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'Political interference' leads to end of Thatcham group after 12 years

“It’s quite clear that some of the reasons for it folding lie at the door of West Berkshire Council”

Fears that politics will dominate Thatcham's future strategy

POLITICAL “interference”, a dwindling number of volunteers and a lack of funds has led to a community group – responsible for shaping Thatcham’s future – being forced to fold.

Thatcham Vision’s 12-year involvement with the town’s community issues is set to come to an end next month when members vote to dissolve its steering

The group’s chairman David Conquest broke the news at a Thatcham Town Council meeting on Monday. 

He said that a number of reasons had led to the group’s decline, ranging from the loss of a project manager, to a lack of funds and volunteers.

But claims of political interference at West Berkshire Council became the argument between the town’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors. 

Thatcham Vision members had spent three years refreshing the town plan, which sets out ways to tackle growth and community engagement.

However, a change in Vision leadership at West Berkshire Council led to the plan’s adoption being delayed in 2016.

The councillor responsible for Vision groups at the time, Alan Law (Con, Basildon), turned down Thatcham’s plan, telling members that their hard work wasn’t strategic, meaningful or far-reaching.  

Steering group secretary Sue Ellis told town councillors on Monday: “I think that’s when we lost a lot of members.

“It was ready to go and then it wasn’t.

“I think that’s really where it started to stall, it discouraged people.” 

Chairing the meeting, Sheila Ellison (Con, Thatcham North), a Vision member, said that Mr Law had had different priorities to his predecessor. 

“He was more political and said ours wasn’t political enough,” Mrs Ellison said.

“Councils are supposed to be neutral about these sorts of things,” said Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West).

“I thought you were a joined-up party, not individuals.” 

“I think that’s totally irrelevant,” Mrs Ellison replied.

“It was a matter of personalities and when the position was changed we did lobby on Thatcham’s behalf.”

Liberal Democrat opposition leader at the district council, Lee Dillon (Thatcham North), said : “I do think it’s a shame.

“We did have 100 volunteers at one point active in the Vision.

“It’s quite clear that some of the reasons for it folding lie at the door of West Berkshire Council.”

“That’s their perception,” Mrs Ellison said.

“Yes but they are the ones who run the Vision,” Mr Dillon responded. 

“It’s become apparent that they have hindered the running of a very successful group.”

Town council leader and Vision member Jason Collis (Con, Thatcham North) added: “I think part of the reason for the delay was because there were so many aspirational things in it, unlike other community groups.” 

When asked about the drop in volunteers, Mr Conquest said that they either no longer lived in Thatcham or were suffering from ill-health.

He added that it had been “difficult” to look after volunteers and attract new ones without a community officer. 

The drop in membership, with several others indicating that they would be standing down, meant that Thatcham Vision would not be able to progress the plan successfully, he said.

Mr Conquest added that the steering group had been running short of funds to support the work of its action groups.

But efforts to form a charitable incorporated organisation to attract funding had been rejected. 

Mr Conquest said that some of Thatcham Vision’s action groups could survive as separate community groups or be absorbed in the town council.

A two-thirds vote to dissolve the steering group will be held at an extraordinary meeting on August 17.

A further public meeting will then need to be held to decide how to allocate the group’s remaining funds.  

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