The Full Council meeting of 16 July 2020 was a complete shambles from start to finish. The Chair was AWOL for most of the meeting and so the Chief Exec became the de facto Chair. This would be tantamount to an abuse of authority if were not the only practical option.
At one point in the meeting, while votes were being recorded on an issue, the Chair, Cllr Jacky Smith (Con), was clearly heard whispering to an Officer: “What are we voting for?”.
Later, during a heated and complicated debate concerning the correct procedure for electing a new Committee Chair, the so-called Chair of Council was silent for over 10 minutes despite members raising 3 points of order, various calls for clarification as well as interventions from officers.
As a result of the chaos, the meeting went on for over four hours but didn’t even manage to agree the minutes of the previous meeting let alone allow for open questions from Councillors or consideration of the three motions which had been proposed concerning the important issues of: the Council’s response to Covid; electric vehicles; and mental health.
I’ve been meaning to blog about this meeting for a while. There are three reasons for the delay: firstly, I needed some time to calm down; secondly lots of other things have been happening including my being illegally thrown out of a meeting; thirdly, I wanted my report to be accurate so on the 22 July I requested a copy of the recording of the meeting. Last week I was sent a file which was password protected. I eventually received the password only to discover that I have only been sent the last hour of the meeting. The remainder of the recording only arrived last Tues 4th August.
Prayers and Questions
The meeting was preceded by prayers led by the vicar from St Wulfram’s Grantham at about 13:05. The Chair then began the formal meeting by welcoming everyone to the meeting and going through the ‘housekeeping’. She requested that councillors turn their phones to silent and ‘remove any possible distractions’. You would be amazed at some of the ways in which councillors were distracted: One had to make at least two ‘urgent’ phone calls; one was travelling on a train; another was digging potatoes! Background noises included classical music, car engines starting, dogs barking and various overheard conversations with people ‘off stage’.
These were followed by two questions from a member of the public, Struan Cornell from Bourne, concerning the decision by Cabinet Member for Tourism, Coun Rosemary Trollope-Bellew (Con) to abandon the Bourne Cicle Festival.
Coun Trollope-Bellew suggested the main reason for not resurrecting the event was financial. Before lockdown, the council had already spent £24,000 on preparatory work for the Gravity Fields which is not recoverable. She said that the Cuncil is currently facing a budget gap of around £3.4 million due to the Covid Pandemic. She didn’t mention that her decision to cancel the Bourne Cicle Festival was taken before Christmas without consultation.
In response to a second question about the possibility of Bourne Cicle Festival in 2021, Coun Trollope-Bellew said the festival would need to be: well-planned; value for money; inclusive; and of benefit to the wider residents and business community. She invited Mr Cornell to put together a business case by the end of August.
Attendance and Apologies
A register of attendance was taken by roll-call. The four minute roll-call was repeated for most votes (and amendments) throughout the meeting, The cumulative time spent voting during the meeting was probably the best part of an half an hour.
Minutes of the Previous Meetings
The agenda pack sent out to Councillors included two sets of minutes. This was expected because there had been an emergency meeting on 1 July to discuss the downgrading of Grantham Hospital.
Unfortunately, the original agenda pack contained two copies of the minutes of 1 July but no minutes from the previous ‘ordinary’ meeting of 14 May. Consequently a supplementary pack was sent which included the missing minutes among other things.
The meeting managed to approve the minutes of 14 May without much trouble but when someone proposed approval the minutes of 1 July, Cllr Phil Dilks (Ind) pointed out that the two sets included within the agenda pack were different drafts and asked which set we were supposed to be approving. Cllr Dilks drew the Council’s attention to a particular paragraph which had been dropped between one draft and the next:
“It was felt that the lack of clarity as to the intended procedure for the meeting has caused confusion and friction among members”
This clearly caught the Chair and Chief Executive off-guard as they clearly had no clue that there were two versions. After 2 or 3 minutes of radio silence, the Chief Executive dispatched an Officer to find out what was going on and advised these minutes would be deferred until later in the meeting.
The Council was presented with a list of the seven events attended by the Chair prior to lockdown and the three informal flag-raising ceremonies she had attended since 17th March.
Future High Street Fund
This item concerned the Council’s commitment to allocate £379,092 as an essential contribution to leverage government funding of £8m for regenerating the centre of Grantham. Most of the comments contributed to mutual back-slapping between the Cabinet members celebrating what a fantastic job they had done in shaping the bid so far.
The Leader Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) explained the bid would mean “investment in the future of our District’s largest town, Grantham, which we have discussed so much because it has so much potential; and that potential, if realised, will benefit generations within the town, to the remotest district borders, and across Lincolnshire… I will hope you will join in me in voting for this, and pursuing this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity. Grantham is growing. Let’s be bold. Let’s be innovative and LET’S MAKE GRANTHAM GREAT!”.
Cllr Phil Dilks (Ind) reprised the comments he had made at the Finance & Econ Dev Overview Scrutiny Committee (OSC) concerning the secrecy behind the bid-writing process and the fact that councillors hadn’t been properly consulted. He drew the Council’s attention to the ‘project board’ which had been meeting since last November and asked who had decided on its membership. He mentioned that the draft bid had already received feedback from the Government and asked where elected Councillors could access the feedback document. He asked why there was no formal scrutiny of the bid until the last possible moment (just 12 days earlier). He challenged the Leader and his Deputy to commit to stop paying lip-service to scrutiny and, in future, embrace real pre-scrutiny that is meaningful and robust, especially on major multi-million pound projects.
Coun Dilks final point concerned the bid’s stated intention to establish a permanent “Grantham Town Team”. This would be comprised of key stakeholders including landowners, businesses, community groups etc and be Chaired by an SKDC Councillor. The aim of the ‘Town Team would be to co-ordinate activities and improve the town centre. He suggested proposed ‘Town Team’ looked dangerously like a backdoor attempt to create an unelected Town Council.
Cllr Barry Dobson (Con) responded with a lot of waffle during which he mentioned several times that Cllr Dilks is not a Grantham Councillor but omitted to mention that neither he nor Cllr Cooke represented Grantham wards either. Typically, the Conservatives expect all Councillors from across South Kesteven to show solidarity in supporting Grantham when it suits their agenda but if we start asking questions then they switch to ‘Mind your own business’!
Many of Cllr Dilks concerns were echoed by Cllr Charmaine Morgan (Lab) who does represent a Grantham ward. Cllr Dobson responded to Cllr Morgan by talking about the crisis on the High Street mentioning in passing that now “Boots is leaving us, I understand”.
Regarding the role of InvestSK (I-SK) Cllr Dobson elucidated: “InvestSK was given a task, or they actually instigated it. It was all down to the efforts of I-SK to get this through. When I took over the portfolio back in January I was so excited by it that I just ploughed on with what was there and I just wanted to give Grantham everything we can give it…”
Cllr Ian Stokes (Con) stated that this was ‘first time’ he had seen the bid which seems odd for two reasons: a) he is a Grantham Councillor; b) he is Chair of Governance and Audit Ctte; and c) his son Cllr Adam Stokes Con) is Cabinet Member for Finance who must have been involved in writing the bid – one can only assume the Stokes family don’t talk about Grantham or politics at home.
Cllr Stokes Snr went onto say the bid was 10 years too late: “We went through all this early in the 1910s (sic) and we couldn’t get it through then because we were stuck with various properties like the four little Victorian buildings near the station which have got a class II listing on them. We would have liked to have had a wonderful area there and we were going to have IT offices in that particular place and it would have been a wonderful way to get into the centre of town but we were thwarted [back] then. This looks to be a lot better. We are still stuck with those houses unfortunately. I hope this will progress the centre of town… And those comments about town councils from various people are a complete waste of time”.
Cllr Knowles (Ind) expressed that any development of Grantham would be mindful of transport links across the District. There are currently no public transport links between Grantham and any of the District’s other towns.
The Chief Executive requested permission for Mr Paul Thomas to contribute to the debate. Mr Thomas, Director of Growth, clarified some of the questions asked by Cllr Dilks including that the membership of the project board was limited to members of the SKDC Cabinet. His explanations were far more specific and useful than those of Cllr Dobson.
Despite the various concerns, the recommendation to submit the funding bid was agreed unanimously.
Financial Impact of COVID-19 on the Leisure Service
Agenda Item 15 was bumped up the agenda because, the Chair said, it was “important”. I’m not sure what that says about the rest of the agenda but she said what she said. The item was to be considered ‘in camera’ (closed session).
One of the Members asked if it was permissible to participate from the railway carriage on which he was travelling. He added that he was not intending to participate in the debate. The Chief Executive asked if he was listening via headphones, which he confirmed, and this was deemed acceptable. In the event, he did participate in the debate by complaining about the questions I was asking about the Leisure Service. I cannot give you any more detail because the debate remains confidential.
At risk of breaking the rules, I am prepared to divulge that when the item was brought to the vote, one Councillor abstained because he had not listened to all of the debate. He apologised to the Chair saying that the reason for his absence was because he had been outside digging potatoes for a good cause!
Programme of Meetings 2020-21
It was announced that due to the volume of business, there would be an extra Full Council meeting on 1 Oct 2020.
Changes to the Constitution
Two Councillors abstained because he had not listened to all of the debate. One was making an urgent phone call. He apologised to the Chair saying that the reason for his absence was because he had been outside digging potatoes for a good cause!
Constitutions are only interesting when they are in dispute. The Council’s Constitution Committee has met only once in 2020. There have apparently been several ‘workshops’ concerning the proposed changes to the constitution but these were only attended by a very small number of people meeting behind closed doors. At the time of the meeting there were no minutes available of either the formal meeting nor the informal workshop,
The proposed changes were pretty radical and there was not time to go through everyone’s specific problems in detail. Therefore, Cllr Paul Wood (Ind) proposed an amendment to refer the issue back to the Constitution committee for more thought with respect to councillors’ feedback.
Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) a former Leader of the Council, made it clear that the Conservatives would be doing as they were told: “I will be voting against this amendment because that is what I have been asked to do. I just think it is a huge shame…”.
It was during the vote on the amendment that Cllr Jacky Smith, who was supposedly Chairing the meeting, was clearly heard asking “What are we voting for?”.
The debate around changes to the constitution continued for well over an hour. The changes were agreed with no Conservative voting against the changes and no opposition member voting for them.
Appointments to Committees
This was easily the most contentious item on the agenda.
Owing to the resignation of Cllr Chris Benn, a vacancy had arisen for the Chair of the Council’s Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee. In a group leaders’ meeting prior to the meeting, Coun Paul Wood had informed the Council’s Leader and Chief Executive that he wished to make a nomination for the vacant Chair and was given the impression that this would be allowed and that there would be a straight-forward vote for the Conservative candidate or another candidate.
When it came to the agenda item, Cllr Wood proposed that Cllr Ashley Baxter (That’s me!) for the position. My environmental credentials are well-known.
Sadly, at this point, former SKDC Leader, Cllr Bob Adams (Con) made an spurious comment that a contested election would be contrary to the Constitution. The Council’s Monitoring Officer was asked for clarification and, after prompting, quoted para 6.5.5 which clearly states:
“If the Chairman or Vice-Chairman resigns either from that position or from the Council by giving written notice of resignation to the Chief Executive, the Council shall, at its next meeting, elect a successor”
However, without any comment, direction or clarification from the Chair, who remained silent for more than 10 minutes, various Conservatives jumped up and down with their own observations on the ‘real meaning’ of the constitution. Tellingly, former Leader Cllr Bob Adams commented “This is why I hate constitutions”.
Long story short, the Monitoring Officer was browbeaten into changing her advise and the nomination of an opposition candidate was disallowed.
In my opinion, this moment marked a watershed for the Council. From that point on there was absolutely no doubt that the Conservatives don’t want a fair fight, or a fair debate, or proper scrutiny. They are afraid of the implications of allowing any opposition member to take a position of power or influence. What is worse is that the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer are clearly afraid to present an opinion which is contrary to that of the Conservative group.
These comments are not ‘sour grapes’ because I didn’t get elected as Chair of the Environment Committee It was always clear that the Conservatives would never openly vote against one of their own group (even though, on paper, as several members pointed out, there is no Councillor better qualified than me). The most shocking part of this chaotic decision is that the Conservatives have employed senior officers to defend them against effective scrutiny and allow them to do whatever they like with impunity and without challenge.
This is further illustrated by the way in which complaints about process, transparency and decision-making are batted away by officers and Cabinet Members alike. Democracy at South Kesteven is in a terrible state.
Parish Council Matters
It was agreed at the last minute that changes to two Parish Councils should be nodded through by the council without debate. I abstained because I hold an old-fashioned belief that Councillors should always have an opportunity to ask questions and debate agenda items before decisions are taken.
At the conclusion of the meeting the Leader of the Council was allowed to make the following brief comment: “If I can just say very briefly before we draw this meeting to a close, this is not one of the best meetings that we’ve ever had at the District Council. I will certainly be revising on this (sic) and I know the Chairman will as well. Obviously the previous minutes will need to be voted upon, as will [agenda items] 12, 13 and 14, and the motions as well will have to go on to another meeting”.
The Chair followed up by saying “Yes, I hope the next meeting will be a much better, much friendlier one and that we will get away from all this back-biting and so on. We are here to do work and to get the best we can out of everything for the betterment of the Council and the town; and people must be absolutely horrified if they come in and see this sort of behaviour”.
An Independent Member from Bourne then asked the Chair to clarify which ‘town’ she was referring to. The Chair responded that she meant “any town, all of the towns…”.
The next meeting of the Council is the AGM scheduled for September which will include the election of a new Chair. For everyone’s sake, it can’t come soon enough!