So, thought I’d write-up the Basildon Council Annual Meeting held on Thursday. These are normally quite civil, set-piece affairs, where we elect our Mayor and Deputy Mayor for the municipal year and also pass the winning party’s Order Paper, enabling them to form an Administration. The Order Paper confirms the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council, sets out the size and shape of the Cabinet and also confirms seats on the Council’s various committees.
Readers will be aware that the result of the 2015 Local Elections has still left Basildon Council in No Overall Control but, nonetheless, even in cases of a hung council like Basildon, the Annual Meeting is usually a formality. It has already been hashed out between the party’s group leaders whether a coalition will be formed, some other form of agreement, or one party takes control as a minority administration.
Last year, in 2014, the Conservative Party lost overall control but, as we remained the largest group on the Council, we retained a minority administration, albeit with a certain amount of influence given to the new UKIP opposition group to persuade them to vote for our Order Paper. Last time, they were given two seats at Cabinet (but without portfolios) and they were also given the chairmanship of the Audit & Risk Committee, as well as the position of Deputy Mayor. It is amazing how things change over the year. Relations between the Conservative and UKIP Groups over the period 2014-15 have not proved harmonious. Their two Cabinet Members without Portfolio consistently used their positions to grandstand at Cabinet meetings, making long, fiery speeches playing to the public gallery, and there have been numerous run-ins and disagreements between us and UKIP over the last year on issues where, we feel, they have sought to promote themselves at the expense of the best interests of the residents of the Borough. Relations seem to have soured particularly since Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge (UKIP, Langdon Hills) took over as UKIP Group Leader following the ignominious fall of her predecessor, Cllr Kerry Smith (Ind, Nethermayne), following a well-publicised scandal. Her relationship with our Leader, Cllr Phil Turner (Con, Billericay West) is now what you might call ‘somewhat tense’. It is partly with that backdrop that the new Order Paper proposed to continue the minority Conservative Administration on Basildon Council but without any special positions being offered to the UKIP Group.
The meeting was opened by the then Deputy Mayor, former UKIP councillor Nigel Le Gresley, acting for the Mayor, former Tory councillor Mo Larkin, who was unable to attend. Mrs Larkin retired at the elections after more than five years as Mayor and Cllr Le Gresley lost his Wickford Castledon seat (he remains an Essex County councillor for the Wickford Crouch division). The Conservative Group nominated newly re-elected Cllr Don Morris (Con, Wickford Castledon). Meanwhile, the UKIP Group nominated their own candidate, Cllr David Harrison (UKIP, Wickford Park). There were no other nominations from Labour or any of the other groups. When the matter was put to a vote, Cllr Morris was elected and received the chain of office from Cllr Le Gresley.
I was very pleased to see Don “The Duke” Morris elected as the second Mayor of Basildon Borough Council. Don is a big figure and has been a stalwart of the Conservative Party locally for many years and I am sure he will do a great job. Congratulations, I suppose, must also go to Cllr Carole Morris (Con, Wickford North), who is, technically, our first ‘Mayoress of Basildon’.
Following the successful election of Mayor Morris, the meeting then moved to elect a Deputy Mayor and, on this occasion, Cllr Danny Lawrence (Con, Billericay West) was elected unopposed. Or, rather, that should be re-elected, as Cllr Lawrence served a term as Deputy Mayor in the municipal year 2013-14. During that time, he proved a very able deputy to Mayor Larkin and represented the Borough at more than sixty events. His background is in community radio and he was awarded the British Empire Medal in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List by Her Majesty the Queen, receiving the award from the Lord-Lieutenant of Essex, Lord Petre, at Ingatestone Hall last year.
Cllr Lawrence received his deputy mayoral neck decoration from Cllr Le Gresley (who, we have discovered, changed the ribbon from its original blue colour to purple!). It must have been a difficult meeting for Cllr Le Gresley to preside over, having lost his own seat three weeks earlier, and I must say that he did so with considerable dignity, particularly in handing over the mayoral chain to Cllr Morris – who was, of course, the person who unseated him at the election! Before he left the chamber, Cllr Harrison pointed out, quite rightly, that some words of thanks should be offered and the new Mayor responded by formally thanking Cllr Le Gresley for all that he did over the past two years both as a borough councillor for Wickford Castledon and latterly as Deputy Mayor. I personally always found Cllr Le Gresley affable and easy to get on with. This is of course, perhaps, because we share the pain of having surnames none of our colleagues can pronounce properly. Just as I am now universally known as ‘Councillor Shraeder’ (it should be pronounced ‘Sh-RAH-der’), he has always been known as ‘Councillor Grizley’ (his name is pronounced ‘Le Gray-lee’).
We had been a bit concerned about the votes at the meeting but we needn’t have been. When we came to Apologies for Absence, it transpired that one of the UKIP councillors – Cllr Stephen Ward (UKIP, Pitsea South-East) was absent and no less than three Labour councillors – Cllr Melissa McGeorge (Lab, Vange), Cllr Aidan McGurran (Lab, Pitsea South-East) and Cllr Byron Taylor (Lab, Vange). The absence of Cllr McGeorge was particularly surprising, as this would have been her first ever Basildon Council meeting. The absence of her ward colleague, Cllr Taylor, meant that Vange ward went entirely unrepresented and the absence of Cllr McGurran meant that our new colleague, Cllr Amanda Arnold (Con, Pitsea South-East), was the only councillor representing the residents of Pitsea South-East. It also meant that it was going to be very difficult for the opposition parties to out-vote us on anything that evening. The Conservative Group, I am proud to say, had full attendance.
We were mere seconds into the formal moving of the Order Paper when Cllr Allport-Hodge raised a Point of Order. This is becoming something of a habit with Cllr Allport-Hodge but she had obviously prepared for this one, as she had taken the time to look up the correct reference to the Council Constitution (something she doesn’t normally bother to do). She then launched into a lengthy chapter and verse, alleging that the political proportionality on the committees was ‘illegal’. This was all a little bizarre, as the UKIP Group, like all the opposition parties, had been in possession of the document for about a week. So there had been plenty of opportunities for Cllr Allport-Hodge to raise these matters with Cllr Turner or with officers prior to the Annual Meeting. It seemed pretty clear to all present that she had deliberately held this back so as to scupper the meeting, grandstand and make a show for the gallery.
The matter all seemed to hinge on the decision by Cllr Turner to appoint Cllr Phil Rackley (Ind Lab, St Martin’s) to the Planning Committee. Cllr Rackley is an ‘Independent Labour’ councillor, who defected from the Labour Group some years ago and now sits as a single independent councillor unattached to a group (he was technically part of a ‘group’ until May, when his wife and fellow Independent Labour councillor, Pat Rackley, lost her seat). He has since applied to become a Green Party councillor but, as things stood, was not automatically entitled to any seats on committees under the proportionality system. Nor is Cllr Geoff Williams (Lib Dem, Nethermayne), our lone Liberal Democrat councillor. Nevertheless, Cllr Turner has always offered the single councillors seats. Cllr Rackley has long lobbied to go on the Planning Committee. Cllr Williams is the longest-serving councillor on Basildon Council and has recently announced he will not be standing for re-election next year and requested not to sit on any committees. For that reason, Cllr Rackley was offered a seat on both Planning and Overview & Scrutiny.
Cllr Allport-Hodge kept the meeting suspended for over an hour and half while group leaders and officers, including the Chief Executive, Bala Mahendran, tried to resolve matters. I was not privy to these meetings but I am told that she was extremely rude and aggressive towards Mr Mahendran and so infuriated the normally mild-mannered Cllr Williams, that he became incredibly annoyed. Much to everyone’s astonishment, he and Cllr Rackley actually agreed to form a Group! They now sit as the ‘Liberal Democrat & Green Group’! It was quite a bizarre turn of events and when everyone returned to the chamber, Cllr Allport-Hodge had a face like thunder (and had quite an aggressive encounter with Cllr Williams). This overcame one of the objections of the UKIP Group but, nevertheless, the Mayor and the Chief Exec gave an undertaking that the matters Cllr Allport-Hodge had raised would be looked into and a report made to the next meeting of Full Council in six weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, the proposal was that we would continue to vote on the Order Paper before us and the Chief Exec, having consulted the Council Solicitor, made clear that this was perfectly legal and that any decisions made by Council or its committees in the intervening period would be lawful and those bodies legally constituted. At this, the UKIP Group walked out of the meeting in what was, frankly, a shocking show of bravado.
All UKIP councillors left the meeting, bar one – Cllr Harrison. All credit to him for having the guts to distance himself from his churlish Group Leader (not for the first time) and stay behind to actually represent his residents. This action won him the respect of every other councillor in the room, across parties. I must say, I was very impressed.
Once the ‘Kippers had departed, we actually had a reasonably civil debate. The new Labour Group Leader, Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West), who is not my favourite person, actually made a reasonably decent speech – his first in his capacity as Leader of the Labour Group in succession to Cllr Taylor – making it clear that he and his Group had their reservations about the Order Paper but pretty much agreeing that the UKIP position was ludicrous and their behaviour in the meeting deplorable. The Leader of the Independence Group, Cllr Smith, pointed out that the UKIP Group hadn’t raised any similar concerns last year, when they were treated preferentially with committee chairmanships and seats at Cabinet. Cllr Williams, as Leader of the Liberal Democrat & Green Group, confirmed that his Group would be supporting the Order Paper. After this good-natured exchange, the matter was put to the vote, with the Labour Group abstaining and the Order Paper was passed.
Nothing too ground-breaking in it, to be honest: like David Cameron, Phil Turner does not like to move his people around too much. Having previously been re-elected as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group respectively, Cllrs Turner and Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead) were re-appointed Leader and Deputy Leader of Basildon Council. Cllr Blake also retains his Leisure & Arts portfolio. Cllr Stuart Sullivan (Con, Billericay East) remains as Cabinet Member for Resourcing (essentially the ‘Chancellor’ of the Borough), Cllr Tony Hedley (Con, Billericay West) remains as Cabinet Member for Housing & Community Safety, Cllr Terri Sargent (Con, Crouch) remains Cabinet Member for Environment & Community and Cllr Richard Moore (Con, Burstead) remains Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Planning. The only new addition to the Cabinet is my ward colleague, Cllr David Dadds (Con, Billericay East), who joins the Cabinet in the newly-created position of Cabinet Member for Policy Overview & Organisational Delivery, with special responsibility for partnership working, performance management and compliance with the Council’s corporate plan.
Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead) replaced Cllr Dadds as Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission, with Cllr Andrew Barnes (Con, Laindon Park) replacing former councillor Jilly Hyde as Vice-Chairman. Cllr Smith retains his position as Chairman of the Audit & Risk Committee, with Cllr Chris Jackman (Con, Wickford Park) replacing Cllr Peter Holliman (UKIP, Wickford North) as Vice-Chairman. Cllrs Turner and Blake remain as Chairman and Vice-Chairman respectively of the Employment & General Purposes Committee, as these are usually held by the Leader and Deputy Leader ex-officio. Cllr Carole Morris and myself remain as Chairman and Vice-Chairman respectively of the Planning Committee and, likewise, Cllr Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills) and Cllr Michael Mowe (Con, Wickford North) remain in their respective posts on the Licensing Committee. Cllr Stuart Allen (Con, Crouch) remains Chairman of the much-reduced Joint Standards Committee.
In addition to the above, I was also pleased to be re-appointed as the official Borough representative on the board on the Basildon Borough Citizens’ Advice Bureau.
Full details can be found on the Council website.