I start with my customary apology. I have not had time to blog for a while and I never got around to writing up the July meeting of Full Council but I want to write up the meeting of Full Council held Thursday night.
The evening started with tributes being paid to Olympic medallist and Freeman of the Borough Max Whitlock. It is always somewhat jarring to see the UKIP Group joining in with this, given that they abstained on granting him the Freedom of the Borough – allegedly because their leader, Cllr Linda Allport-Hodge (UKIP, Langdon Hills), was bitter that her own nominee was rejected – but it is great to see Max’s Olympic achievements being recognised.
PQT and MQT
Public Question Time was a humdrum affair, with a question about allotments from a lady in Wickford and the now customary two questions about the Local Plan from the ubiquitous Roland Lazarus directed at Cllr Richard Moore (Con, Burstead), our long-suffering Cabinet Member for Planning. Member Question Time consisted of, amongst others, Labour leader Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West) asking the Cabinet Member for Environment & Community, Cllr Terri Sargent (Con, Crouch), a couple of questions that he knew full well ought to be directed at Essex County Council, plus an inevitable question about ‘Brexit’. Cllr David Burton-Sampson (Lab, St Martin’s) asked a question of the Cabinet Member for Resources, my ward colleague Cllr Stuart Sullivan (Con, Billericay East), worrying in its economic illiteracy – not least because Councillor Burton-Sampson is the vice-chairman of the Audit & Risk Committee. There was then much mirth as Cllr Alan Ball (WI, Wickford Castledon) asked a question about the rather pithy “Don’t be a tosser” anti-litter campaign advertisements.
The first item of business on the agenda was to adopt the revised Gambling Act (2003) Statement of Licensing Policy. Cllr Allan Davies (Lab, Fryerns) raised quite a reasonable point about ATMs being permitted in betting shops. It produced an interesting debate. I for one have always abhorred gambling. I am even reticent about participating in sweepstakes at work. Even charity raffles give me pause. Such objections are, however, strictly a matter of my own personal morality and, as a libertarian at heart, I have to concede that it is my personal choice not to gamble but, in a free society, mature adults are at liberty to do so, should they so choose.
There would clearly be a strong business case for placing an ATM machine inside a betting shop and it would be useful for gamblers, whom we have to assume are mature, responsible adults, and entitled to the convenience of such a service. I understood Councillor Davies’ scruples about the possible effect that such provision could have upon anyone with a gambling addiction. He posited that a gambling addict, exhausted of cash funds, would simply go home. I find this, however, implausible. Any serious gambling addict is not going to be so easily thwarted and is quite capable of walking down the road to the nearest cashpoint and returning to the betting shop. Nowadays, of course, the hardened gambler can also just as easily gamble at home online. I know this all too well – having worked in credit card collections in a previous life and seen all too many over-limit credit card statements with online gambling transactions for frightening amounts. In any case, as Councillor Moore pointed out, this is a matter of Central Government policy. So I voted to adopt the policy. Councillor Davies and Labour abstained. I still hate gambling but I have to recognise that it is a perfectly legal activity.
We then moved onto the extremely pedestrian Treasury Management Annual Report and Prudential Indicators (exactly as sexy as it sounds), during which our officers and Councillor Sullivan – the Iron Chancellor of Basildon – were quite rightly lionised for their sound management of the Borough’s finances. There was another interesting intervention from Councillor Burton-Sampson, attacking the Administration for borrowing too much. I must say, I did find it fascinating to hear a socialist criticising the Tories for taking advantage of historic low interest rates in order to fund capital investment, particularly when said socialists have opposed every penny the Administration has ever tried to cut, has entreated us to spend more, and would undoubtedly tax and spend and borrow to their little hearts’ content should they ever again obtain power in Basildon.
The next item should have been the tediously straightforward consideration of a report by the Monitoring Officer, Lorraine Browne, into the arrangements for the Joint Standards Committee. The Monitoring Officer’s report ensures that our arrangements meet national legislation and included a recommendation to reappoint the four independent persons who currently sit on the Committee. This should have been a simple formality but then, extraordinarily, the Deputy Mayor, Cllr Stephen Ward (UKIP, Pitsea South-East) – Chairman of the Joint Standards Committee no less! – moved an extraordinary amendment to the report, altering the Monitoring Officer’s recommendation to reappoint the four independent persons in favour of sacking them and appointing four new people!
I cannot stress enough how utterly bizarre and unacceptable this amendment was!
For a start, the amendment was moved apparently at the last moment, with no advance notice given to Group Leaders or, apparently, officers – including the Monitoring Officer, who looked pretty dumbfounded. As the Monitoring Officer makes clear in her report, the independent persons were appointed to serve on the Joint Standards Committee in 2012, to comply with the requirements of the Localism Act (2011). The current four were appointed to serve a four-year term with the option to renew and all four have indicated a willingness to continue serving the Committee and the officer says in her report “I believe the Council is really fortunate to have such a resource available to it for a further four years”. Now, I am sure you can all imagine what a sexy, interesting, adrenalin-pumping job it is, serving on the Joint Standards Committee of Basildon Council, so obviously there are literally dozens of candidates just hurling themselves at us to do it (please note heavy use of sarcasm) but when you already have four people who have, between them, accumulated sixteen years of experience and whom you have already invested in training in standards issues, why on earth would you go to the time and expense of advertising for four new ones? Why would you imply dissatisfaction with the four serving independent persons? Are they no longer ‘independent’? I have to say, I was totally appalled and completely baffled that, of all people, the Chairman of the Committee himself would move such a dim-witted amendment. I am happy to say that the amendment was defeated and the unaltered report adopted. Quite how Councillor Ward will be able to look the independent persons in the eye at the next Standards meeting is beyond me. I cannot think what on earth possessed him to try and get rid of them.
The next item was to review the allocation of seats on the Council’s committees. This has been necessitated by the very wise decision of Cllr Peter Holliman (Con, Wickford North) to defect from the Wickford Independents (or ‘Windies’) to the Conservative Group. Councillor Holliman has been quoted publicly as saying, quite rightly, that he can better serve his residents by operating within the ruling group. Between you and me, dear reader, I also hear rumours of fractious relations between Councillor Holliman and our illustrious Mayor, Cllr David Harrison (WI, Wickford Park), who it has to be said does have a reputation for ego and for not being a great ‘team player’. Far be it from me to comment on such scuttlebutt but, nonetheless, it means the composition of the Council is now slightly altered, taking the Tories from 18 to 19 and reducing the Windies from three to just two. The other political groups remain unchanged. Although entitled to greater representation, the Conservative Group opted to forego this due to the disruption it would cause the Committees, so the recommendation of the view was to leave the Committees unchanged.
Sadly, this magnanimity was not replicated on the Opposition benches and Councillor Callaghan moved a spiteful amendment to remove Councillor Holliman as Chairman of the Licensing Committee. Not because of anything Councillor Holliman has done wrong whilst serving in that apolitical role but purely because he has had the temerity to become a Conservative. Sadly, spite was in full flow that evening, so the amendment was passed – but only with the casting vote of the Mayor (Councillor Holliman’s erstwhile leader) – and Cllr Alan Bennett (Lab, Lee Chapel North) was installed as the new Chairman of Licensing. Nice to see His Worship the Mayor isn’t at all bitter! (Again, please note heavy use of sarcasm.)
We then arrived at the Notices of Motion, with the first being a motion by Councillor Sargent expressing the Council’s gratitude to the Veolia North Thames Trust (VNTT) for all the support they have given to projects across the Borough and our disappointment at the decision of Veolia UK to disband VNTT. Councillor Sargent and the Conservative Group are keen to encourage the new centralised trust – the Veolia Environmental Trust – to prioritise projects within the Borough of Basildon, given the ongoing landfill activities in the Borough. This motion, I am pleased to say, was unanimously passed.
We then moved on to probably the most contentious item of business of the evening: a motion by Cllr Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills), a member of the Housing & Growth Scrutiny Committee, to remove Councillor Allport-Hodge has Chairman of the Committee. Now, I should state clearly for the record that the Housing & Growth Scrutiny Committee (H&G) has met three times since it was created by the Unholy Alliance in their conspiratorial Order Paper at the Council AGM following the 2016 Local Elections and I have not personally attended any of those meetings. Under Councillor Allport-Hodge’s chairmanship, H&G has concerned itself almost exclusively with the Local Plan and, in line with my longstanding declarations under the probity regulations, I do not attend or vote on any matters pertaining directly to the Local Plan. Nevertheless, like all councillors, I receive minutes of meetings, etc, and because I commute four hours a day, I certainly have time to read them. The Conservative Group also receives briefings from Tory members of committees at our fortnightly Group meetings and Councillor Allport-Hodge’s chairmanship of H&G has been a regular cause for complaint.
I have to say from the outset, that it was never clear to me what the purpose was in these new scrutiny committees. They were created in the Order Paper of the Unholy Alliance between UKIP and Labour as a sort of ‘fudge’ (the ‘Allsorts-Fudge Coalition’, as we called it at the time). In addition to H&G, chaired by the UKIP Leader, the Order Paper also created an Infrastructure & Community Scrutiny Committee (I&C), chaired by Councillor Callaghan. Oddly, I&C has a very similar brief to H&G, most notably both have scrutiny of the Local Plan within their remit. I could not understand at the time why you would create two new scrutiny committees, at not inconsiderable cost to the taxpayer, and give them overlapping responsibilities. Anyone in any organisation knows that it makes no sense to have people duplicating work. So what could be the reason? The reason, of course, is the Allsorts-Fudge Coalition. When UKIP and Labour slipped into bed together, they could not agree who would get to be on top. That is why they left us the Cabinet and kept us on as a minority administration. Cllrs Allport-Hodge and Callaghan can quite legitimately say that they are not in a formal alliance with one another (because that would require a level of organisation and discipline alien to either group). Instead, this is the fudged pact we were bequeathed. They carved up the Council committees amongst themselves and, as part of this compromise, created two ‘vanity committees’ – because that is what they are, vanity committees – to provide both Opposition group leaders with a convenient stick, to wield lazil y and club-like, against the Administration and in particular Councillor Moore and the Local Plan.
Ever since H&G commenced its work, it has become apparent to any unbiased observer that Councillor Allport-Hodge is simply not up to the job. Councillor Hillier makes the fair observation that she all too often seems to confuse her former life as an officer of the Council with her new role as an elected member and does not seem to understand the proper function of scrutiny at all. In particular, there have been problems with producing the forward work plan for the Committee – so much so, that an entire meeting lasting two and a quarter hours was devoted to that minor task alone. This is unheard of in scrutiny committees. Throughout, the Chairman was apparently incapable of providing members with any guidance as to what she was hoping to achieve. She apparently tried to delegate the chairing of one meeting to the Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission, seemingly unaware that this is unconstitutional. The most recent H&G meeting, I am told, concerned the Draft Local Plan Statement of Consultation, at which the Chairman limited discussion to just two hours (so less time, in fact, than was allocated to discussing the forward work plan!). She then proceeded to seek to curtail debate on this important topic. I am also told that at one meeting the Chairman arrived with a brand new agenda that she had drawn up herself and attempted to junk the one that had been distributed to members and work instead from her own one. This is clearly highly unprofessional and not how such meetings should be conducted.
Moreover, we are five months into the municipal year and, after three meetings, the Housing & Growth Scrutiny Committee is yet to discuss either housing or growth, instead favouring a narrow focus specifically on the Local Plan (particularly indulging her obsessive belief that all its ills are a consequence of our current membership of the European Union). In what was seen as the final straw, she announced her intention to invite a member of the Planning Inspectorate to attend a meeting to discuss various ‘what ifs’ in relation to the Local Plan. This is not only wholly outside her jurisdiction as Chairman, it is effectively interfering with the Local Plan process itself. Although I have had, for reasons of probity, to recuse myself from that process, I am painfully aware of how delicate it is and how easily developers in particular can call the process into question and use it as an excuse to challenge the soundness of Basildon’s plan – which they would dearly love to do, I am sure, in the hope of getting an even greater housing number. In that sense, I am afraid it is difficult to see Councillor Allport-Hodge and those now lamenting her removal as anything more than ‘useful idiots’ for the developers (if I may be forgiven for putting it so strongly). Given what is at stake with this process, we simply cannot afford to have people using a vanity committee, whether self-promoting or genuinely well-meaning, to lob grenades and seek to subvert that process. So partly for that reason, and because I was satisfied she simply is not up to the job, I voted in favour of removing Councillor Allport-Hodge as Chairman of Housing & Growth Scrutiny. It seems that a majority of councillors agreed, as the motion was passed and Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead) was selected in her stead. Councillor Baggott was formerly Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Commission and in that capacity won wide respect across the chamber for the way he operated Scrutiny and opened the process up to backbench and Opposition councillors. I am sure he will get the work of H&G back on track.
There was interesting speech from Cllr Mark Ellis (UKIP, Laindon Park), one of the few Opposition councillors to actually speak to the motion, in which he basically asserted that our motion to remove Councillor Allport-Hodge was different from the removal of Cllr Carole Morris (Con, Wickford North) as Chairman of the Planning Committee and the attempt to remove Councillor Sargent as Cabinet Member for Environment & Community because in both those cases, there had been an “abuse of power” and because we had shown “no evidence” that Councillor Allport-Hodge was incapable of chairing the Committee. I have to give Councillor Ellis top marks for incredulous commentary. Ignoring for a moment the litany of issues with Councillor Allport-Hodge’s chairmanship already identified, both Cllrs Morris and Sargent were shown to have acted entirely within their respective remits (Councillor Sargent was exonerated by no less a figure than a High Court Judge!) and Councillor Ellis seemed to have forgotten that, just moments earlier, he had voted to remove Councillor Holliman as Chairman of Licensing for no reason whatsoever.
The penultimate motion of the evening was from Cllr David Sheppard (UKIP, Fryerns) and concerned the Police & Crime Plan 2016-20 currently being consulted upon by Essex Police Commissioner Roger Hirst. In particular, Councillor Sheppard’s motion was critical of the alleged failure of Mr Hirst’s plan to prioritise burglary. Nobody would disagree, of course, that burglary is a very disturbing and upsetting form of crime. Indeed, it is probably the most invasive form of crime outside of an actual physical assault. Councillor Callaghan afforded the topic the gravity it deserved by having a crack at Councillor Holliman’s expense, saying “Wickford has had more burglaries in 48 hours than Peter Holliman has had political parties”. Of course, the elephant in the room with this motion is that the Police Commissioner is currently consulting on his crime plan, and Councillor Sheppard and everyone else can all feed into that process, and should do so. Obviously, the Commissioner cannot prioritise all forms of crime, otherwise it is not really ‘prioritising’, and my understanding of Mr Hirst’s rationale is that the majority of burglaries are drug-related – eg, funding a drug habit – and that by prioritising drug crime and the vicious drug gangs that operate within our society, that will have a knock-on effect on burglaries. Nevertheless, with a little bit of re-wording to make the motion less combative and antagonistic towards the Commissioner, the Conservative Group supported the motion. It is also worth noting that the local District Commander, Chf Insp Shaun Kane, posted on Twitter on Wednesday night that his team had arrested four burglars overnight in Basildon. So it would be quite wrong to imply that this is an area where Essex Police do not act.
The final motion of the evening was from Cllr Gary Canham (UKIP, Pitsea North-West) concerning illegal Traveller encampments. I had a problem with this motion, largely due to the wording. Unfortunately, we had reached the guillotine by this point, so it did curtail debate on the issue. The issue of illegal encampments is one that exercises the patience of nearly all ward members. Just recently, we here in Billericay suffered problems from an illegal encampment at Queen’s Park, which later moved onto the playing field behind The Billericay School. Those of you who follow me on Facebook will have been aware of my frustrations at the time, as the legal process for removing these illegal encampments is quite laborious and time-consuming but, that said, I am satisfied that Basildon Council, working with the Police and the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit (ECTU), already do all in their power to deal with these issues as quickly as possible. But the problem with Councillor Canham’s motion is that it was specifically directed at Travellers and we just cannot do that as a Council. While it is probably true to say that nine out of ten illegal encampments will be the result of Travellers, you cannot single Travellers out in the way that Councillor Canham’s motion did. Because, while there are unfortunately some Travellers that will give that community a bad name, there are plenty of perfectly legal Gypsy and Traveller settlements that do not cause trouble and who get on harmoniously with the local settled community and who are just as horrified by illegal incursions as the rest of us. Councillor Canham did make some hurried alterations to the wording but, like I say, we had reached the guillotine and there was insufficient time to properly consider the new wording, so the Conservative Group voted against the motion.
It should be stressed, however, that a very similar motion, moved by the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead), was passed in December last year calling on Central Government to provide local authorities with greater powers to combat illegal encampments and, since then, Councillor Blake has been liaising closely with other district-level authorities, Essex County Council and ECTU, and with Essex Police and the Commissioner on this very issue. Much has been said about the court injunction secured by Harlow Borough Council and the inevitable question has arisen as to why Basildon cannot secure a similar injunction. Unfortunately, it has been made clear to me that the Harlow injunction was most unusual and arose as a consequence of a fairly unique set of circumstances. Firstly, Harlow has been subjected to an unprecedented number of incursions (somewhere in the region of 135) over a very short space of time and, secondly and crucially, it was all the work of a single family. The family in question were named in the injunction and it pertains specifically to them rather than to Travellers generally. As I understand it, Harlow BC had to amass a considerable body of evidence to obtain this injunction, which took them months and was extremely expensive. As irksome as the situation can be in Basildon, it is nothing like what was experienced by Harlow. Finally, after all that, the injunction only lasts for eighteen months in any case and then they have to go through the whole process again if they wish to renew it.
Like I say, Basildon has a pretty good track record of tackling illegal encampments and moves them on as swiftly as the law will allow (generally between 7-10 working days). In the case of the encampment at The Billericay School, we were eventually successful in persuading Essex Police to utilise their Section 61 powers to remove them and the Council were very swift at reinstating the land at Queen’s Park. We will always work hard to minimise disruption to local residents in such situations.