Plea for unity as North Runcton residents reject church deal

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Community leaders in a West Norfolk village have pledged they will not do an access rights deal with a religious group after residents overwhelmingly rejected the idea.

Villagers in North Runcton voted three to one against the proposed agreement with the Seventh Day Adventist church (SDA) in a survey organised by the parish council.

The result was announced at a meeting on Tuesday, where the decision not to go ahead with the deal, known as an easement, was made.

But a parish poll requested by villagers unhappy with the council’s handling of the issue will still take place next week, despite the development.

Clerk Rachel Curtis told the meeting that 197 survey forms had been returned, equating to a 42 per cent response rate.

Of those, 49, around a quarter, were in favour of the deal with the SDA, while 148 were opposed.

In response to concerns raised about the requirement for participants’ names and addresses to be written on survey forms, Mrs Curtis said she alone had processed the paperwork, which would now be destroyed.

The council then voted unanimously not to agree to the contract and pledged to consult residents again if the situation changed.

Chairman Rick Morrish said: “We will come back to you if circumstances change and we need to look at it.”

Toby Coke, the village’s county councillor, said most residents would be “relieved” by the result and urged residents to unite with the parish council for the good of the community.

He said: “There is a real chance to defeat the SDA if this community gets together.”

But there was anger when Mr Morrish asked if the villagers who had requested the parish poll would pick up the bill for it if it could not be cancelled.

The parish council has warned the poll, which will take place next Thursday, could cost up to £2,000 to stage.

And members insisted they had been trying to find a way for residents to have their say on the issue without the need to incur the cost of a formal poll.

But one resident, who said she was not among those who had asked for the poll, said it was “unfair” for those villagers to be singled out, because the council had failed to keep a pledge made last autumn to provide a poll.

Mr Coke said he was confident West Norfolk Council, the authority responsible for organising and staging the poll, would do all it could to minimise the costs.

But chief executive and returning officer Ray Harding said yesterday: “Once a proper request has been received to hold a parish poll, which has come out of a properly convened and constituted parish meeting, there is no mechanism in law to abandon it.

“It is regrettable that agreement wasn’t reached until after the poll was requested but, as it has been legitimately requested, the borough council is required by law to conduct it.

Mr Morrish also warned the council would take legal advice if correspondence that he described as “personal and sometimes libellous” continued.

One resident was heard to remark: “That’s going to help the community.”