It was nearing 7.30pm as Sarah watched the last-minute stragglers taking up the remaining seats in the small hall. She was excited; it was her first assignment as a rooky reporter for the Bovey-over-Sands Bugle. Tonight’s meeting had been called by the town council to discuss the route for the proposed bypass.
The issue was extremely controversial and the evening’s meeting was destined to be a lively one and certainly of great interest to the readers of The Bugle. The principal dispute concerned the choice of route for the new road but there were a few diehards who even challenged the need for a bypass at all. Chief amongst the objectors to the building of a bypass were the owners, respectively, of a petrol station and a café; both of these businesses were going to be deprived of the majority of their passing trade.
Those who were protesting against one or other of the shortlisted routes fell into several main categories. Firstly, you could guarantee that the objections of the Nimbys would be prominent. Several large landowners (including a few minor celebrities who had been recent incomers) would either have their property divided by the road, have land and house preserved but their peace destroyed and an unfortunate few would have their homes compulsorily purchased.
Those who were also in favour of one route or another included those who saw a major gain in a change of use, to retail or residential, if the new road gave direct access to their land.
Looking around, Sarah could see that the hall was full and that the stewards had closed the doors. An easel at one side of the stage displayed a map showing the colour coded routes, whilst on the other was (to Sarah’s more sophisticated, urban opinion) the bland statement that headed the council’s local plan, supported by an assortment of photos of happy townspeople and visitors. The expectant hum of conversation filling the hall quietened as a door at the side opened to admit the Leader of the Council closely followed by the councillors, filing in to take their places. Settled at the long table facing the room, Sarah had to stifle a laugh as an image of the Last Supper flitted into her mind.
The chairman called the meeting to order and the Leader of the Council proceeded to ‘put the meeting and plans into context’. A pompous little man, Sarah thought, he droned on for a full fifteen minutes, reading out from his notes on the lectern, whilst repeating a selection of hand gestures that looked for all the world to have been copied from a Tony Blair speech on YouTube. The effect was farcical but she scribbled away in her newly mastered shorthand whilst her accompanying photographer captured what was intended to be the centre piece of the next front page of the Bugle.
Finally, the Leader finished to a few, random claps from the more excitable members of the townspeople. Several of the audience then spoke, lending support to one of the routes or another, voicing (Sarah thought) entirely forgettable or irrelevant opinions. Then came rather more polished opinions from several rather more polished individuals. Sarah instantly recognised these to be PR personnel, no doubt from London and representing the views of commercially invested firms.
The meeting bumbled on for another half an hour before a tall and dignified man at the front, rose to his feet and waited for the murmuring in the hall to subside. Sarah, studied him while she waited, her pencil poised over her notebook. She guessed that he was late forties, early fifties, wearing a most impeccably tailored black pinstripe suit and a crisp white shirt set off by a deep red tie and matching silk pocket handkerchief. He introduced himself as Mr Tort, Managing Partner of Tort, Precedent & Wisdom. Clutching a sheaf of papers in his right hand, he used it like a conductor’s baton, orchestrating his words as he spoke fluently and without notes. Whilst there was no confusing the cultured certainty of his voice there was more than a little imprecision concerning the precise point of all his learned eloquence. Sarah’s hunch was that he represented one of the larger landowners on the western fringes of the town who had chosen to keep a low profile.
There followed a number of tradespeople from the town concerned about a possible drop in visitor numbers. These were followed by yet more contributors who postulated a rise in visitors resulting from the decrease in traffic in the town centre.
Sarah thought that, from what they had heard that evening, the arguments in favour of a bypass far outweighed any against. From that point on, there seemed to be little agreement as to which of the three possible routes was likely to be favoured.
Then, as the meeting appeared to be winding down, Sarah noticed a rather curious fellow rise from his seat at the rear of the hall and plod down the central aisle towards the stage. He was dressed in a shabby pair of corduroy trousers, a loose sweater that seemed several sizes too large and a bandanna knotted around his neck. His plodding gait seemed to be exacerbated by the strap that flapped loose on his naked left foot, causing him to drag it along, no doubt in an effort to ensure it didn’t fly off. The slightly comical appearance was completed by a vast shock of bright red hair that enhanced a florid complexion. Over one shoulder hung a bulging bag.
“Mr Green, Friends of the Earth” he announced, tipping out the contents of the bag. Startled councillors and an outraged chairman jumped up in surprise as an assortment of dead reptiles, birds and small mammals covered the table. The photographer sprang into action, clicking away as fast as he could manage.
“Allow the desecration of our countryside’” Green bellowed “and this is but a taste of the destruction of our precious fauna that will ensue!”
Security staff rushed to take control of the “earthly friend” Mr Green, as councillors made for the exit and pandemonium broke out.
Sarah, snapping her notebook shut, noticed a text from her boyfriend, just the word ‘John’, that had arrived during the meeting and made her way quietly to a side exit. Must get this story written up first, she decided. She smiled; the ardent Mr Thomas would have to contain his enthusiasm for her company a little longer.
There were other more pressing needs.
To be continued…