Point Scoring for Somerset
We at The Leveller® do not always find ourselves in favour of getting rid of elections. But this week we have witnessed a paucity of debate and some not inconsiderable hypocrisy. If Somerset County Cricket Club could score points off opponents the way our County Councillors do, they’d have been County Champions for the past decade.
We are left wondering if we might be better off with direct rule by civil servants. OK – not really. But sometimes……
The week started off with a Mendip District Council (MDC) Scrutiny meeting. A decision by Mendip District Council’s Cabinet was to be scrutinised. Specifically a number of people objected to the land at Easthill, Frome being scheduled for development. This is one of four plots of MDC owned land scheduled to be developed for social housing. Most people agree with the social housing bit. However quite a few object to Easthill being chosen as a site.
What could have happened, was a debate on the decision made by Cabinet, and a vote. Scrutiny can ask the Cabinet to reconsider their decision. But they can also give some specific reasons for Cabinet to reconsider.
However before the meeting had time to get under steam there was an intrusion. Ros Wyke, LibDem Leader of the Council, addressed the meeting. She announced that the decision on Easthill would indeed be taken back to Cabinet. She had already decided this. It felt like a cry of “nothing to see here”.
Nevertheless the meeting proceeded as planned. Four members of the public were registered to speak. One of whom turned out to be Denise Wyatt. She was so enthusiastic in her attack on MDC councillors for not following the Nolan principles…. That she forgot to mention she was “Somerset Independents County Council Candidate for Frome”. At least according to their blog. Something that might be considered relevant to those attending the meeting.
Nevertheless the public all had their say. All were against Easthill being developed. But four people is not a vast number.
No sooner had the public had their say than Independent Cllr, Chris Inchley spoke. “I’d like to propose we send the Easthill part of the proposal back to cabinet for reconsideration.” It was duly seconded and had to be put to the vote. It was carried by a majority of the committee which has 7 LibDems, 3 Greens, 3 Conservatives and one Independent.
So there would be no discussion, no debate. And no opportunity to give specifics for Cabinet to look at when revisiting the issue was lost. And to be clear the Monitoring Officer made that very point. He told the meeting; “Cabinet need to be aware of scrutiny’s concerns. It is legitimate for members of scrutiny, both here within this meeting to list their concerns, summarise their concerns, at the decision that has been taken and then they will have a similar opportunity as has been explained to do that at Cabinet as well.”
So no sooner had the vote been recorded than the Conservative Chair of Scrutiny, Philip Ham, resigned. Before going he explained: “I feel rather let down by the whole process. We have now had three Scrutiny meetings where we are supposed to be scrutinising what is going on. Stronger Somerset was a walkover, they just took over. The climate change one was we couldn’t change anything and now we’ve had this one we are not allowed to change anything. The whole thing about Scrutiny is to delve into what is going on behind the scenes and it has not happened. And on that note I resign as chair of the Scrutiny Board.”
So two days later and we are at Somerset County Council. Leader of The Council, Conservative David Fothergill is presenting item 7. This is to seek a mandate. A mandate to write to the Secretary of State to request 2021 elections are deferred. Cllr Fothergill repeated ‘til he was blue in the face, that this was not his decision. Merely a request for the Secretary of State to make one.
But then as LibDem Cllr Adam Dance put it: “if it is down to secretary of state then let him make the decision. Let us not push him in one direction or the other. Let him decide.” It seemed like a fair enough point.
Independent Cllr Neil Bloomfield merely noted that holding two elections in two years would cost £1m. So actually skipping 2021 elections to have a unitary election in 2022 was a good idea. Of course quite a few councillors in the chamber regard spending taxpayers money as a gift that keeps on giving. Not as a responsibility to be carefully guarded.
Cllr Jane Lock protested up front that although she didn’t agree with the Leader, LibDem councillors would be given a free vote. Now we at Leveller® Towers are naïve. We thought councillors were always free to vote with their conscience and answer to residents/voters. Cllr Lock’s protestation could have carried more weight. Especially as every LibDem speaker seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet. It might have been a free vote. It certainly didn’t sound like one.
From this point things degenerated rapidly. The beleaguered Chair of the meeting, Cllr Taylor struggled to maintain order. He struggled beneath a mountain of points of order. Some points of order just kept coming back. The Council’s solicitor opined. The Council’s Monitoring Officer opined. Councillors tried to ignore both.
Councillors were still telling the Chair he was wrong as he called a vote on the amendment. It was an unenviable position to be in. There was point scoring. There was nit picking. There was a complete absence of intelligent debate.
As an amendment was called by, and seconded. The amendment suggested that rather than defer elections, the consultation on the unitary decision be deferred. So the Chair put it to a vote. Oddly (given events on Monday) the LibDems immediately cried foul, saying they wanted to debate the issue before it was voted on. Now the Chair, (pace Mark Antony) is an honourable man. So he ruled, but then to be on the safe side, ensured the council constitution was read out. It sounded as if his ruling was correct. The amendment was put to the vote and the LibDems lost.
Foul cried the LibDems again. We wanted to debate the issues! Again. Apparently still unaware that LibDem majority had done exactly the opposite on Monday in Mendip.
Now it was the turn of the Conservatives to put the original proposal to the vote. The one where Cllr Fothergill writes to the Secretary of State. By this time you could pretty much guarantee that Conservatives would all vote one way, LibDems would all vote the other. They could all protest about wanting to debate the issues. Everything we had seen and heard to that point suggested most councillors were incapable of debating issues. Point scoring yes. Debating serious points with each other, err no.
For the record the vote was passed as the Conservatives have a comfortable majority on the council. So again the LibDems cried foul. Again they protested that debate was being stifled. But this time the irony was double. Among the Conservatives voting for the proposal and hence stifling further debate, was one Philip Ham.