A noisy row erupted at Thursday’s Full Council Meeting, with Tories and Lib Dems roaring their disapproval at remarks made by Cllr Williams, the Leader of the Council.
A deal has been cooked up by senior officers and councillors to sell off part of our superb Arts Centre, including the Youth Theatre, built just a couple of years ago at a cost of £300,000, to the Queen Elizabeth 6th Form College next door. With the recession in full swing, the Council is strapped for cash and sees selling off public property as the way to balance the books.
Conservative Cllr Ian Galletely, never shy of getting on his hind legs to have a go at Labour, complained, not about the decision to sell the land – that would wait until next week’s Cabinet meeting – but about the fact that the first time he heard about the scheme was from a neighbour who had read the Northern Echo. There had been absolutely no involvement nor consultation with ward councillors.
Ian’s speech was about the constitutional impropriety of this process. He was, however, told to shut up and sit down by the Labour Mayor. Eventually, he did resume his seat. The point had been made, however.
Then, when Cllr Williams rose to reply to Ian’s remarks, he said, “If I was the ward councillor, I’d have known about it”. This arrogant and supercilious remark enraged opposition members, who shouted their disapproval across the Chamber. As a Labour Councillor he would have known about it. It's the Lib Dems and Tories who are kept in the dark on this Council.
Unfortunately, the post-election promise by the Labour leadership to operate in a more open and inclusive way has been shown to be a short-lived fiction. In my ward, North Road, we can (and will) provide several examples from the past year where officers have completely failed to consult us or notify us about their plans for the ward. This is despite a promise earlier from the Chief Executive to my colleague, Cllr Fred Lawton, that we would be consulted about officers’ plans.
The gloves are off on this one. Most opposition councillors can recite stories from the past year of a failure to communicate or consult by officers. There appears to be an endemic assumption among some officers, at all levels, that Lib Dem and Conservative ward councillors can be disregarded when decisions about their wards are made. This is completely unacceptable. We will not give up on this issue.
When I was a young athlete, I won the Berkshire schools championship in my event, which meant I qualified for the All-England Schools Championships, held that year at Crystal Palace. I clearly remember the pep talk given by the senior teacher who was responsible for getting our squad together to go up to the Championships. “You may be representing a small county,” he said, “but you’re a county champion, just as much as the champions of the big counties like Yorkshire or Middlesex are. Some others may be more talented, but you’re all champions.”
Well, it’s the same with ward councillors: we are all directly elected by our residents to represent them in Council and we should all be equal in that respect and entitled to receive equal support and information from all officers. No matter what party we are from, we are all entitled to equal respect from officers. It is quite simply undemocratic and disrespectful to our electorate to withhold important information from opposition ward councillors.
The Labour Group seem determined to appear to be consulting with residents about some things (but not the new waste contract, for example) over the heads of ward councillors. They consult over issues they expect to be criticised for, such as cycling in the Pedestrian Heart. This means that criticism can be deflected by referring back to the consultation.
Big issues, like the new waste management contract, are not consulted on, because Labour have already decided what to do and do not anticipate much public interest, apart from pressure groups like FoE.
The arrogance of the Labour leadership, colluded with by some non-elected officers, is going to be a theme of our campaigning from now right through to the next local elections, you can bank on it!