to rules governing record keeping and the declaration of interests on matters including planning applications.
Village dissidents have submitted Freedom of Information requests to back up their concerns. Councillors say the volume of those requests – claimed to exceed 100 – has threatened to overwhelm the body and imperilled its finances.
But the concerns of the residents have, at least in part, some justification. An investigation by the local authority earlier this year found that the parish council had been “rather lax or careless” concerning the declaration and recording of interests.
It also found that David Webb, a former chairman of the parish council, had breached conduct rules by failing to declare an interest relating to a planning application linked to his late brother, who also sat on the council.
Individuals on both sides of the row denied that it amounted to a pitched battle between long-term residents and more recent arrivals over house prices, but they are nonetheless a controversial issue. It is rare to find a property in the village selling for less than £350,000, threatening to price young locals out of the market.
One resident said: “There is a lot of money to be made out of building property here. The risk is that it is allowed at any cost to the environment and landscape.”
Mr Webb, who said he had had no financial interest in his late brother’s business, agreed that mistakes had been made by the parish council but claimed the row had been blown out of proportion. “It is a storm in a teacup that got out of hand,” he said.