Swaffham councillor investigated over Green Britain Centre views as 'censorship' claims made
A town councillor has said freedom of speech cannot be denied after he is being investigated for personally contacting the media about ongoing council negotiations.
Swaffham Town Council held a meeting this week to discuss the conduct of councillor Graham Edwards who took exception to Breckland councillor Ian Sherwood's comments regarding the Green Britain Centre (GBC) during a meeting earlier this month.
Mr Edwards raised concerns regarding the state of the GBC which could form part of a land swap in which Breckland Council would receive the Days Field site on New Sporle Road in exchange for the town council taking on the Turbine Way site.
In response to Mr Sherwood expressing a desire for the currently closed building to become a leisure facility, Mr Edwards previously said: “The whole external structure of the building is tired and needs substantial overhaul including supplementary external services.
“The internal dilapidations are tremendous the building is in need of major overhaul and this must be part of any proposal. Internal facilities also need replacement in many cases."
As a result of these comments, Swaffham mayor Jill Skinner identified Mr Edwards as acting outside of protocol in respect of ongoing council business.
Mrs Skinner told the council meeting this week: "I should say that I take no joy in bringing the resolution to the council. It is not about censorship, nor is it a witch hunt and nor is it about acting on the instruction of people outside of the council.
"It is good and proper governance and ensuring that the council operates in an efficient and effective manner for the benefit of the residents of our town, Swaffham that we all love.”
She continued: “The Code of Conduct and Standing Orders operate and exist to ensure the integrity of the council and council business. Importantly they are not optional but bind us all collectively as councillors.
"When a councillor operates outside of the Code of Conduct or Standing Orders it is something that needs to be examined and acted upon. A failure by the council to do so would be a dereliction of its duty to the town.”
Mrs Skinner then concluded by saying: “The issue is whether we are a town council who wants to act within and with respect for the rules or outside them.”
A resolution was unanimously endorsed by councillors during the meeting.
This said: “This council reports the said actions of councillor Graham Edwards to the monitoring officer at Breckland Council, that brings the council into disrepute as a clear breach of Code of Conduct and Swaffham Town Council policies.”
The full details of the main body of the complaint were shared with councillors, which related back to a unanimous decision in March to allow a working group of councillors to conclude discussions with Breckland Council in relation to acquiring the Green Britain Centre in a ‘fit for purpose’ condition.
A final decision on whether to proceed would rest with the full council after a public consultation with the town.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Edwards said: "These accusations are completely unfounded. She [Mrs Skinner] has dug herself a massive hole. I was the one who asked for it to be put to Breckland Council, not her.
"No one has ever censored me before. Some have died for the right to freedom of speech. It is one of the basic principles that you can't deny someone freedom of speech. I did not instigate this, I merely replied to what was said [during the council meeting]."
In an email, seen by the Lynn News, Mr Edwards previously wrote to councillors which began by saying: "If you feel inclined and dislike censorship as much as I do then please copy this email to as many Swaffham contacts as you may haveto let them know how things are now in your town especially when those you expect to protect your interests are denied carrying out that responsibility."
In response to Mr Edwards' original comments claiming the GBC was not in a state fit for negotiation, Mr Sherwood told the Lynn News that the majority on the council support the land swap.
He said: "There are a small number of individuals who need to understand how councils work. The majority support these negotiations and there are a select few who are undermining it. That is not how democracy works. They have got to win in the council chamber, so I just find it appalling and inappropriate."
The district councillor continued: "The building is an extremely important community asset for Swaffham and it's an iconic building. A lot of residents care about this building and its future use. During the local election campaigns, many hoped it would be of community use.
"The previous tenant vacated at an extremely short notice. They kept that building up for the standard they wanted to use it for. Since Breckland Council had it back, we have looked at the options including putting it up for sale and there has been interest in purchasing the building.
"Since the previous tenant left, it has not been brought up to standard for sale in case the new tenant wanted to do something different with it.
"Swaffham Town Council came to Breckland expressing an interest in taking the building on and it is an important democratic point that Swaffham Town Council as a majority came to that decision. What some local councillors need to bear in mind is that these are democratic processes.
"If Swaffham Town Council finally agreed to the swap, agreeing with the terms that they were confident with, why would someone want to undermine that?
"It is a win-win situation for Swaffham Town Council because they are getting a bigger piece of land and of higher value than the one they are swapping. If Swaffham Town Council continues to work with Breckland Council there is hope for a leisure provision in that facility if they wanted to do that. They should work with us and the county council to get the best deal for the residents of Swaffham.
"No-one wants to force Swaffham Town Council to have that building. People will have individual views but if why do some town council individuals feel the need to stop something working which the majority of councillors want?"