“Since becoming a councillor in 2008, I have attended scores, if not hundreds, of council and committee meetings. Last night’s meeting of Basildon Council’s Infrastructure, Growth & Development Committee must rank as the strangest.
The big news out of Basildon Council is the removal of the minority Conservative administration back in May 2017 and its replacement with a coalition of Labour and UKIP councillors (with a few independents thrown in). The Council’s Infrastructure, Growth & Development Committee is now chaired by UKIP leader Linda Allport-Hodge. This committee’s remit is wide-ranging but in practice its main responsibilities centre around the delivery of the Local Plan (more on that later) and economic policy.
Last night’s meeting began with a review of the Council’s economic development policy. This document is reviewed every three years and gives the Council’s development team a steer as to where members want the Council to concentrate its resources to deliver the best results for residents. Three years ago, the Conservatives set four very clear and specific policy statements around the economic direction of the Council. The report was a terrific endorsement of the work we had done, with all objectives set showing substantial improvement. Tellingly, even the UKIP and Labour councillors did not demure when we made this point.
The new Labour/UKIP document was basically the same as previously passed in 2014, with one crucial difference. The policy statement objectives, which had done so much to deliver real change in Basildon, were replaced with washed-out, non-specific statements that were so vague and general as to be almost meaningless. I challenged officers on this and they argued that less specific objectives would allow them to widen their remit without having to review the whole policy but I argued that the removal of more specific objectives made it impossible to accurately measure success or failure. Conservative councillor Carole Morris pointed out several basic errors in the report, which hardly helped its credibility with the Committee.
Eventually, the time came to take a vote on the issue but before this could happen, officers did advise that if councillors were still unhappy with the policy statements offered, they could consider a working group to review them and get them more to their liking. This was quickly proposed by Conservative councillor Andrew Baggott and seconded by me.
When you are in opposition, you quickly get used to losing votes. I stuck my hand up, fully expecting to be outvoted by the UKIP and Labour councillors only to look to my right and see that the two Labour councillors, Katye Block and Melissa McGeorge, had voted with us, giving us six of the nine committee votes in favour. Rather amusingly, the UKIP councillors also quickly stuck up their hands in favour to make the vote unanimous and to avoid the impression of splits within the coalition ranks. Thus, UKIP and Labour effectively voted against their own economic policy document, instead referring it to a ‘working group’ for councillors to rewrite it before bringing it back to committee.
Little did I know that this was merely the starter before we moved onto the main course. The next item on the agenda was the ‘green belt review’ commissioned by Conservative councillor Richard Moore in one of his final acts as Cabinet Member for Planning. The idea behind this review was for officers to see if the impact of building on the green belt could be mitigated by reducing the numbers of homes to be built. This action was taken with the full vocal support of many opposition councillors, including Cllr Allport-Hodge. Indeed, the review was really commissioned at her instigation, as a sort of ‘olive branch’ to try and mend relations between our parties and prevent the mess we now find ourselves in.
During the course of the presentation and the questioning that followed, it quickly became clear that the instruction that the report be commissioned to reduce housing numbers had been ignored. In fact, the report had been watered down to merely be a review of the Council’s process for selecting green belt sites. This was something the Council had already done as a normal part of the Local Plan preparation. The report about to be agreed would essentially duplicate this work.
Rarely has the contrast between opposition and administration been so starkly demonstrated. Cllr Allport-Hodge, previously the ‘champion’ of defeating building on the green belt, a councillor on record (look it up) as saying she would halve housing in the Local Plan from 20,000 to 10,000, found herself defending a muted report that she had brought to Council, which fulfilled none of aims she had so vocally demanded it be commissioned for!
We repeatedly asked for and then demanded that the original terms of reference be restored but again and again officers and the Chair explained to us that it was not possible to do anything, due to legal constraints and various other excuses. The rigors of office were clearly taking their toll on Cllr Allport-Hodge, who this week also found herself in the unenviable position of defending a company in Pitsea refusing to removing cladding from one of their blocks found to be dangerous.
The situation quickly descended into a farce with Cllr Allport-Hodge unable to admit, under fierce questioning from Conservative councillor Kevin Blake, that the original purpose of the report was being ignored despite the fact both the councillors in question were present at the original meeting where the terms were agreed. Eventually it fell to Labour’s Cllr Block to put the Chair out of her misery. She made it clear that she no longer supported the review and, bowing to the inevitable, Cllr Allport-Hodge attempted to save face by proposing to kill off her own report.
Consider that for a moment. Cllr Allport Hodge, as the Chairman of the Committee, will have spent hours with officers preparing the agenda and reviewing the options available. There would have been countless opportunities to change or remove the report before it came to committee. In nearly ten years as a councillor, I have never seen a Chair kill off their own policy mid-meeting. It really was an extraordinary moment.
The vote not to proceed with the report passed unanimously and Cllr Blake made the point forcefully that the Chair had U-turned in the most unbelievable way. The old saying that ‘opposition is easy, government is hard’ could not have been better demonstrated and, I must say, after watching Cllr Allport-Hodge relentlessly criticise officers and councillors over the Local Plan, it brought me some small satisfaction to see that she is struggling to resolve the contradictory pressures between the things she berated us for and said she would reverse and what is actually possible – a classic case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.
The rest of the meeting was less eventful, with the consultation on alternative sites in the Local Plan coming next. Members of the public were invited to speak on this and two out of the three took the time to praise Cllr Blake for his comments on the previous item. A consultation with Uttlesford Council around Traveller sites was agreed before an item around neighbourhood plans came up. I flip-flopped somewhat on this, initially resolving to vote against but then thinking that I would abstain but, ultimately, Cllr Baggott’s persuasive arguments finally convinced me to vote against. Unfortunately, the Coalition stayed firm on this one and we lost the vote.
Overall, it was a great night for democracy and local residents. Its shows how the Conservatives in opposition will continue to hold the Coalition to account for their decisions and, when the time is right, compel them to a different course.”
Cllr Andy Barnes
Conservative Councillor for Laindon Park
Basildon Borough Council