‘Scaremongering’ claim in debate over Sidmouth seafront’s Ham

A view of the eastern end of the town. Photo by Simon Horn. Ref shs 7858-10-09SH

A view of the eastern end of the town. Photo by Simon Horn. Ref shs 7858-10-09SH - Credit: Archant

Passions ran high as civic leaders debated whether the Ham could one day be developed – or if they should even entertain the idea.

Sidmouth Town Council chairman Jeff Turner accused colleague Matt Booth of ‘scaremongering’ after he publicly added weight to claims the seafront site could be lost to facilitate the regeneration of Port Royal.

Councillor Turner alleged that Cllr Booth was using the chamber to ‘fight battles’ with East Devon District Council (EDDC) – the area’s majority landowner. But Cllr Booth, who is the area’s district council ward member, defended his right to speak out for his constituents.

Cllr Booth had responded to historian Mary Walden-Till’s concern about the extent of the regeneration project and claim that the Ham – held in trust by the town council – could be ‘swapped’ for an ‘equally suitable site’ under Charity Commission rules. Cllr Turner said: “Cllr Booth knows full well this council as trustee has always acted assiduously and with great rigour when managing this property. I think it’s unreasonable to back up these statements, which are rumour-mongering and scaremongering.

“The only way the Ham could be handed over is for a majority of members to agree to it. If the proposal came forward that we exchange the land, I would be the first to propose chucking it out.”

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The town council and EDDC are currently conducting a Port Royal scoping study to look at any restrictions, covenants and what is possible in its regeneration. In a letter to the Herald, Mrs Walden-Till said EDDC may try to assume ownership of the Ham as it owns the other properties at Port Royal.

Regarding the potential swap of the Ham, Cllr Ian Barlow said: “I would never say never, but it would have to be something spectacular. We can’t talk about something when we don’t know the facts. We aren’t stupid people – let us do our jobs.”

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Cllr Louise Cole was ‘bemused by the level of reaction’ and said land ownership was one issue the scoping study should scrutinise. She added: “I find it insidious that there’s an overblown reaction to say we shouldn’t be responsive to these concerns. We don’t have to get hysterical about it.”

Cllr Matt Booth said: “It’s important to put things in context. At my first meeting of the town council, during my first speech, you [Cllr Turner] told me to ‘sit down and shut up’. I have been kept off every strategic steering group. I do question why this has been brought up in this way.

“I have every right to speak out on issues in my ward – nothing is going to stop me doing that.”

He said land swaps had recently been effected by EDDC in Clyst St Mary and Seaton – and the respective councils had been unaware of the consequences before they lost out.

Addressing Cllr Booth’s comments about his first meeting, Cllr Turner said: “You were talking about the district council. I didn’t feel it was relevant. You are trying to drag this council into a battle with the district council – I’m not having it.

“The only way we’re going to progress this project is to co-operate with the district council.”

Town clerk Christopher Holland said: “You are all passionate about the land you hold in trust. You are all very protective of it. The strength of opinion shows you all take your responsibility very seriously.”

He urged members to trust him to look after the land they hold in trust.

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