EU referendum debate divides Downham Market voters

Question Time Style debate on EU referendum at Downham
Town Hall ANL-160330-134946009
Question Time Style debate on EU referendum at Downham Town Hall ANL-160330-134946009

With opinion polls suggesting the EU referendum is likely to be a close run thing, voters in Downham were split down the middle as they debated the issue this week.

Dozens of residents attended the discussion, which was organised by sixth formers from the Downham Academy, at the town hall on Tuesday night.

The three-hour meeting covered topics ranging from the EU’s impact on Norfolk to the possible reactions of Vladimir Putin and Islamic State to a potential Brexit.

But a straw poll taken at the end of the evening showed a virtual 50-50 split in the audience, with only a couple saying they had changed their minds during the discussion.

And there was surprise when it was revealed that a similar vote among academy sixth form students had shown a large majority in favour of leaving the union.

An eight-strong panel, representing views on both sides of the argument, and those who are undecided, examined the issues under the chairmanship of the academy’s head of sixth form, Martin Chilvers.

On the Remain side, David Grace, of the pro-EU European Movement, said he feared a vote to leave on June 23 would set a “dangerous precedent” elsewhere, particularly given the rise of the far right in some countries.

He claimed a Brexit would be celebrated by Russia’s president and IS militants, adding: “We have more influence and more power if we’re in.

“These countries have fought each other for centuries but they’re not doing it now.”

But Jacqueline Westrop, one of the three undecided panellists, pondered: “Perhaps it’s the fear that holds us back.”

And the one confirmed Leave campaigner, UKIP county councillor Paul Smyth, insisted the organisation remains committed to ever closer economic and political union within the next decade.

He said: “We have to decide whether we continue on that journey or go our own way.”

On the impact Norfolk would feel from a possible exit, Nicholas Pratt, the county’s outgoing High Sheriff, who described himself as “apolitical”, said there was a “good deal of diversity” within the county’s economy.

But he acknowledged the concerns held by some farmers about the potential loss of EU subsidies to their trade.

Josie Radcliffe, a Liberal Democrat volunteer from Downham, also warned of the possibility of tariffs being put on Norfolk’s goods should Britain decide to leave.

And the Green Party’s Lesley Grahame highlighted the risks of climate change in the Fens, adding: “I have more confidence in the EU doing that than us on our own.”

But, although he acknowledged there was uncertainty about the consequences of a leave vote, Mr Smyth insisted it was in Europe’s interests to ensure trade links to Britain were kept open.

He also argued that the money saved from the nation’s contributions to the EU could fund the Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service “in a day and a half.”

Former Conservative county councillor Shelagh Hutson, who said she hadn’t made up her mind how to vote, lamented what she described as the “irksome” red tape of EU regulation.

But Labour’s Alex Mayer said the case for remaining was based on jobs, security and peace.

She said: “It’s 38p a day we pay into the EU and every household benefits by £3,500 a year.”