As usual, I must apologise for the length of time it has taken me to write up the Annual Meeting of Basildon Council, which took place on Thursday 26th May, just over a week ago. It does sometimes take me a while to find the time to sit down and put pen to paper (or, rather, tap it all out on my laptop) but I think it is important that residents get my perspective on what takes place at these meetings and hopefully people gain some insight into what is going on.
As it turned out, this was a hugely momentous meeting, being the first of the new municipal year following the recent Local Elections. Those who read my last blog will recall those elections resulted in the Conservative and Labour breaking even on 18 and 9 seats respectively and UKIP gained three, bringing their total up to 10 and overtaking Labour as the main Opposition group. In addition, we have 3 Wickford Independents and 2 ‘Independence from Europe’ (these latter two groups both being breakaways from UKIP). That blog ended with a note about the Tories’ AGM, which was held on Monday 9th May. Cllrs Phil Turner (Con, Billericay West) and Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead) were re-elected Leader and Deputy Leader of the Group unopposed. Yours truly, incidentally, was elected Deputy Chairman of the Group at that meeting. We also agreed that Cllr Don Morris (Con, Wickford Castledon) would go forward as our nominee for Mayor but, subsequent to that meeting, Don told Group he had come to a view that, unless absolutely unavoidable, the Mayor should change each year. His predecessor, Alderman Mo Larkin, did the job for five years running and he felt we should try to establish a precedent. It was subsequently decided that Cllr Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills) would go forward as our mayoral candidate.
Before I even get to what actually happened at the meeting, it goes without saying the machinations began behind the scenes long before. With Councillor Turner at the helm, the Tories went about the business of trying to secure a continuation of our minority administration, which has governed the Borough since 2014. The Tories have been in power since 2003 but governing a hung council is a very different order of business. For starters, getting an Order Paper passed (ie, actually forming an administration) without a majority requires either a formal coalition with one or more opposition parties to gain an overall majority or forming a minority administration with what is called a ‘Confidence and Supply Agreement’. This means you strike an agreement with the Opposition to pass your budget and support you in any vote of no confidence but all other policy areas are up for grabs. Basildon Tories have always opposed formal coalitions but have done confidence and supply in the past. That is essentially the agreement we struck with UKIP in 2014 (also giving them the Deputy Mayor and two seats in Cabinet without portfolio) and, after the Local Elections in 2015, we came to a similar accommodation with the Wickford Independents and the Independence from EU Group. This enabled the Tories to provide Basildon with consistent governance and prudent financial management.
It became evident early on that something was afoot. We heard rumours the UKIP and Labour leaders, Cllrs Linda Allport-Hodge (UKIP, Langdon Hills) and Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West), were plotting a deal to carve up the chairmanships of committees and the mayoralty amongst themselves, leaving us only with the Cabinet. Voting as one block, UKIP and Labour have 19 votes to our 18. We were reasonably confident we could command the support of the two Independence members, as their demands are reasonable. For the last two years, we have allowed Cllr Kerry Smith (IE, Nethermayne) to chair the Audit & Risk Committee and afforded him a seat on Planning. That would take our vote up to 20, so it would all rest on the three Wickford Independents and which side they fell on.
To be frank, the demands of the Wickford Independents (or the ‘Wookies’, as I call them) were outrageous. Their leader, Cllr David Harrison (WI, Wickford Park), demanded the mayoralty, the chairmanship of both Planning and Licensing, seats in Cabinet, you name it. It was an old-fashioned shakedown from a group of just three, who only fielded a candidate in one ward at the elections and lost that. But this is the problem with hung councils (and hung parliaments); they give wholly disproportionate influence to fringe parties. To be honest, the earliest source of the rumoured UKIP-Lab alliance was Councillor Harrison and I initially suspected he was feeding us scare stories to try and bolster his bargaining position. It was incomprehensible to me UKIP and Labour could do a deal with one another, when they spent most of last year voting against one another and heckling each other across the chamber. What would UKIP voters make of a deal being done with socialists? Even more so, how would Councillor Callaghan explain to his voters, particularly the Momentum crowd and all those £3 Corbynistas that have now infiltrated his party, that he had given the ‘Kippers – people he and his group have spent the last two years denouncing as ‘fascists’ – a foothold on power. I was not buying it. It came as a total shock then when the Leader came to a Group Meeting and informed us talks with the Opposition had proved futile and the UKIP-Lab coalition (what was quickly dubbed “The Unholy Alliance”) was a reality. This was made clear when Councillor Callaghan published a letter in the local press clearly stating – with breathless arrogance – his intention to seize control of the committees with UKIP. It also became apparent they had bought off the Wookies, with Councillor Harrison going in as Mayor. That took their vote to twenty-two to our twenty. So, it is safe to say, we went into the Annual Meeting with a degree of resignation.
The meeting started with Mayor Morris welcoming back all the returned and new members. The UKIP Group were a man down – astonishingly, Cllr Jose Carrion (U, Pitsea South-East) was absent for his first meeting as an elected councillor. Maddeningly, even though they were a man down, they still had the numbers and we knew the Unholy Alliance would outvote us, by a single vote, all evening. Mayor Morris announced he had raised around £4,000 during his mayoral year and then very graciously confirmed his decision not to seek a further term in office and called for nominations. As expected, Cllr Peter Holliman (WI, Wickford North) nominated Councillor Harrison, seconded by Councillor Callaghan – the first confirmation of the deal between the Wookies and the Unholy Alliance. Councillor Blake nominated Councillor Hillier, seconded by Cllr Chris Jackman (Con, Wickford Park), but the Unholy Alliance with their single vote majority installed Councillor Harrison and Mayor Morris handed over the chain of office and returned to the backbenches with a round of applause. Mayor Harrison begins his mayoral year, ironically, almost thirty years to the day after he became Chairman of the former Basildon District Council, back when he was a Labour councillor.
We were joined on the backbenches shortly thereafter by our outgoing Deputy Mayor, Cllr Danny Lawrence (Con, Billericay West). We initially voted at Group to resubmit him as DM but he had said before the meeting if it was clear we were not going to win he would just as soon not be put forward and let the new DM, whomever that may be, go in unopposed. Councillor Allport-Hodge nominated Cllr Stephen Ward (U, Pitsea South-East), seconded by Cllr Frank Ferguson (U, Lee Chapel North). I have to say, Councillor Allport-Hodge really is a frightful windbag. The established custom in these things is that you simply stand up, give your nomination, and sit back down but, no, she spent several minutes extolling Councillor Ward’s virtues, wholly unnecessarily. Councillor Ward has a military background and served in the police and is clearly a fairly decent chap but you get the feeling Councillor Allport-Hodge just likes the sound of her own voice (she’s the only one who does!). Anyway, Councillor Ward was duly elected Deputy Mayor and the mayoralty was officially lost to the Tories for the first time since the inception of that office in 2010. At least it might stop Councillor Ward turning up to Full Council meetings in jeans and a T-shirt!
We then rattled through the Minutes and a number of announcements, including a minute’s silence in honour of the late Bill Archibald, a Labour Essex County Councillor for Laindon Park & Fryerns and previously a long-serving Basildon borough councillor. He served as Chairman of ECC in 1996 and was twice Chairman of Basildon District Council in the 1970s. When I was first elected to BBC in 2013, Mr Archibald was still a Labour councillor for Fryerns but lost his seat to UKIP in 2014, so I did not really know him. But he was elected back onto ECC in 2013 and remained a county councillor until his death in April at the age of 84, which is pretty impressive. Councillor Turner also used the Announcements agenda item to talk about the purchase of Freedom House (or ‘Turner Towers’, as some of us are mischievously calling it). I will not dwell on this development too much for the purposes of this blog but you can read about it in the Echo here.
We moved deftly from that announcement to the election of the Leader of the Council and, in what was to prove to be our only major success of the evening, Councillor Turner was re-elected Leader of Basildon Council unopposed, having led the Council since 2014, taking over at a time when we had just become a hung council. He has since led a minority Tory Administration with great deftness. I was pleased to see him back at the helm, notwithstanding the challenges ahead of us. I cannot think of anyone better to lead us through these troubled waters.
We then moved on to the establishment of Council committees and allocation of seats and this was where the true horror of the Unholy Alliance unfolded before our eyes. As we knew the arithmetic was against us, we determined not to waste time moving our own Order Paper when it had no chance of being passed and decided instead to see what the Opposition would do. As expected, Councillor Allport-Hodge got to her feet and treated us to her usual waffle. First, we got the customary sanctimonious guff about the voters’ ‘decision’ to return a Council in No Overall Control. She then whinged because our Leader, quite rightly, refused to accept any vice-chairmanships as part of their stitch-up. UKIP and Labour may be prepared to try and sell everyone the idea that two opposition parties leapfrogging each other in second and third place somehow gives them a mandate to swipe hold of all the Committees but we on the Tory benches were certainly not prepared to give their power-grab tacit legitimacy by accepting vice-chairs. I supported that position, even though I knew it would cost me my own vice-chairmanship of the Planning Committee. The Order Paper was seconded, as expected, by Councillor Callaghan, who treated us to a similar barrage of platitudinous drivel about the wisdom and sagacity of our far-sighted electorate in delivering a hung council.
Before we go any further, let us deal with this misty-eyed rhetoric about the ‘electorate’s decision’ to return a council in No Overall Control. It puts me in mind of something the late Quentin Crisp once said about politics. He said: “Politics is the art of making the inevitable seem like the product of wise choice”. Cllrs Allport-Hodge and Callaghan trying to pretend the electorate made a conscious choice to deliver a hung council is just facile. The idea every voter in the Borough met up at a Holiday Inn and proceeded to calmly discuss the merits of putting the Council in No Overall Control and agree some kind of ‘compact’ to bring this about, in other words that this was all part of some stratagem by residents, is frankly an insult to everyone’s intelligence. We are dealing here with a situation produced by electoral arithmetic arising from the fact the Council is elected by thirds and nothing more. It is a situation, incidentally, that exemplifies precisely why nobody with any sense would ever choose a hung council (or a hung parliament for that matter) because it produces grubby, underhand deals and compromises, such as the one we saw acted out at the Annual Meeting.
Nobody voted for a UKIP-Lab coalition to carve up the committees but that is what we got. It also awarded an inordinate amount of leverage to the tiny three-member Wookies, who now hold the balance of power and are able to use it to wield wholly disproportionate influence. Under the Unholy Alliance, they now hold the Mayor, the chair of Licensing, and the vice-chair of Planning. This is a party that scored a 3% share of the vote in the Borough, won no seats, and yet we are supposed to believe this Order Paper, to use Councillor Callaghan’s rather florid phrase, “more perfectly reflects the will of residents”? Please, spare me.
We should call this shady deal exactly what it is – a confection. It is a cynical device, enabling UKIP and Labour to form a coalition in all but name. They dare not formally take administration because they could not possibly cobble one together. One can only imagine the gore and bloodletting that would ensue if their respective leaders were forced to jostle for the position of Leader of the Council. It would be like a scene from the film 300! So this fudged contrivance is their get-out clause. Indeed, in honour of his erstwhile ally, Councillor Smith nicknamed It “The Allsorts-Fudge Coalition”. But, be in no doubt, a coalition is what we now have.
We have a nominal Tory Administration but one that will be frustrated at every turn in the Council chamber. We saw early evidence of this when my colleague Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead), lately Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission, moved a very sensible amendment to correct an anomaly in the Order Paper, whereby an existing Working Group on the Constitution, which was being chaired by the Chairman of Overview & Scrutiny, was now to be chaired by the Mayor. This was clearly anomalous, as the Mayor is the person responsible for upholding the Constitution and commands a casting vote at Full Council, so it is clearly not very transparent to have the Mayor leading such a working group. It was also pointed out by Councillor Baggott that the Working Group had been set up as a result of a motion passed at Full Council, which mandated the O&S Commission to look at the Constitution. It should be stressed that Councillor Baggott was not acting here out of self-interest, as he was not going to be the Chairman of O&S under the new Order Paper. In fact, what was pretty clear to most of us was that Mayor Harrison had a hand in the Order Paper himself, as he had pushed for the Constitution Working Group and clearly wanted to lead it, which is why the Order Paper changed it from the Chairman of O&S to the Mayor, in anticipation that he would be Mayor. The Order Paper also proposed that rather than reform of the Constitution going through O&S and being presented in a report to Cabinet before coming to Full Council, this new Working Group should be able to propose piecemeal amendments to the Constitution direct through a motion at Full Council, thus sidestepping at least two tiers of the scrutiny process. Councillor Baggott set out a very cogent case for why the Order Paper should be amended to restore the status quo but it was, nevertheless, voted down by the Unholy Alliance.
Incidentally, if anyone has a chance to listen to the audio recording of the meeting – I always listen back afterwards – you will hear why some of us have already nicknamed the new Mayor as “Mutley”. He finds himself very amusing!
Not to be dissuaded by that defeat, we had one more attempt at bringing the Council back from the brink. M’learned ward colleague, Cllr David Dadds (Con, Billericay East), moved a second amendment to the Order Paper. Essentially, it sought to make two major changes. It took the position that, on balance, we could accept that we were not going to retain control of the committees but would rather they were chaired by Labour than UKIP, with the exception of Planning. We therefore proposed to replace all the UKIP chairmen with Labour ones and replace the Labour chairman of Planning with a Wickford Independent.
This was the really extraordinary thing – one which, if I were a UKIP voter, I think I would find unfathomable. The UKIP-sponsored Order Paper made Cllr Adele Brown (Lab, Fryerns) the new Chairman of the Planning Committee. Now, I have great personal regard for Councillor Brown. She and I have served alongside one another on Planning for two years and I like her a great deal – I confessed this as my dark secret. She is a principled and conscientious councillor. However, she has always been totally upfront about her disdain for Green Belt planning considerations and her wish to see more social housing even in Green Belt areas, and her support for Travellers and her desire to see the Borough provide more Gypsy and Traveller pitches. She has also expressed opposition to enforcement against illegal Traveller sites, such as Dale Farm. So, clearly we could not accept a Labour chair of Planning and we sought to substitute Councillor Brown with Cllr Alan Ball (WI, Wickford Castledon), as he was identified as the vice-chair in the Order Paper and we did straight swaps with all the others too. With the exception of Planning, the Conservatives were of the view we would rather have Labour running them than ‘Kippers. I certainly do not share many political positions with socialists but I can at least acknowledge that Labour are a responsible party of government. UKIP, on the other hand, are unprincipled and disruptive populists, who have thwarted and held up every item of business during the time they have had a presence on Basildon Council.
The subsequent debate on the Dadds Amendment revealed what was very clearly not just a done deal but a pact, signed and sealed, between Cllrs Allport-Hodge, Callaghan and Harrison. The Mayor ran the meeting like a tyrant, pulling several members up for allegedly “not speaking to the amendment” (this included any attempt to make even passing reference to the document we were actually amending) and allowed Councillor Callaghan to get away with calling Councillor Smith of the Independence Group a “racist and fascist” and, despite calls from several members for the remark to be withdrawn, Mayor Harrison refused to compel Councillor Callaghan to do so. In the end, the Dadds Amendment was voted down and the Order Paper was passed. As well as establishing the Mayor’s dodgy unconstitutional Working Group on the Constitution and putting Labour in charge of Planning, it also established three entirely new scrutiny committees – Regeneration & Environment, Housing & Growth, and Infrastructure & Community, to be headed by Cllrs Ball, Allport-Hodge, and Callaghan respectively – and at significant additional cost to the Council, running into tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Two of these are both tasked with looking into the Local Plan, so that will now be dragged into the quagmire. I suspect we shall now increasingly see much of the Council’s important business held up in these pointless vanity committees.
Later, when it came to vote on the timetable of meetings – which under normal circumstances would be a mere formality at this stage – Councillor Allport-Hodge, seconded by her deputy Cllr Mark Ellis (U, Laindon Park), moved an amendment that decided to move two dates for Full Council, seemingly on a whim and with no explanation offered (reading between the lines, I reckon one or more of her guys are on holidays or something like that). This may sound like a minor thing but the scheduling of meetings for the municipal year is always a somewhat fraught exercise and it is, frankly, typical of UKIP’s cavalier attitude that they would just lob a random spanner in the works without any thought to other members or, indeed, our hard-working officers, who have to jiggle everything around. But the Unholy Alliance were unmoved. Cllr Stuart Sullivan (Con, Billericay East) pointed out that one of the proposed move dates for Full Council clashed with a Cabinet meeting but the reaction of our new Mayor was to simply instruct the Leader to move the Cabinet meeting, even though the timetable was published some time ago and it was incumbent on members to come back ages ago and moving thing around at this point has a knock-on effect for other meetings. But, no, it was just voted through by the Allsorts-Fudge Coalition with nary a thought for anyone else.
With that, the Leader stood up to make his statement – effectively a ‘State of the Borough’ address – and, as a testimony to what the Administration is up against, the Echo ceased broadcasting their live feed of the meeting and did not cover any of his speech. Nevertheless, Councillor Turner reiterated the Administration’s commitment to increasing and improving housing in the Borough through policies like the Decent Homes programme and the housing allocations policy that requires a Basildon connexion. There is also our wondrous wholly-owned house-building company, Sempra Homes, which is building a new generation of council homes – delivered by a Tory Administration! He also spoke about the importance of getting an approved Local Plan adopted and recommitted the Administration to its ambitious regeneration programmes, citing the successful Pitsea and Wickford regenerations and outlining the need to bring regeneration to Basildon Town Centre (and the purchase of Freedom House will pay a large role in enabling the Council to do this, not to mention the £30m investment that the new market and college campus will bring). Crucially, from my point of view, he also promised a fair share of investment for Billericay. He also wants to get things moving in Laindon and is confident that Swan Housing will bring forward plans. Basildon is the most thriving borough in Essex but the Tories are not content with that. We want to be the most thriving borough in the whole country! That is what we will now go forward and strive to achieve. Cllr Turner acknowledged that there are going to be challenges, not least financial challenges, but the Tories are determined to do their part to face those challenges for the residents.