Plans for a new food store in a posh Surrey village will be abandoned after councillors claimed they received “appalling abuse”, “bullying” and “intimidating emails”.
The opening of an M&S Foodhall in Claygate had been negotiated with the council but opposition from residents has led to a u-turn.
A petition signed by more than 1,000 people called for a public consultation. And at a specially-called council cabinet meeting, the decision was made to pull out of the deal.
One of the councillors has said that her colleagues had been “exposed to appalling abuse” and the meeting felt like “some kind of test to pacify a very small percentage of Elmbridge residents”.
Cllr Coates said: “Frankly, I do not blame anyone at all if they take this opportunity to change their minds [on the plans] and look like the good guys at the end of this debate. But I’m prepared to stick to my guns.”
She is concerned about the council gaining a reputation if it should pull out of a deal agreed by the authority due to the feelings of a handful of residents.
Cllr Coates said, despite complaints, she had not seen a successful challenge to the benefits of the scheme.
She listed these as the redevelopment of an underused car park, the opening of a “highly popular” shop, and “desperately needed affordable housing”
Cllr Coates added: “I appreciate that emotions are running very high, but in some cases, I think they’re running a bit too high.
“I’m not alone in being on the receiving end of emails that I found, frankly intimidating, and I don’t think any councillor who offers their time and energy for the benefit of the wider community should have to put up with intimidation, regardless of whether you agree with their views.”
Steve Wells, part of the Claygate Can Do Better campaign, thinks there should be greater consultation of the plans and that the group is “grimly determined not to make this debate personal”.
He said he had been copied into many emails to councillors on the matter and has seen “absolutely no evidence of bullying, intimidation and so on”.
Mr Wells, a former councillor, said: “I can say, as honestly as I possibly can, that none of that intimidation or bullying has come from our group in my knowledge.”
He thought councillors may have been “discombobulated” and “taken aback by the strength of feeling on the issues”.
He added: “Our ask was simply for negotiations, it wasn’t in any way anti-M&S. It was to pause it so that there could be proper consultation, which is now happening so we’re really thrilled.”
Cllr Robin Stephens (Liberal Democrat, Cobham and Downside), the council’s portfolio holder for planning, enterprise and local economy, said there had been some “really unpleasant behaviour” around the matter. But he said: “We are all politicians and we should have thick skin, so perhaps all that comes with the territory.”
Cllr John Cope (Walton South), said around 1,000 people had got in touch with him on the matter. He told the LDRS after the meeting: “Sadly the cost of this sorry episode is about £100,000.”
He said he hadn’t seen any evidence of intimation during the process. He said: “Residents were angry but they were polite and very civil in my experience, especially given how they were treated by the council.”