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  • The Rother Alliance

Bexhill looks set to have a Town Council

At a Rother District Council meeting on Monday 7th September, Cabinet agreed the recommendations from the recent Community Governance Review to proceed with the creation of a Parish Council for Bexhill (In the style of a Town Council). The recommendation now goes on to Full Council where, if agreed, the process for setting up a Town Council will commence. This represents a monumental moment both in terms of Bexhill's history and in terms of delivering on another election pledge that many of the Rother Alliance councillors signed up to in 2019. The history behind this decision goes back to the 1970s when the then 'Bexhill Borough Council' was disbanded and Bexhill, not wanting to join with Hastings, merged with Battle and the other rural areas which now form what we know as Rother. At the time, it was decided that Bexhill would not need its own parish council, despite every other town and parish in Rother having one and instead the decision making powers for Bexhill were taken on by Rother District Council, where councillors from Bexhill make up a minority compared to non-Bexhill councillors. Ever since this moment there have been many residents who have wanted to give Bexhill its own voice in one way or another, including the setting up of the Bexhill Town Forum among other things. One significant effort however was brought about by a group comprised of Independent councillors (who at that point were in a minority on Rother) and their supporters who got together an impressive petition of over 4,000 signatures from residents which forced the Council to trigger a Community Governance Review. The group joined forces with residents from across the political spectrum, including Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Labour Party supporters as well as many non-political residents and Independent supporters, all united in their desire for Bexhill to have some form of local governance. They came together under the banner 'Democracy4Bexhill'. As the campaign progressed, it seemed clear that the Conservative administration on Rother, despite opposition from their own party members, were mostly against the idea of any form of local governance. They decided not to hold a full referendum and not to post leaflets out to residents letting them know about the review. Instead, they produced a small amount of opinion cards which residents would have to collect from their councillor or the Town Hall if they wanted to respond or there was a response section on the Rother website. It was decided that no other forms of response would be accepted. This was unusual as all previous consultations were open to any form of communication. Having consulted several local government bodies, Democracy4Bexhill challenged this restriction of responses and were successful. Rother's legal advisor found that the restriction of responses went against the rules for consultations. The consultation was extended for two weeks. During the time of the review, Democracy4Bexhill reached an agreement that they would campaign for a Town Council as this seemed the most popular option. The consultation came to a close and despite the efforts of the Conservative administration, who's leader visibly campaigned against Democracy4Bexhill on social media, the results were overwhelming. Over 9,000 responses (almost as many people as there were voters in the 2015 local elections) of whom, 93.5% said they favoured the creation of a Town Council. with quite a few of the remaining 6.5% supporting a different form of local government such as an Area Committee or multiple Parish councils. Only 364 people (3.9%) said they favoured 'no change'. Despite the petition of over 4,000, the consultation response of nearly 9,000 and the crowd of protesting residents outside the Town Hall, at a winter meeting of Council, the majority of Conservative councillors voted against creating a Town Council and opted for 'no change'. This led to some of the Town Council supporters standing at the 2019 local election either with the support of their political party or as an independent. Conservative members were told they could not be a candidate if they supported a Town Council. In May 2019, the Conservatives lost all but 1 of their Bexhill seats having stood on an anti-Town Council ticket. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, Green Party, Labour Party and Independents who mostly stood on pledges for a Town Council, saw huge gains beyond the expectation of national polling, and the Rother Alliance was formed. Once elected, with the mandate of the voters and the results of the previous review fresh in mind, the Alliance set about re-running the Governance review, to confirm Bexhill still wanted a Town Council and to ensure they had both democratic and legal backing to proceed. Whilst a referendum was now not viable given the cost of the previous review on top of this one, councillors settled for a better publicised consultation, with balanced, factual leaflets prepared by council staff going to every house in Bexhill via Royal Mail. Despite a much louder presence on social media against a Town Council by several Conservative members and their supporters who also distributed campaign material across the town, the results again came back in favour of a Town Council with over 2,000 responses and a majority of respondents in every ward in favour of a Town Council.

Cabinet members considered this along with new circumstances brought about by Covid-19 and concluded that Bexhill would benefit from having its own Town Council, citing the efforts of other Parish Councils during the pandemic as an example of how useful a Town or Parish Council can be.

At the meeting, the chair of the Community Governance Review Steering Group Cllr Christine Bayliss said, "The pandemic has brought in a sense of increased neighbourliness, community spirit and volunteering, involving all ages and from all backgrounds. If we can tap into that spirit, then the town council could be launched on a tide of good will and voluntary action. It could get off to a flying start." CLICK HERE to watch a recording of the Cabinet meeting.

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