Being a local MP involves doing a lot of things that you wouldn’t otherwise find yourself doing. You open things that are already open (usually a pleasant and sometimes an inspiring occasion); you attend meetings with people you would otherwise never meet (sometimes very useful, sometimes very uncomfortable); and you get to hear about things that you wouldn’t otherwise hear about (sometimes dispiriting, but often hugely encouraging).
One such activity is the receiving and conveying of petitions.
I don’t think that, before I became an MP, I had ever participated in the handing over of a petition, or even signed a petition. But in the past couple of decades I have found myself frequently dealing, in one way or another, with petitions of various sorts.
Petitions, like people, vary in size and character. Some are highly specific. Others are far more general. Some are signed by multitudes, others by small bands.
But I can’t recall a time in the last 16 years when I have come across a petition on anything like the scale of the one that has been raised in Sherborne about the proposal to locate a new Tesco shop on the outskirts of the town.
As any reader of this column will no doubt be fully aware, Sherborne is a mid-sized town – and, even if one takes into account the villages that surround it – the population is not large. So the number that has signed the Tesco petition is really quite extraordinary. To put this in perspective, an equivalent item in London would have had literally millions of signatures on it.
I think the reason why there has been so much interest in this subject in the town is that people in and around Sherborne do put a huge value on the very special character of this old and remarkable place.
It is not just a question of the architecture and the architectural heritage – though these are crucially important – and certainly make the prospect of a building at the gateway to the town disturbing if it is anything less than splendid.
But I think there is also a very strong feeling that the vibrancy of the town centre is threatened by any proposal for a major shopping centre outside that centre.
This is understandable, because Sherborne, for all its splendid architecture and all its historical significance, is very much not just a museum piece. It is a living, breathing town, whose centre is populated by lively businesses which have largely sustained even the difficult patch over the last few years – and it is clear that the people of Sherborne want to go on living in a town that has these characteristics.
I have no doubt that the District Council is listening very carefully to the people of Sherborne – just as it has done in designing the Local Plan – so I am sure that the petition will have been well received.