Local Government

Fairness for England – Thoughts on constitutional resettlement

britain england scotland

I am, I should start by saying, very pleased that Scotland chose to stay as part of the United Kingdom. I said very little during the referendum itself — though that was still too much for some of the Yes supporters — but I was sincerely and desperately hoping for a No vote. Less out of sentimentality reasons — though I don’t deny they were a factor — than of a very real fear of the consequences for the Scottish people.

But now, after the no vote, the flavour of the moment is devolution for England. Constitutionalism has never been so sexy!

I studied public law as part of my degree, so I’m not unfamiliar with the topics involved. And there is a democratic deficit in that England lacks the same level of devolution which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy. This has come sharply to the attention of many people, but most notably Conservative backbencher and right-wing figurehead John Redwood.

Mr Redwood thinks that England needs its own parliament. He thinks that this parliament should be the present Westminster parliament, without the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs. Unfortunately, there he is wrong.

Read on…

Red herons and a blue herring

mark flewitt red heron

Like a dog with a bone (or perhaps a bird with a fish) Southend Tory Mark Flewitt is still fuming over Cory Environmental having lost the waste collection contract on Southend.

Now, Julian Ware-Lane has already pointed out some of the rambling incoherence of his latest blog on the matter — an open letter to Cory — and some of the more ridiculous pieces of nonsense, so I don’t mean to dwell on that (despite there being a gold mine of amusement in that red heron bit).

More and more Mark is sounding like a conspiracy theorist, increasingly divorced from reality. He is so desperate to be the voice of the Conservative Party in Southend, that I have to assume he doesn’t even think through his opinions enough to notice the glaring contradictions.

Read on…

Is Southend to be ruled by non-doms?

southend civic centre

My good friend Julian Ware-Lane blogged last week that Southend’s Conservatives had selected their leader and deputy for when current leader Nigel Holdcroft steps down at the elections in May.

There aren’t any surprises therein — except that I haven’t seen anything yet on the matter from those few Conservative councillors who actively blog — with current deputy John Lamb to replace Holdcroft, and Southchurch Councillor Anne Holland as the new deputy.

The significance really depends on the state of affairs after May. If the Conservatives cling on to control — they won’t hold their majority, but depending on which way the wind blows the Independents or Lib Dems may prop up a Tory administration — then this will be the new leader and deputy of Southend Borough Council.

Which makes it all the more interesting that, as Julian pointed out, Cllr Holland doesn’t actually live in the Borough of Southend.

Read on…

An Open Letter to the People of Wargrave

Dear Wargrave residents,

Five months ago, I became one of your parish councillors. I confess, that I had little idea what Wargrave Parish Council did before then. I knew more than most, probably, knowing what the technical function of a parish council and having more than average familiarity with local government. But still, the day to day, meeting to meeting tasks. They were a mystery.

So what now? What about five months on?

Well, for starters, I know just how hard the councillors work. Unpaid, largely unappreciated, they do more than simply the two meetings a month. I can’t speak for other councils, but Wargrave sends a councillor to look at every planning application. We only give recommendations, which the Borough Council as the planning authority doesn’t always agree with us. But a great deal of professionalism goes into every decision.

In the last five months I have had a few notable personal highlights and achievements:

  • Every employee of the council is paid above the living wage. I was all set to make a stand on this at the budget meeting, but gratifyingly found I didn’t have to. Where government drifts towards, Wargrave boldly leads the way!
  • We have made a stand against further development in the flood plain. Every year the Thames floods, and yet there seems no end to the planning applications to concrete over yet more land, making the situation yet worse. Wokingham’s record on backing us up has been disappointingly poor, but we do what we can.
  • Hundreds of pounds of grants have already been distributed to worthy causes across the parish. Reading through the requests for grants I was shocked by just how many charities go about their work helping residents without a word of recognition. We might not be able to give much, but I am hugely glad to give what we can.

So in that light, I am extremely sad to be having to tender my resignation. Yes, as of tomorrow my time in Wargrave (six years) and indeed in Wokingham borough (seven) will be at an end as Ashleigh and I move to central Reading. I have already attended my last meeting and given my resignation to the council and its clerk.

This letter is for the residents who I have been representing.

It has been an honour to sit on your parish council. I have enjoyed the experience immensely, and it is a fantastic day to contribute to the community. There is now a vacancy on the council, and I would strongly urge any resident with the spare time to consider filling it. But above all, your councillors work very hard, and do a very good job. You are very well served by them.


Matthew S. Dent
Former councillor, West Ward
Wargrave Parish Council.

Parish Precept Pickle, Part Two

scheming eric pickles

Last week I blogged about how the vaunted Localism Act 2011 contains a worryingly little-known loophole which makes it apparently illegal for Parish Councillors to set an annual budget without signing a special dispensation first.

Only two days after that blog was published, Brandon Lewis — a Conservative junior minister in Eric Pickles’ Department of Communities and Local Government — wrote one of those lovely DCLG letters to everybody-and-nobody on the matter (thanks to Cllr Martin Petchey for the tip). Mr Lewis says:

…some council monitoring officers are informing their councillors that being a council tax payer is a disclosable pecuniary interest in any Budget debate. Councillors are then informed they would be committing a criminal offence if they speak or vote in that debate unless they obtain a formal dispensation.

Whilst my department does not issue legal advice, in our opinion, such dispensations are unnecessary. Council tax liability applies to the generality of the population; councillors have no unique position in that regard.

Being a council taxpayer or being eligible for a discount under the new local arrangements for council tax support are pecuniary interests, but are not disclosable pecuniary interests as specified in regulations. Therefore a councillor does not need to seek a dispensation in order to participate in discussions or vote on decisions in the council tax setting process or local arrangements for council tax support.

Which makes for very interesting reading. It’s nonsense, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Mr Lewis appears to be trying to paint omitting an exemption from the interest declaration rules for the setting of precepts as a deliberate act. It’s common sense, says Mr Lewis. All councillors will be paying council tax, so it’s obvious that this couldn’t prevent participation in a budget.

A nice thought, but it doesn’t really hold water. The previous code of conduct had explicitly contained an exemption. The new code, under the Localism Act, has no such exemption. The only legitimate conclusion — if one assumes that the government is halfway competent, and knows what it is doing with legislation — is that the exemption has been deliberately repealed because it is not intended to apply any longer.

It would have been refreshing had Mr Lewis admitted that the DCLG had made a mistake in the drafting. It would even have been passable — though nonsense in a different way — if he had explained it as an ideological move to do…something. But I’m afraid this is just hollow spin from a government which doesn’t have a clue what its doing.

Uncle Eric’s Parish Precept Pickle

scheming eric pickles

It’s that time of year again — all across the country, local authorities are setting their budgets for 2013/14. From the big county councils and unitary boroughs, right down to the tiniest of parish councils, and Wargrave is no exception.

Last week, I and the other councillors on Wargrave Parish council debated and discussed our own budget. Decisions were made on the rates charged for services like the youth centre, and spending on upkeep of areas within our remit. We also made a decision on the precept, the element of council tax set at parish level.

Now, Uncle Eric (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles) has already said that local authorities of city, borough and council level have to hold a referendum if they want to raise their council tax by more than 2% (a blog will be forthcoming in the near future on that, believe me). This doesn’t yet apply to parish level, but there are fears it will do  next year.

Anyway, in the course of setting the precept for the next financial year, an interesting problem has come to light in the drafting of the Localism Act.

Almost all parish councillors will live in the parish. Most will pay council tax in the parish. Some may even own property in the parish. Thus, they all have a personal and pecuniary interest in the level of the precept.

In the normal course of parish council business, if I have an interest in a matter under discussion (say, a planning application by my neighbour, which will potentially impact upon the value of my own house) I must declare it and leave the room for the duration that it is under discussion.

The old parish council code of conduct, under schedule 1, paragraph 10 of the Local Authorities (Model Code of Conduct) Order 2007, contained an exemption from the declaration rules in the case of setting the precept:

You do not have a prejudicial interest in any business of the authority where that business — … (c) relates to the functions of your authority in respect of— … (vi) setting council tax or a precept under the Local Government Finance Act 1992.”

However, that code of conduct was replaced under the Localism Act 2011. Now the provision dealing with declarations of interest is as follows:

(2) If the interest is not entered in the authority’s register, the member or co-opted member must disclose the interest to the meeting, but this is subject to section 32(3).

The member or co-opted member may not — (a) participate, or participate further, in any discussion of the matter at the meeting, or (b) participate in any vote, or further vote, taken on the matter at the meeting — but this is subject to section 33.

As you may notice, the exemption for setting precepts is gone. But it does mention s33 of the act, so what does that say?

(1) A relevant authority may, on a written request made to the proper officer of the authority by a member or co-opted member of the authority, grant a dispensation relieving the member or co-opted member from either or both of the restrictions in section 31(4) in cases described in the dispensation.

(2) A relevant authority may grant a dispensation under this section only if, after having had regard to all relevant circumstances, the authority — (a) considers that without the dispensation the number of persons prohibited by section 31(4) from participating in any particular business would be so great a proportion of the body transacting the business as to impede the transaction of the business…

So an exempting disposition can be granted, but it has to be done so specifically. Hence the Wargrave Parish Council clerk rushing around forms for us to sign so that we could decide the budget, last week. So when we approve the new budget tomorrow, it will be entirely legal — but how many parish budgets across the country won’t be?

Most people won’t have read the Localism Act, and won’t notice this change. Indeed, the lack of comment on it suggests that it might have escaped the notice of many who really ought to know.

To me it looks like either Uncle Eric has laid a cruel and unusual trap for parish councils, or he has no idea what effect his flagship piece of legislation has. Neither of which is encouraging…

Introducing Wargrave’s newest parish councillor

I’m a real glutton for punishment, apparently. Not only have I started a new job today, but I have also been co-opted onto Wargrave Parish Council, as a representative of the West Ward.

This isn’t going to get too much menti0n on this blog, I wouldn’t have thought. For one thing, politics doesn’t really come into parish matters — which revolve, for the most part, around parks and planning. But it does give an interesting perspective on local matters and living.

So there we go. After two unsuccessful elections bids, I am finally Councillor Dent! And farewell to my Monday evenings…

Wokingham libraries not to be sold off

A little piece of good news this weekend, courtesy of the folks over at Save Wokingham’s Libraries. They quote a press release (which I have seen, and can therefore vouch for, even if it’s not online for me to link to), which seems to indicate that Wokingham Borough Council have decided not to go ahead with the proposed privatisation of library services.

Which is excellent news, frankly. It was the libraries issue (primarily) which brought me into local politics a year and a bit ago, and it has been key to the two local election campaigns I’ve run. It would be churlish of me to claim that it was my efforts personally which have led to this change of heart, but I have no doubt that it is the tireless campaigning by the cross-party group Save Wokingham’s Libraries and also concerned local residents that we have to thank for this.

Cllr Pauline Jorgensen, executive member for common sense and disaster aversion (also, Internal Services), announcing the decision, said:

The council has been working with interested parties in a competitive dialogue process to see if there are ways that we can work with the private sector to improve the library service we offer. The result is that we haven’t been convinced there will be enough benefits for our library users to continue with the process. We also don’t want to take the risk the key objectives would not be achieved for our users.

Well done Pauline. I feel that this is the correct moment to point out that when she was appointed to the executive, I hailed it as a shot in the arm for sound politics and administration in Wokingham local government. And well done to the people of Wokingham Borough.

Now let’s hope for some headway on the bins next month.

A wokyrubbish update: obstinancy, but also progress

Before I went up to Manchester for the Labour Party conference, I attended a meeting with Councillor Angus Ross, who after the May elections took over responsibility for the new waste collection scheme. As meetings go, bin bags aren’t the most exciting of schemes, but after over six months of debating them it was refreshing to be able to discuss it frankly and openly with the man in charge.

There were good and bad points to the meeting, but I was reassured that the purposes behind the scheme are sound, even if I think the details are a little misguided. The fact is that cutting down on the amount of waste going to landfill is a noble aim, both for reasons of avoiding the incurrence of extra cost to the council and for the sake of preserving the environment.

Equally, I was surprised to find good answers to my questions on the sorely limited range of materials which are able to be recycled. The council wants to be able to track the materials they send to be recycled, in order — presumably — to make sure they actually are being recycled. If waste is sent abroad, then tracking it is impossible.

I’d like to see more recycling, but it looks like that’s going to take wholesale investment in recycling as an industry, something which will need to happen at national rather than local level — and with George Osborne squatting on the Treasury and the economy like an anti-green tumour, I think it’s safe to say that won’t be happening soon.

But Wokingham Borough Council could increase the range of materials collected. Glass, for example, and Tetra Paks, which are able to be taken to static sites, but a door collection would be a great boost to take-up.

On the subject of the much-maligned bags, there was acceptance that the bags aren’t fit for purpose, without actually saying that. In fact, I was specifically told that Veolia had been directed to look into a new model of bag. So there’s a partial victory.

But there’s still a partial (at least) obstinacy on the part of the council administration, to accept that mistakes were made. I can understand Cllr Ross’ point that the consultation would naturally bring out a lot more of those against the scheme than those signing it’s praises, but it still seems a stretch when Cllr Ross claims:

I haven’t seen the breakdown yet, but inevitably a number of people who respond will have concerns and issues rather than the vast majority who are happy.

I’m not sure a vast majority is happy with it, from my canvassing in the May elections. In fact, I think the vast majority are quite unhappy.

Still, if the problems are addressed, then this will all have been successful. The results of the consultation  as well as a recommendations for changes, will be presented to the executive next month. I’d very much like to see a change of bags come out of that meeting, but we shall see what results come back. I don’t want to over-egg the positive murmurs just yet.

Jobs for the Boys?

An evening at Shute End

Last night, I took a trip to an extraordinary meeting of the Oversight and Scrutiny Management Committee, at Wokingham Borough Council. I know it sounds like a fun day out for a local politics anorak — and being just such an anorak, it was a fascinating excursion!

A little background: the meeting was called to deal with the council executive’s decision to pay an extra £6,000 per year allowance to councillors chosen to serve as Non-Executive Directors of the new wholly-0wned companies that have been set up to manage certain council services. There are three of them: Optalis, to manage adult social care; Wokingham Enterprises Limited, to manage the fabled town centre regeneration; and Wokingham Housing Limited, to provide affordable houses.

Now, without wishing to go into too much detail on the companies themselves (though I have serious reservations about profiteering out of social care and vulnerable people who need a home), the issue was that the council had previously said these roles would not be paid, and the change had been sprung on councillors with zero notice. There was a very worrysome appearance of “jobs for the boys”.

The debate was fascinating. Particularly the cross-examination of council leader David Lee. He didn’t seem at all happy about being challenged in committee, but his position was that if you want the best people to fill these roles then you have to pay them. Which isn’t an altogether unreasonable stance, but it didn’t explain why local government officers (council employees) were paid no extra to perform the same functions, which were outside of their job.

One of my favourite exchanges, between Cllr Lee and Lib Dem leader Prue Bray, was as follow:

Cllr Bray: “Is it not true that the companies have indemnity insurance for directors?

Cllr Lee: “You can’t indemnify against criminality.

Cllr Bray: “Surely we wouldn’t want to pay councillors to commit criminal acts either?

Cllr Lee’s back was towards the public gallery, but I am told the expression on his face was priceless. I can quite imagine.

When it was put to a vote, the result was not a surprise. The committee, with a majority of Tory members, approved the decision of the executive. Beyond this, there was some discussion of the process used, and in future referring the amount to an independent remuneration committee.

So the result was as expected. But it was the body language and reaction of the Conservative councillors which was the more interesting part. For the most part, they were either scared or enraptured of Cllr Lee. There were a few, whose modesty to save I shall not name, who seemed deeply uncomfortable with the process and the idea of payment for such roles. Which I can understand — after all, if the Big Society is about people volunteering in the community, how does this gel with it.

But it is Cllr Ian Pittock whose response most intrigues me. Whilst his peers were either scared or eager for a pat on the head, he was not. He was the only Tory to vote against the council executive, and he actually challenged Cllr Lee. There was one remarkable part where, David Lee all but came out and threatened Cllr Pittock directly.

As we all left the committee room, at 10pm in the evening, someone commented to me that “He’ll be in the shit tomorrow!“. And he probably will. But the best part: he just doesn’t care.

I’m rather impressed.