As I come to write up last Thursday’s meeting of Full Council, I would just ask readers to bear with me, as this was a mammoth SEVEN-HOUR meeting that went on until two o’clock in the morning.
The meeting started at 7pm, earlier than usual, with a special Extraordinary Meeting to consider two nominations for Honorary Alderman of the Borough. I, on behalf of the Conservative Group, had nominated our former Mayor, Mo Larkin, and Cllr Alan Bennett (Lab, Lee Chapel North), on behalf of the Labour Group, had nominated former Labour Leader Nigel Smith. This passed off without a hitch and both nominations were unanimously approved and I paid fulsome tribute to Mo Larkin, as you would expect. Somewhat to my surprise, nobody from the Labour side rose to speak about Nigel Smith, not even his nominator and successor in Lee Chapel North, Councillor Bennett. I must say, I found that a little odd but, all the same, the nominations were confirmed. Mrs Larkin and Mr Smith will be formally invested at a special ceremony. I was extremely gratified to see Mo in the Public Gallery with former Leader of the Council Tony Ball – the first time Tony has been inside the chamber, I think, since he lost his seat in May 2014. Mr Smith and his wife, Baroness Smith of Basildon, were not present.
With that matter out of the way, we proceeded with the ordinary meeting of Full Council, which we knew was going to be pretty contentious. The item causing the most feverish anticipation was item 11(b), a motion from Cllr Geoff Williams (LD, Nethermayne) to remove Cllr Carole Morris (Con, Wickford North) as Chairman of the Planning Committee. This matter loomed large over the meeting and came about as a consequence of a decision Councillor Morris took a few weeks ago to pass a reserved matters application relating to the contentious Dry Street development in Councillor Williams’ Nethermayne ward using delegated powers (in other words, without bringing it to committee).
This was a controversial decision but I think it was the right one. Planning permission for the Dry Street development was granted back in 2013 and the reserved matters application that Councillor Morris signed off merely dealt with the layout, landscaping and other matters. It did not concern the principle of the development, nor did it present any opportunity to revisit the principle of the development or reverse the decision that was taken two years ago. Given that a large number of members of the public wrote to Planning Department about the application, all of them concerning the principle rather than the reserved matters, and that certain members of the Committee – most notably Cllr Kerry Smith (Ind, Nethermayne), have made clear their continued opposition to Dry Street and would doubtless have used to opportunity to refuse consent to the reserved matters, it was sensible not to take it to committee and instead to sign it off under delegated powers.
It would not, to my mind, have been at all sensible to subject the application to a meeting held in public, which a large number of members of the public would have attended with an expectation that they would be allowed to speak out against the principle of the development when, in fact, they would not have been allowed to do so. Also, had Opposition councillors tried to use the opportunity to vote down the application – because they opposed planning permission being given in the first place – they would have left the Council wide open to costly legal challenge, maybe even a judicial review, at the hands of the developers, who would have had strong grounds to dispute the Council’s handling of the application. Indeed, as Cllr Stuart Allen (Con, Crouch) pointed out during the debate on the motion, it could even have put the whole scheme in jeopardy. That would, I dare say, be music to the ears of some, but as many readers will be aware, the Dry Street development is inextricably tied in with the Administration’s regeneration plans for Basildon and with the construction of the new college in the Town Centre. Scuppering Dry Street would not only scupper Basildon’s regeneration and squash multi-million pound investment in the town; the litigation that would follow could also bankrupt the Council! This may sound like hyperbole but the Chief Executive said as much when he warned members of the UKIP Group, including their then leader, Councillor Smith, that they should not be promising their electorate that they can stop Dry Street, because they cannot and, even if they did, the financial consequences to the Council would be enormous. But UKIP did promise the electorate that they would stop Dry Street. They have been unable to do so and that is why we are where we are today – with Basildon’s lone Lib Dem councillor, Geoff Williams, acting as a useful pawn through which to vent their frustration. More on that later.
The meeting had a packed agenda and we knew early on that it would be a long night, as quite early into proceedings there was a vote to suspend the guillotine (the compulsory time at which the meeting would have to end), so we knew that whatever happened we would be going through the whole agenda, including Councillor Williams’ motion. The first item of business, however, was Public Question Time, which always proves lively and this time was no exception. There were two questions from Mr Danny Lovey, a member of the Basildon Green Action Group, with two vituperative questions aimed at Councillor Morris (as Chairman of the Planning Committee), both, predictably, concerning the Dry Street application. I have to say, I know Danny well and was disappointed to see him publicly attacking Carole in the way that he did but, despite this, she acquitted herself in a most comprehensive and dignified manner.
The main crux of Mr Lovey’s point was that he was denied an opportunity to look at the plans and express his views but, as he wrote to Councillor Morris about this matter, he clearly had seen the plans and expressed his view to her. Moreover, Mr Lovey is himself a former councillor, well versed in the intricacies of the planning process, but he must surely be sensible enough to realise that the vast majority of ordinary people, who are not ex-councillors like him, simply do not have that grasp of the system and would expect to be able to discuss the principle of the development. Mr Lovey’s questions were then followed by two questions to the Cllr Richard Moore (Con, Burstead), Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Planning, on the subject of the Local Plan, from the ubiquitous Mr Roland Lazarus, who is now a regular fixture at these events. We then moved to Member Question Time, of which there were nine but, as this section of the agenda is time-limited, we only got through four. The Labour Group Leader, Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea South-East) asking the Leader of the Council, Cllr Phil Turner (Con, Billericay West) a question about housing refugees; Cllr Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills), a member of the Planning Committee, asked Councillor Morris to explain the difference between grants of permission and reserved matters (can’t imagine what prompted that); UKIP Group Leader Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge (U, Langdon Hills) asked Councillor Turner some turgid question about council meetings; and the new ‘Wickford UKIP’ Leader, Cllr Peter Holliman (WU, Wickford North) asked Councillor Turner a question about the Chief Executive’s foreign trips.
The second item on the agenda was the 2016-20 Corporate Plan, which you might have thought would not be particularly contentious, as it is essentially just a corporate mission statement for the Council, but, no, along with all the usual pooh-poohing and talking down of the Borough by the Labour Group – especially by Cllr Aidan McGurran (Lab, Pitsea South-East), who seems to have a terminal downer on the town he represents – and all the usual scaremongering about the new Pitsea Morrison’s, the Corporate Plan was also subjected to what would be the first of many attempted wrecking amendments from UKIP. It should be stressed, in Councillor Allport-Hodge’s defence, that I think these are tabled more out of her very profound ignorance of the way the Council works, and also her compulsion (it is almost akin to a nervous tick) to grandstand and try to grab headlines, than from any intentional desire to disrupt proceedings. She tabled a longwinded amendment, essentially seeking to insert a series of ‘green’ measures into Corporate Plan. This met with considerably annoyance from Councillor Turner, as Councillor Allport-Hodge and the UKIP Group had every opportunity to come and speak to him about the Corporate Plan. The Corporate Plan had gone through scrutiny by the Overview & Scrutiny Commission, been considered by Cabinet and was now being presented to Full Council for approval. At any point during the scrutiny process, Councillor Allport-Hodge or one of her colleagues could have raised these issues. In any case, as was pointed out during the debate by Cllr Chris Jackman (Con, Wickford Park), the issues outlined in Councillor Allport-Hodge’s amendment are already dealt with in other policy documents.
In the end, to settle the matter beyond question, Councillor Turner pledged that our group would abstain on the UKIP amendment and we would, in effect, let the Opposition groups decide what to do with it. In the event, the amendment was defeated and we returned to debating the substantive motion. I made a speech on the Corporate Plan and will post a link to it when the audio-recording is uploaded onto the Council website but the crux of my remarks were that, while the economy is recovering under George Osborne’s stewardship, the future of local government finance is that we are all going to have to learn to do more with less for the foreseeable future. We cannot return to the bad old days of unrestrained public spending (though, by refusing to support the Fiscal Charter at the eleventh hour, that is clearly Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda), so councils will increasingly need to look to commissioning services rather than trying to provide them all themselves. I made a plea to the Leader to take a personal interest in the procurement process and ensure that we are not always seduced by smooth sales pitches of the big corporate giants and that we also give our local SMEs and voluntary sector organisations a look in and, also, where we do use the corporates, we ensure we are getting a commitment from them to create apprenticeships for local young people. I was gratified to observe the Leader nodding along with this enthusiastically.
We then moved on to the reallocation of committee seats. This item was occasioned by the recent split within the UKIP Group (see my blog of 16th July), with the three Wickford UKIP councillors peeling off to form their own group called, imaginatively, ‘Wickford UKIP’ (or ‘Wookip’, as I am trying to get everyone to call them). This whole episode has been a masterclass in cynicism, as it followed on from their threats of litigation at a previous meeting because they objected to an extra seat on the Planning Committee being given to Cllr Phil Rackley (Green, St Martin’s) when they felt it should have gone to them. They ended up storming out of that meeting in a huff when they did not get their way – honourable hat-tip to Cllr David Harrison (WU, Wickford Park), who stayed behind. Of course, I am not a complete cynic. I am sure they have not contrived this split purely to try and eek out an extra seat on Planning. I am sure it is, at least in part, genuinely because they cannot stand one another. But it is an eccentric state of affairs, to say the least, given that they have been so keen to profess that they are all still one, big, happy UKIP family. The Wickford ‘Kippers (or ‘Wookies’, as I’ve nicknamed them) have their own leader and deputy leader but they still share a single Group Room with the Basildon ‘Kippers and it seems pretty clear that Councillor Holliman is little more than a powerless cipher, taking his marching orders from Councillor Allport-Hodge. So it is difficult to see this concocted charade as anything more than a poor effort to gerrymander the committee seats. This suspicion was confirmed when Councillor Allport-Hodge tabled the second of that evening’s mischievous amendments. Though this time, she had help.
The crux of the Administration proposals was to increase the size of the Planning Committee from ten to twelve, to give the Wookies a seat but keep a member of both the Lib Dem & Green Group and the Independence from EU Group on the Committee because we feel it is important that ALL groups are represented on Planning, even though groups of only two and single members are not automatically entitled to representation under the proportional allocations system. The irony of all this is that it was all effectively because the Administration was trying to give Councillor Rackley a seat on Planning because – and I am quoting our Deputy Leader here – “Phil Rackley has always played a pretty straight bat with us”. You can imagine our surprise then when Councillor Allport-Hodge’s amendment was supported by none other than Councillor Rackley. Their amendment sought to leave the Planning Committee at ten but strip the Independence Group of their seat (currently occupied by Councillor Smith) and explicitly sought to replace Councillor Morris with Labour’s Councillor Bennett. This latter proposal made it clear that the amendment had been drawn up with the connivance of Councillor Callaghan.
We thought we were snookered. It seemed pretty clear that UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dem & Green Groups had all been plotting this little coup for some weeks. We knew that the Independence Group would vote against (because it would cost Councillor Smith his seat on Planning) but between them the other groups would out-vote us by just one vote. An adjournment was called as the Group Leaders went into a meeting with the Chief Executive and senior officers and the rest of us went into one of the meeting rooms to discuss. Fair to say there was a considerable amount of anger directed by members of the Conservative Group against the Opposition parties, especially Councillor Rackley, who only had a seat on Planning in the first place because of us. We were pretty resigned to defeat when we went back into the chamber. We were saved, in the end, by the much-vaunted UKIP lack of whipping, which meant that the UKIP and WUKIP Group leaders clearly had not discussed the amendment with the rest of their groups because Councillor Harrison, who has a history of not towing the line with the rest of his group, expressed his dismay that he and his fellow ‘Kippers and Wookies (my phraseology, not his) were being asked to support a Labour chairman of Planning. To our astonishment and relief, he voted down the amendment.
The razor-ship reflexes of m’learned ward colleague Cllr David Dadds (Con, Billericay East) then kicked in and he immediately leaped to his feet, tearing the back page off of the amendment and, altering the graph ever so slightly, tabled an amendment of his own – to keep the Planning Committee at ten but remove the Lib Dem & Green seat and retain the Independence from EU seat. I could see what Councillor Dadds was driving at, so I quickly jumped up to second it and, with the votes of the Independence Group, and Councillor Harrison again, it was passed. An object lesson for Councillor Rackley in not biting the hand that feeds you! It also retained Councillor Morris as the chairman, for the time being. Our bacon was really saved, however, by Cllr Trevor Malsbury (U, Lee Chapel North), who was not present. Had he been there, and voted with his Group, we would have lost.
There then followed a rather bizarre display, whereby Councillor Harrison tried to move an amendment that would have swapped Councillor Morris for Cllr Alan Ball (WU, Wickford Castledon) rather than Councillor Bennett. This was met with shrieks of indignation from Councillor Allport-Hodge and Councillor Ball himself looked pretty bewildered. For a while, it looked like nobody would second him, as neither of his WUKIP party colleagues seemed inclined to do so and Councillor Allport-Hodge was too busy screeching at him to go and sit with us. In the end, our Deputy Leader, Cllr Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead), agreed to second it “in the interests of democracy”, whilst making it clear that our Group would not be supporting it. The amendment was defeated when put to the vote, as only Councillors Harrison and Rackley voted for it. Councillor Ball did not.
By this time, it was nearly midnight. We drifted through Items 9 and 10, respectively on a report from the Basildon Community Safety Partnership, which was deferred, and the Treasury Management Annual Report for 2014/15 and then we moved on to Item 11, Notices of Motion. Item 11(a) was some verbose drivel moved by Councillor Allport-Hodge concerning the Town Centre Master Plan and the Local Plan. The effect of the motion would have been to massively put back the whole process of getting a Local Plan adopted, ultimately running the very real risk that the Government would intervene and impose a plan upon the Borough. This is, sadly, typical of UKIP’s short-sighted and ill-thought through political naïveté. Fortunately, Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead), ever the astute proceduralist, was on hand to point out that the motion was seeking to amend the Council’s Constitution and, under the terms of the Constitution, any such changes must first be referred to the Monitoring Officer and then to Cabinet. After a bit of argy-bargy with the officers, they were eventually forced to concede that Councillor Baggott was indeed technically correct and the motion was struck down.
That then took us to the moment we had been dreading, Item 11(b), the motion by Councillor Williams to remove Councillor Morris as Chairman of Planning and also to require all future reserved matters applications for more than ten properties to automatically come before the Committee. As this second part also required a constitutional change, Councillor Baggott again challenged the constitutionality of the motion. The Mayor struck out the second part of the motion but the first part, removing Councillor Morris, remained and we moved on to the debate, and a pretty unedifying spectacle it was too, with a succession of speakers proclaiming that the motion was purely about the reserved matters application and had nothing to do with the principle of the Dry Street development and was nothing personal against Councillor Morris. Each one who spoke, of course, made it absolutely obvious that it was everything to do with the principle of the Dry Street development. It was also a little hard to see how removing Councillor Morris from office was ‘nothing personal’, particularly in view of the fact that the original 2013 permission was passed by Committee and she acted entirely within her remit on the reserved matters.
There is an old English proverb that says “Beware of an old man in a hurry” and this whole motion smacked of Councillor Williams’ frustrations. He is up for re-election next year and, having retired to Cornwall, has let it be known he will not be standing. Before he moved, he and his wife – former Nethermayne councillor Linda Williams – lived in a picturesque cottage on Dry Street and had always bitterly opposed the development of Dry Street Pastures. But they ultimately failed to prevent it being given permission and, in this motion, we see clearly what Councillor Baggott called, very aptly, “the politics of spite”. I understand and appreciate the frustrations people feel. When I stood as a candidate in Nethermayne in 2012, I opposed Dry Street. Nethermayne Conservatives have long taken an opposing view on that development (with the knowledge and acquiescence of the Administration, who appreciate the strength of feeling in Nethermayne ward). John Schofield, our then county councillor for Westley Heights, was a prominent critic of the Dry Street plans. But, like it or not (and I appreciate many people don’t like it), that battle was lost in 2013. Even if Councillor Morris had brought the reserved matters to committee, it would not have presented an opportunity to revisit the planning permission or reverse it. So this was all really just petty vindictiveness.
To add insult to this injury, mid-way through the debate, Councillor Harrison moved that the question be put (a procedural device that allows a vote on whether or not to curtail the debate and put the motion to a vote) and, shamefully, even though Councillor Morris, the subject of the motion at hand, had not yet had an opportunity to speak in her own defence, Opposition councillors supported Councillor Harrison’s proposal and the question was put and duly passed, thus removing Councillor Morris as Chairman of the Planning Committee – which must be the first time a person has been removed from office for following the letter of the law! It was perverse and utterly unjust.
Whether or not you agreed with Councillor Morris’ actions, however, it was surely an outrage against common decency to force a vote to remove someone from office without giving the subject of the motion a right of reply. Councillor Morris, at the very least, even if nobody else was allowed to speak there on in, should have been permitted to respond to the motion. The Mayor attempted to call her but he was shouted down by Opposition members and he had to allow the vote to proceed without her having her say – the Mayor looked pretty crestfallen, not least because he is her husband.
The meeting finally finished a little before 2am and I headed home feeling pretty dejected and disgusted. To say that Basildon Council did not exactly cover itself in glory on Thursday night is an understatement. I have rarely witnessed a more calamitous affront to decency.