Hundreds turn out at highly-charged meeting over Hart gypsy site

The packed Hart Village Hall
The packed Hart Village Hall

THE strength of feeling against controversial plans to locate a gypsy site in a village was made clear last night when hundreds of people turned up to a highly-charged meeting.

Two hundred people from Hart Village and surrounding areas including Bishop Cuthbert and Clavering poured into Hart Village Hall – while a staggering 240 others were locked out as the room was filled to capacity.

Feelings ran high throughout the two-and-a-half hour meeting, with town MP Iain Wright and Hartlepool Borough Council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher both loudly booed by protesters as the meeting got underway.

The pair, along with the council’s assistant director of regeneration Damien Wilson, were regularly heckled throughout the meeting, with several members of the audience calling for Mr Wright and Coun Akers-Belcher to resign.

They attended to provide answers as to how the decision to select two pieces of land in Hart Village as the top two preferred sites for a gypsy and traveller encampment.

But afterwards, Hart Village Parish Council chairman John Littlefair, who chaired the meeting, said he felt locals “didn’t get the answers we wanted”.

Mr Wright said he was there to give information on the national policy framework set out at making decisions on such sites.

But as tensions rose, David Whitfield, a former Hartlepool Council worker asked Mr Wright if he would campaign to help reverse the decision.

“Will you help us or not?,” he asked.

Mr Wright said: “It’s not my decision, but I will make representations on your behalf.

“There’s been an accusation that this has been a political decision.

“But how can it be a political decision when two Labour councillors represent this ward?”

Putting Hartlepool First councillor Geoff Lilley told the meeting there had been leaflets in the Manor House ward, due for a by-election tonight, hailing how Labour councillors had held off having the gypsy site in that ward.

Keith Fisher, an independent councillor for the Hart ward, told the audience he “went ballistic” last Thursday when he heard about a meeting on the issue which he was not aware of, stirred emotions and even vowed to pour his councillor’s allowance into a fund to help fight the decision.

He told the crowd: “Whatever you decide tonight will then become my policy, my aim and I will support it 100 per cent.

“We were never asked ‘do you want this?’ The question was where do you want it, and that’s what was wrong.”

Coun Akers-Belcher told the meeting that whatever the decision, he would have been attending a similar meeting elsewhere in Hartlepool.

He said all criteria were considered, and “rightly or wrongly, those two sites were designated that we could make sustainable and we felt those were the best options for Hartlepool”.

He stressed there was currently no demand for such a site, but it was acknowledged that it would just take one request for potential development.

Labour councillor Paul Beck, also a Hart ward councillor, pledged that he was “100 per cent” behind residents in disagreeing with the decision.

One resident asked if the parish council would complain to the Government Ombudsman about “maladministration by Hartlepool Borough Council”.

Mr Littlefair said: “We are waiting as a parish council to take this complaint forward.”

Concerns were raised that residents only have until Sunday to write to the planning inspector to lodge their objections.

They can do so by emailing the council’s project officer and more advice will be posted on the village hall noticeboard.