Victory in sight for Christian crusader
SEVEN years after defying an order not to put a noticeboard in his garden, Christian crusader Francis Gilbert is today sensing victory – and may be allowed to keep it.
SEVEN years after defying an order not to put a noticeboard in his garden, Christian crusader Francis Gilbert is today sensing victory - and may be allowed to keep it.
But the saga of the sign has cost the public purse tens of thousands of pounds and need never have happened at all as council officers said at the start it should be permitted.
Councillors are likely next week to make a U-turn and give up their fight to stop Mr Gilbert displaying the Gospel's messages.
Despite lawyers' advice that the council should prosecute him again, head of legal and democratic services at Suffolk Coastal, Hilary Slater is recommending councillors take no further action.
Unless former teacher Mr Gilbert, 76, of Foxgrove Gardens, Felixstowe, tries to put up a further sign, that would be the end of a matter which has wound its way through the council chamber, to magistrates and High Courts, and even prison.
The council's development control sub committee is invited on August 19 to consider five options, including a fresh prosecution, a county court injunction, or to invite a new planning application.
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But all of these will only open up fresh wounds and begin the battle all over again - possibly even resulting in the council having to apply for Mr Gilbert to be imprisoned if he continues to resist efforts to remove the £1,500 noticeboard.
"It may set a difficult precedent if the council decides to take no action, and there is little to be gained by putting the decision off for a while," said Mrs Slater.
"Action ought therefore to be resumed soon, or the matter allowed to rest.
"The best of the options for further action is to bring a fresh prosecution against the owner.
"If he is convicted but still keeps the noticeboard an application for an injunction may be reconsidered, following the presentation of a further report.
"The sub-committee may, however, conclude that enough time and resources have already been devoted to this matter.
"The noticeboard has not caused any complaint for several years, and is not an eyesore. It is not causing serious harm to the amenity of the area. It no longer seems expedient to take further action."
The council says the lack of complaints about the 5ft cabinet-style board has "engendered a sense that the noticeboard was less of a problem than the council had initially asserted".
Mr Gilbert was jailed for seven days for non-payment of fines after breaching planning law by putting up the sign without permission.
Ironically, when Mr Gilbert asked the council in 1997 to replace a crumbling near 30-year-old noticeboard, planning officers recommended approval.
But councillors went against that advice because they feared it would set a precedent and would be unsightly.
He uses the board to display Christian messages, articles from the parish magazine, items of topical interest and material to promote charities.
He said it was "utterly absurd" that a charge should ever have been brought as he was displaying messages for public good - on the theme of God's love - and should have been encouraged in his good citizenship, not persecuted.
n Should Francis Gilbert be allowed to keep the sign? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail EveningStarLetter@eveningstar.co.uk
1997: Councillors go against officers' advice and refuse planning permission for Francis Gilbert to replace his garden sign.
1998: Mr Gilbert puts up a new noticeboard without permission - the council prosecutes for a breach of planning law.
1998: He is convicted by the magistrates in his absence and ordered to pay fines and costs of £1,248.
1999: After failing to get a judicial review in the High Court and the Ombudsman throwing out his case, he is arrested, handcuffed and taken to court for non-payment of fines.
2000: Following more appeals and Whitehall advice that the conviction cannot be quashed, magistrates agree to reduce the fines and costs by two-thirds to £430.
2001: Still refusing to pay his fines, Mr Gilbert is jailed for seven days, though he only served part of the sentence.
2002: Lodged a fresh appeal to have his case re-opened but this was refused.
2004: Now he is hoping the matter will end and the council will decide not to take any further action.