Shaftesbury Town Council is planning a major event to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day next May. The music of the 1940s will feature prominently but a proposed fly-past of planes letting off fireworks could be canned, after the Council voted to halve its funding contribution.
Britain will commemorate VE Day on 8th May 2020. A Bank Holiday has been declared for that day, a Friday. Former military man Cllr Peter Yeo told councillors that he wants to commemorate the occasion, ‘‘in a fitting and memorable manner”. He’s researched how the town marked the end of the Second World War, and he’s spoken with Robert Mullins who was just ten years of age when he witnessed revellers dancing outside the Town Hall to music blaring from loudspeakers on the balcony.
Peter told Tuesday’s Full Council meeting that his working group of five councillors had consulted the Chairman of Shaftesbury’s Royal British Legion, Robin Miller. Together, the volunteers had planned an event to present Shaftesbury Town Council in a ‘reputationally enhancing light’.
Church bells will toll across the UK at 6pm on 8th May. Shaftesbury ringers will join in before the Mayor and clergy address the crowds. Peter told members that two marquees would be erected for the evening crowds gathering listening to Belle Street, the Bell Street Jazz Band and the Shaftesbury Town Band outside the Town Hall. “The last thing we want to do is organise this big event and have it ruined by rain,” Peter said, as he explained that marquees were costly but necessary.
Cllr Philip Proctor had advised Peter that parking a lorry outside the Town Hall would work as a stage. Those entertainment and civic ideas were supported by councillors, who wanted to mark VE Day. “This is arguably one of the most defining moments in this nation’s history,” said Cllr Piers Brown.
And Cllr Andy Hollingshead echoed those remarks. “We should, as a town, celebrate what our forefathers did. I’m speaking as somebody whose grandfather fought in the First World War, whose father was in the Second World War and whose brother was in the Falklands War. I really understand this,” he said.
But one aspect of Peter’s presentation was not universally popular. Cllr Yeo dimmed the council chamber lights to play a video on the overhead display. The YouTube promotional footage featured two brightly lit planes, flying at dusk. “It would be spectacular to have two aeroplanes flying around with an amazing aerobatic display all over Shaftesbury, with LEDS all over the planes and dispensing pyrotechnics. I thought it’d be an amazing celebration of freedom and the high point of the evening celebrations. Everyone in Shaftesbury would see it and the actual cost for the whole evening would be about £1.40 per citizen,” explained Peter.
He added that the planes would set off pyrotechnics. “It’s pretty sensational,” he enthused. “It would be an amazing spectacle that you would see for ten miles around.”
Deputy Mayor Piers Brown was the first councillor to express doubts. “I cannot support a flying fireworks display. That comes across as a bit short of a weird ego boost and that doesn’t seem to be connected to what we are trying to achieve as an organisation,” he said. “We are spending taxpayers’ money – £12,000 – and that equates to about two and a half percent of our annual turnover. That’s a significant amount. We need to be fiscally prudent.”
Piers, wants a more low-key VE Day commemoration, and he added that the event costs were, “verging on reckless”. Piers argued that the number of people who would come out and see the pyrotechnic display would be very small compared to the number of residents who would be supporting the event financially through the council’s money.
Cllr Yeo rejected claims that the event was “extravagant”. He pointed out that the Town Council had recently awarded a £5,000 grant to Shaftesbury Arts Centre, which he argued “only benefits a tiny minority of people in this town.”
“I don’t see the connection of having aerial acrobatics, when we’re trying to take a moment to both celebrate and commemorate the sacrifice people made,” said Piers. “I don’t think that it is appropriate in this circumstance. I can understand why people would want to go see it. At Bournemouth Air Show it makes total sense. This is meant to be a sensitive project and costs are starting to run away,” said Piers.
Peter Yeo argued that the Council had around “half-a-million pounds stashed away” in its reserves. At that point Cllr Hollingshead raised a point of order. Andy advised that the money wasn’t meant to be used for these sorts of activities.
Earlier in the meeting, Cllr Yeo had argued for the Council to show its commitment to addressing the climate emergency by purchasing an electric vehicle. Later, Cllr Alex Chase had questioned the environmental impact of pyrotechnics released from two planes.
“It’s going to happen anyway. If we don’t book the airborne pyrotechnic display team they already have got loads of other people who want to book them,” said Peter. “We were just lucky to get in first. I think we should still do it. The impact is not great. It is a few fireworks in two small aircraft flying around for about 10 to 15 minutes. The impact on the environment is going to be minute,” he added.
Councillors voted to offer £6,000 in funding and not the £12,000 required in Peter’s budget. Mayor Tim Cook said that this anniversary commemoration would be a one-off. Additional funding will have to be secured from sponsors, if required.
Cllr Yeo was not happy. He asked Cllr Brown three times if he wanted to take over running the event planning. Piers declined three times, stating he was too busy. Cllr Brown also wanted the event moved to the east of Christy’s Lane. “Everything in town happens in this square 200 metres,” Piers explained. “The majority of people live on the other side of town. Wincombe Park is our land, it’s free and it’s in the most densely packed part the town.”
Peter wasn’t keen. He wants the entertainment outside the Town Hall, where the original celebrations took place, but he conceded that he would consider using Park Walk. That alternative location was suggested after Cllr Hollingshead warned that town centre traders might not welcome a two-day High Street road closure. “That would be a big impact on traders. It’s okay on a Sunday. Whether the traders would be happy with that on a Friday and a Saturday is a moot point. I don’t know the answer to that. I’d like to have heard the answer to that,” said Andy.
“We’re talking about just closing off the High Street as happens when there’s a street market,” argued Peter. “All we’re talking about is blocking it off near The Grosvenor and near The Post Office. That is going to have no effect on people going to the shops. They’ll still be able to walk down the High street and use all the shops. There will be a much larger amount of people using the shops if we advertise this properly,” he insisted. £1,000 has been set aside for promotion in the budget.
The VE Day event is going ahead. A smaller wreath laying service and memorial will mark VJ Day on 15th August. How big the May commemorations will be depends on what the working party decides regarding the event location and whether they can source £6,000 support from businesses and the community to meet the £6,000 shortfall in the event costings.