By recent standards, the full meeting of Southend Borough Council last Thursday was a brief affair. It was done by around half ten, unlike previous occasions when it has gone on into the wee hours of the morning.
I didn’t attend myself, but thanks to the magic of technology I have been able to catch up via webcast on the thrilling debates around the current budget — perhaps the last full-year’s budget to be set for Southend by a Conservative administration. Though it might have been shorter, it was definitely not short on content of interest — and potential scandal.
Now, I don’t know what the truth of matters are. I have no idea if what Cllr Holdcroft alleged on the floor of the chamber is true, and I will cast no judgement on that. But it does present, in my view, some very serious issues which need addressing.
In the course of the debate, Conservative council leader Nigel Holdcroft went through a fairly impressive take-down of every councillor critical of his budget. No surprises there, this is politics after all. But when he comes to Independent Councillor Ron Woodley, he said something quite surprising:
“Councillor Woodley: “An extremely good budget, extremely clever budget, excellent, damage done in previous years”. I suppose that would include the year that he supported our budget because he bought a chair of scrutiny in exchange, but no doubt that was far more important than the best interests of the budget.“
Now that, to say the least, is an incendiary accusation.
To clarify, Cllr Holdcroft is alleging that Cllr Woodley — a vocal critic of the administration to say the least — voted for a previous Conservative budget in return for being granted the chairmanship of a scrutiny committee. And Cllr Woodley is indeed chair of the powerful Policy & Resources Scrutiny Committee (which carries an allowance of £6,302, on top of his “basic allowance” of £8,402)
Cllr Woodley, of course, strenuously denied this, and called for Cllr Holdcroft to apologise. Cllr Holdcroft did not.
This is very much he-said he-said. It’s also (unless I’m very much mistaken) not an accusation of Cllr Woodley having done anything illegal — though I am mindful that Cllr Woodley may have some sort of libel claim. What it is, however, is intensely damaging to Cllr Woodley’s reputation.
I’m no fan of the Independents, or Cllr Woodley’s shamelessly populist style. I could be persuaded, with evidence, that he would make such a trade. But I am very aware of the timing of Cllr Holdcroft’s allegation. We are mere months away from local elections from which the Conservatives are unlikely to emerge with a majority. Cllr Holdcroft is standing down, so there is little risk to him, but for his party there is a lot to gain from the discrediting of the Independents.
My good friend Julian Ware-Lane has already blogged about this, and it will be interesting to see whether the Conservative bloggers take it up. I haven’t, as yet, seen the Echo pick up the story, which is disappointing in many ways.
I don’t see this going away, and realistically I’m not sure it should. I see two possible truths in this. Either:
- Cllr Holdcroft’s allegation is true; he made an agreement to trade a scrutiny chairmanship in exchange for a vote for the budget. Both Ron Woodley and the Conservative administration are morally and principally bankrupt, and voters should trust neither of them.
- Cllr Holdcroft’s allegation is untrue; it is an attempt to discomfort Cllr Woodley and the Independents, and possibly skew the May elections in his party’s favour. Cllr Holdcroft’s administration have shown they will do anything to cling to power and thus are unworthy of the trust of Southend residents.
Either way, answers are needed. It is difficult to see an uncontroversial answer to this. I hope that this will be resolved, and not simply brushed under the carpet.