• What makes a good councillor?

    23rd May 2013 | News | Claire
  • I pose this question because of all the important issues on last night’s EDDC annual council agenda, this seemed to provoke the most debate, especially among the conservative leadership.

    It was towards the end of the meeting when nominations for “think tanks” were made, that the tories decided to make rather pointed remarks about members of the independent group, not always attending portfolio holder “think tanks.”

    It followed a question from me on the nominations for “champions” about why all the champions were now conservative, whereas in the past they were from all groups.  I pointed out that the ruling cabinet was also all conservative – a change from the previous executive, which again was cross party. 

    Cllr Diviani replied that he had looked to see who was available to do the jobs and that they were all conservative.  This was a flippant answer because he knew that no other group had been offered a champion post.  And Roger Giles, who had previously been recycling champion, was dropped (the conservatives cut the post) without even being told.

    Defending the loss of the recycling champion post, Cllr Ray Bloxham said that the council had gone from being one of the worst at recycling in the country, to one of the best, which is why they had got rid of the post. It wasn’t needed anymore, he claimed.

    But I digress, back to my original question.  Cllrs Halse, Moulding and Twiss, all criticised councillors who did not regularly attend their portfolio holder think tanks. 

    First to speak in his own defence was Ben Ingham, who explained that he had a full time job and the meeting start date of 4pm was not convenient.

    I spoke next and explained that I had to collect my daughter from school. I added that I was uncomfortable with the set up of “think tanks” which were unminuted and did not have agendas, yet came up with some controversial ideas which were then rubber stamped by committees.

    My comment clearly offended Ray Bloxham, who angrily told me I had made “an outrageous statement” and he had always made notes of his portfolio holder think tank meetings.

    Cllr Ian Thomas said that he had also made notes of his think tank meetings.

    This information certainly conflicted with my knowledge of how the economy think tank operated.

    But then the debate turned to what is referred to “double hatted members” – those who are on district and the county council.  How could they do their jobs properly if they were too busy to attend meetings? Cllr Peter Halse asked.

    Leader, Paul Diviani, added that councillors were here to attend meetings and should make every effort to do so.

    Deputy leader, Cllr Andrew Moulding, who referred to me as Cllr MRS Wright yet again.  This was about the eighth time that evening, despite me correcting it each time, that I was referred as Cllr MRS Wright, instead of plain Cllr Wright, said he didn’t know how I would cope with my new role as county councillor:

    “If Cllr Mrs Wright can’t attend meetings now, how will she cope with the day job,” Cllr Moulding said.

    I had a right of reply because I had been named, so I firstly corrected Cllr Moulding on how he addressed me.  By way of answer to him I said that I disagreed with the leader’s assertion that councillors are here to attend meetings.  We are here, I emphasised, principally to serve our communities.

    Roger Giles tried to ask Cllr Moulding to apologise for his statement but the chairman, Cllr Godbeer, said Roger must take up the issue after the meeting.  Cllr Godbeer then stood up, which meant that Roger must shut up or leave the meeting. 

    Here’s what happened to the council’s proposals relating to the constitution, which were raised as concerns by the independent group, including: 

    – The proposal to deal with more planning applications that are departures from policy by delegation (in private rather than taking them to the development management committee and debating in the public domain) will be brought before the development management committee for a debate

    – The new regulations for overview and scrutiny committee will come before another committee for debate (it may be the cabinet, not sure)

    – That the constitution be updated by the monitoring officer for “consequential drafting amendments” – any updates must be brought before cabinet (I think).

    – Public speaking at development management committee on non planning application agenda items, will be decided by the standards committee. This also goes for councillors having speaking rights at development management committee for non planning application items. This was prompted by a controversial meeting earlier this year of course, when a decision relating to the five year land supply was only debated by DMC councillors, with members of the public and non committee councillors, being told they were not allowed to speak.

    I hope that these committees will do the right thing for residents and not what is most expedient for the conservative leadership, which of course, dominates all the committees.

    I raised a number of issues during the meeting and each time the chairman referred to me as Cllr MRS Wright when he called me to speak. After the third time of asking him to address me as Cllr Wright (it is a bugbear of mine that women councillors are traditionally referred to as “Cllr Mrs” or “Miss” but men are referred to as plain Cllr – it is archaic and sexist and I have specifically asked when I first joined the council, for a badge and email address that reflected my wishes), I explained that I thought it was a sexist term and disliked it.  But it made no odds, I was addressed as “Cllr Mrs” for the entire meeting by the chairman.

    Following a question from member of the public, Barry Sangster, about whipping of votes, Cllr Phil Twiss, said, again, he had never whipped any vote or councillors in his time as whip (two years).  Cllr Twiss read out some directives from David Cameron, which apparently had be sent around to all tories on Tuesday evening, which gave guidance on whipping.

    These guidelines said that if a member felt unable to support a group decision then they should discuss it in advance with the senior group members before saying anything publicly.  Also, that members shall be expected to support a group decision, unless it was a matter of conscience or related to an issue within a member’s ward.

    This explanation seemed to me, to raise more questions than answers.

    Whipping must be a sore subject (probably because UKIP keep talking about it) because it led Leader, Paul Diviani, to say a few words about how “relaxed” he was about members of his group rejecting the Feniton applications that came to committee in April. 

    This seemed distinctly odd, particularly after the insistence that the conservative group did not use a whip.  Why would councillors on the development management committee be seeking political advice on how they might vote on that committee?

    Cllr Eileen Wragg, leader of the libdems, spoke up to say that the libdems did not have a whip.

    During the whipping debate, former council leader, Sara Randall-Johnson, who was present as an honorary alderman, came to the microphone to say that the only time she had ever used the whip was for a budget meeting, to get her conservative group to keep council tax low.

    Axminster councillor, Paul Hayward, asked what plans EDDC had of securing a higher turnout in future elections. He asked about different voting measure.  Leader, Paul Diviani promised him a written answer.

    Newly created back-bencher, Stuart Hughes was quiet but resplendent in a brightly chequered jacket and tie, that gave a clear message to the conservative leadership about his new role as a rebellious member of the group.

    Both myself and Ben Ingham paid tribute to Stuart Hughes chairmanship of the EDDC overview and scrutiny committee and said we hoped that the new chairman, Tim Wood, would be as an effective chair as Cllr Hughes.

    Members of the public present clapped both mine and Ben Ingham’s speeches, showing their support for Cllr Hughes.

    All outside body appointments were filled by the conservatives and even the one proposal by Cllr Roger Giles, to join the Devon and Exeter rail project working party, as he has a passion for rail travel and considerable knowledge of the subject, was squashed by the conservative steamroller.

    My final point was to attempt to alter a long-standing rule on the list of meetings for the year.  A rates consultation to be agreed with East Devon Business Forum, the paperwork stated.  I said that things had changed in the last six months, as everyone was aware and I thought it should say instead “consult with the business community.” 

    Unfortunately, following advice from the chief executive, the chairman said that this would not be possible.  My hand shot back up and I called out several times, but the item was rubber stamped and the meeting ended.

    Why was this not possible?  I have no idea, but how outrageous to keep this in as a rule when East Devon Business Forum has had EDDC officer support and public funding removed from it since “Browngate”, and is no longer anything to do with the council.

    I hear that there is a new representative system emerging in the business community and I wish them the best of British with getting a fair hearing from East Devon District Council, in the future.

    Following the meeting Cllr Godbeer approached me to suggest he referred to me as Cllr Claire Wright in future, at full council meetings, which I agreed would be ok.

    Further reports about Wednesday night’s meeting are available from Sidmouth Independent News – http://sidmouthindependentnews.wordpress.com/ 

    Photograph: Stuart Hughes in his dramatic jacket and tie.