Incompetence or verging-on-the-criminal: Shropshire Council’s fiddling of the books (with help).

Meanwhile, watch this as a working example of how “viability” works for Shropshire Council who, in our test case, are actually arguing the developer’s case for them.

Lots more examples going back years, but our planners seem to have refined both the process (seamless, and I nearly said painless except that anyone in desperate need of an affordable house will need to stick it out for a while longer) and the arguments (disingenuous) used to justify giving away our money.

It’ll probably be about a week before the final article appears.

Another one, working back through the years and wondering if there was ever likely to be a way forward…

County Councillor’s Report, 16 June 2019

It’s been a funny old month but I’m not laughing after the bone-shaking drive on the first seven miles of the 30 miles to Abbey Foregate.

Newcomers to Highley have it in their heads that no-one has done a thing to improve the situation. As newcomers they won’t know about a recorded history of at least four generations, discovered by Mandy Burgess who found letters to the Bridgnorth Journal from ‘citizens’, businessmen/farmers, even local councillors, complaining about the state of the Highley/Bridgnorth road back in the day when it didn’t even have the number we all now know and love it by, the B-four-triple five.

Geology and geography is our problem, not helped by a self-perception that militates against any serious consideration of Highley as a viable place in which to invest the kind of money it would take to bring our road up to a usable state, let alone a decent one.

In terms of geology? Well, you don’t need me to tell you about the problems on the New Road. It’s built on a series of hillsides all of which give the distinct impression that they’d really rather be in Borle Brook and can’t wait to get there: as fast as a slippage is addressed it starts to reappear, although we’ve been fairly lucky with the last three/four, with just the one bit beginning to move (and older readers will doubtless detect a fair bit of touching wood there), attributable to my insistence that the job(s) be done “properly” this time. It’s worth noting that based on previous geological surveys, Highways give ANY repair to the New Road an expected life-span of five years!

When the recent work on Knowle Sands was being planned I received a conditional promise that if there was “anything left over” then serious consideration would be given to the state of the rest of the B4555. I wasn’t holding my breath.

We’re stuck down here in the remote south-east corner of the county with no A-road giving us a direct link to the commercial centres of the West Midlands, even our doctors and nurses have to travel a considerable distance to get here. I remember when we moved here 19 years ago friends saying: “We’ll call in when we’re passing.” And I’m thinking: “No you won’t because Highley isn’t a place you pass on your way to somewhere else.” It doesn’t matter that we’re a diversion to some of the most interesting countryside in the county, we’re still a diversion. Which, of course, is what makes it an attractive place to live.

Right, that’s geology and geography covered, now what about that “self-perception” bit?

In their recent contentious announcement, Shirehall planning department told us that THEIR “preferred site” for the location of another 122 houses was on the field backing on to Yew Tree Grove. (For reference, 122 houses is exactly the number of houses we’ve seen built since 2013 (Taylor Wimpey 58, Rhea Hall 29, Staley Grove 35), so that’s the scale of the intended development AND WITHOUT REFERENCE TO THE IMPACT ON OUR INFRASTRUCTURE.

So what’s that got to do with what I’m saying is Highley’s self-perception and why is that a problem?

Highley sees itself as a “village”. In the documents that accompanied Shirehall planning department’s notice of the Yew Tree Grove site as the one THEY preferred for 122 houses, the planners said that in 2016 our population was “estimated” to be 3,195. Yet according to the 2011 official government census (not known for making ‘estimates’) the population then (eight years ago) was 3,602, since when we’ve seen 122 houses built since 2013. And the population has shrunk? Hmmm.

According to those eight-year-old census figures a population of 3,600 makes us bigger than at least two other population centres in the southern half of the county, both of which are designated “towns” (figures as per the 2011 census), Cleobury Mortimer (3,268) and Bishops Castle (1,639).

You see the problem? How we see ourselves is how others see us, in a way that reinforces the view that couldn’t be better expressed than how it is in the ‘Highley & Surrounding Area Place Plan 2019/2020’:

“The area’s predominantly rural nature will require development to be both limited in scale, and sensitive to the environment.”

Despite tourism being a major contributor to Shropshire’s economy, would you invest money ANYWHERE that was predicted to remain “predominantly rural”? At one time, certainly when I was first elected in 2013, I actively pushed – and still do, actually only a matter of weeks ago – the 2004 feasibility study commissioned by the rather wonderful and sadly missed Highley Initiative with the intention of developing the old Kinlet Colliery site as a tourist attraction along the lines of the lead mines at Stiperstones.

I’ve consistently pushed the technology-based industry argument because ‘rural’ doesn’t always faze them, not least because we have a site with outline planning permission in the form of the area behind the existing Netherton workshops which contains a global player in the high voltage sector: Genvolt. (And there has been some ground-breaking innovations at both our pen factories!)

But I am constantly reminded of Highley’s perception of its status as a “village”. “Villages” no longer attract public funding because most – if not all – current funding from central government or the EU (through the Local Enterprise Partnership), has to be match-funded and used to “promote growth”, housing comes into it ONLY if it supports proposals for industry and/or commerce. So that’s Highley out of it and goes a long way to explain Shirehall’a reluctance to spend money on our roads.

I sometimes feel as if I’ve been entered into a race with my shoe laces tied together.

Dave Tremellen

Oh come on, chickens, fair’s fair.

Back in December 2015, I was taking a retrospective look back over the previous two and a half years since being elected to represent the Highley Division of Shropshire Council, because at the local elections in 2013 I’d been looking forward to finding out what was going on in “the seat of power”.

By December 2015 I had played some part in bringing down the Leader of the Council, although not for the reasons originally stated because, despite having witnessed the consequences of policies that seemed to take no account of what local communities actually needed, I was still determined to give the powers-that-be the benefit of the doubt. In fact the whole point of my original complaint had to do with issues of accounting irregularity in the appointment of external auditors to the council’s own trading company; my intention was to give Keith Barrow the opportunity to explain what was going on and why.

For a while I had strictly observed the principle that because the mouth is outnumbered by eyes and ears, it pays to keep the eyes and ears open and the mouth shut, at least until what you’ve learnt makes some kind of sense.

I managed it for about three weeks, which is how long it took to realize that the matter wasn’t just about (if at all) accounting irregularities, but how fast the demolition of democratic systems was moving back then. The scales didn’t so much fall from my eyes, as have a baseball bat taken to them. Democracy was being quietly dismantled and it all seemed so sensible when presented as a balancing of the books. Nothing to worry about. What do we need all these buildings for anyway? And without the buildings, why do we need all these employees anyway?

Sound familiar? Any bells ringing?

Six years ago!!!

If I was surprised back in the day at how all the mainstream parties quietly acquiesced in the process, I’m even more surprised that nothing has changed in the intervening period, except that if anything the pace of change and the distancing of the administration from the people they allegedly represent has accelerated to light speed. And, with but a handful of singular exceptions, there is still little more than symbolic protest (concerning details, bugger the principles involved) from the mainstream Opposition parties, in fact some of them (“sort of”) support what’s going on.

Meanwhile there is no complaint from the people of Shropshire either, but at least they have the excuse that they’re not being kept in the loop, in which they have a lot in common with elected Members!)

All the changes serve the interests of all the mainstream parties because, with the centralisation of power that the current Cabinet system allows, by concentrating all their efforts on staying in power until the 2025 local elections, should they achieve that end then they will be the ones profiting from what’s being created now. It is a system that is in no way accountable to the electorate and that makes it very attractive to whichever party holds the balance of power locally.

To be fair, there are some who favour a committee system of local government, but there is an obvious shortcoming in a committee system, a structural fault that allows a ruling group to dominate policy-making without reference to the electorate.

The structural fault in the committee system is its allocation of seats according to proportional party representation. Whilst superficially “fair”, in that it reflects election results, it could happen that the number of Opposition Members elected doesn’t facilitate an ‘equitable’ distribution of committee seats.

But consider a system that retains the Cabinet with a directly-elected Council Leader, Chief Executive, whatever you want to call it, who would, having been directly elected by all Shropshire electors – on the basis of their past performance and judged on how likely they were to keep their promises – be fully accountable for their choice of Cabinet members and the decisions those portfolio holders make.

Oh, and note that it is entirely feasible that a directly-elected Leader’s choice of portfolio holders within their Cabinet need not be based on political affiliation.

Democratic accountability doesn’t stop there. Cabinet systems of governance must have at least one Scrutiny Committee. Unlike the current situation at Shirehall, Scrutiny Committees could actually exercise real influence, their chairs alternating between members of each party on the committee.

Scrutiny Committees would have the power to call in portfolio holders and have the right to question anyone who has been, or is likely to be, party to any portfolio holder business they have oversight of. Despite NOT having the power of veto, Scrutiny Committee reports would be published and be open for debate at full council, rendering the decisions of the Leader/Chief Executive fully exposed to public scrutiny. Decision making would be transparent.

Odds on seeing such a change? If they were able, would turkeys vote for Christmas? It’s up to you lot.

End of week musings on reading through notes made as the week has progressed…

Despite the claims made by members of the Cabinet, their compliant clique, and of course Directors of Service at Shropshire Council, I am picking up reliable evidence (some of it first-hand, some of it from concerned residents who have had conversations with council officers – and that in itself is significant) of growing unhappiness amongst Shropshire Council staff over the much-vaunted “new way of working”, with some staff seriously considering moving on, either to new jobs within their professions (there are plenty going in neighbouring local authorities) or simply to new jobs that their transferable skills opens up to them. All of which is a repeat (and coincidentally within the same timescale) as happened with the voluntary redundancy scheme way back in 2013. If a scheme of voluntary redundancy is again introduced by our increasingly desperate Executive then it will mark the end of Shropshire Council as a fully functioning entity, regardless of how many videos Councillors Lezley Picton, Dean Carroll, and Ed Potter put out on YouTube courtesy of the taxpayer-funded election publicity resources of Shropshire Council.

(It will be interesting to see if they observe election purdah during the period of the by-election to choose my successor.)

My anger at seeing the desperation many staff feel at finding themselves between the proverbial rock and the hard place that is our Executive’s determination to see through to the end what they have committed us all to, is greater than anything I witnessed back in 2013; staff simply can’t express their true feelings because of that damned “staff survey” they were all “asked” to complete at the start of lockdown, called when it was all still a Covid-driven novelty. That survey more or less committed them to what the Executive had planned for them all along.

But fear not, is the message. Our Chief Executive’s virtual door is apparently always open allowing any member of staff to take their concerns directly to him. Yup. But what idiot takes those kinds of concerns to someone who will inevitably be making a mental note of their lack of commitment? Think about it. Yes, exactly.

The problem is how to protect those whistleblowers (who are actually becoming braver by the week, itself a sign of the growing disenchantment)? Even a mention of a department unhappy at finding itself shifted to one of the (again much-vaunted) “new sites, thereby spreading the council around the county”, could result in that whole department either being called in and questioned as a department, or more likely approached individually for a “quiet chat” (thought by some staff to be the more likely scenario), to see what the Executive can do to “address their concerns”. A bit bloody late for that, but at least management can claim to have made the effort and of course they won’t have found any concerns, how could you think otherwise you little cynic you.

I just wish I could still be around when the impact of a slow emigration of experienced staff begins to be felt. Mind you, they could just look at the impact of those voluntary redundancies back in 2013, the impact of which we’re still seeing and feeling. (For the record, in the south of the county the Authority lost 40% of its most experienced planning officers who took their knowledge and experience to land agents like Berry’s, where they used all that knowledge and experience against the less knowledgeable and experienced staff left behind. The thing was, the knowledge and experience the staff that left took with them had to do with the recently introduced National Planning Policy Framework and they ran rings around the less experienced staff because the staff that left knew where all the skeletons were buried! Until Mal Price got a grip on planning and had them challenge developer’s knee-jerk threats of “judicial reviews” and “appeals” (See the Teal Drive case, below.)

Just another reason to feel sad at having to stand down at the end of April, the 29th to be exact. But if I stayed on I’d find myself continuing to fight a rearguard action against both the ignorance (in all innocence – mostly) of the cohort of new councillors who came in at the last election, and the desperate attempts to put a human face on a converted shop in the Darwin Centre or Pride Hill or wherever else they can sell to the public as a viable replacement for Shirehall. Bloody idiots, the lot of them.

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/2016/08/17/homes-ruling-u-turn-could-be-a-game-changer/

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/property/2016/06/23/legal-fight-launched-against-ellesmere-homes-ruling/

Oh, and I nearly forgot.

My (fairly) recent article in which I mentioned staff concerns over possible redundancies being the likely consequence of Shropshire Council’s disastrous policy of cutting its cloth with a cut-throat razor was met with the usual response – silence, but at least they didn’t go all out to deny it, because denial would have given it credence, nor did they bother to point out that my ‘predictions’ of staff lay-offs were a bit late by a few months, they were just one of the much-vaunted “Covid opportunities” opened up for the council executive, except that my predictions can be dated a few years prior to the latest cull (it’s all still out there; this is the beauty of these blogs, they never go away) which, aside from its intended financial gains for the executive, also had gains in effectively closing down Shirehall to elected Members.

They kept that quiet! Look at the figures and you’ll understand the reticence.

What wasn’t so surprising was the Opposition’s apparently being surprised to learn that many of the redundancies I was predicting at the start of the cull (sorry, redundancies) had already taken place when they were woken up by management’s latest announcement of further closures of elected Member’s facilities: that the ‘Column’ restaurant would no longer be available as a restaurant and the lack of consultation with elected Members was challenged (although you need access to internal emails to read about that, but I’ve copied those particular emails over to here).

I circulated the link (see below) to last year’s Shropshire Star article to all Members.

Rude awakenings, if not all round then to a significant chunk of those people charged with looking after not just their own constituents, but to anyone and everyone living in the county. Constituents have an expectation of us (which we’re regularly challenged on, and not just when elections come around) and, not unreasonably, we have our own expectations of those senior managers/directors who are paid to “enable” us to address those challenges and do OUR job.

The full, sorry story is here…

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/politics/2021/08/23/18-million-council-pay-offs-funded-by-the-taxpayer/

Below is the notification that started it all. And whilst it may seem petty to kick off about the loss of the restaurant (itself a well-used breakaway facility and the only facility where elected Members could entertain visiting guests), it was more to do with the total lack of consultation because what they’ve done goes way beyond the inconvenience of bringing in your own drinks because, as David Vasmer says, if you’re stuck in Shirehall for a couple of hours, staff working from home have only to put the kettle on and rustle up a ham sandwich, but as a councillor waiting on someone else’s convenience you’re sitting around with the prospect of your return journey (in my case 27.4 miles, half of it along country lanes) to look forward to. In the old days you’d have been doing other constituency business with other departments and returned home with a few “results”. No more.

What’s new from Monday 28 March?

From Monday 28 March desks and collaborative spaces will be relocated to the west wing and old restaurant area

Accessible areas

The ‘Queen’s Landing’ area of the first floor continues to be accessible to staff and councillors, including the ICT Help Hub, Council Chamber, committee rooms, Councillors’ lounge and chairman’s office.

Bookable collaborative working spaces and desk space, via the online booking system will be available at:

  • West Wing
  • Old Restaurant
  • Library Annexe Building (in Shirehall car park)

And this is the email trail the above gave rise to. …

From: David Vasmer
Sent: 25 March 2022 09:52
To: Mark Barrow
Cc: Members
Subject: RE: Fire safety works – updated info for members

Dear Mark

Your email seems to imply that the “Old Restaurant”, as you call it, has been permanently closed.

Is that the case?

If so when was this decided and who made the decision?

Was there any attempt to consult members? Were staff consulted?

If not when can we expect the Old Restaurant to reopen?

If the Restaurant is not reopened or until it is, can the facilities at Shirehall for eating and drinking be improved now that meetings are taking place on a regular basis.

On Wednesday I attended Cabinet in the morning and Community Overview in the afternoon starting at 1pm. I went outside for lunch but later on after Community Overview I had to stay to get a laptop problem sorted out. The only choice for sustenance was a coffee machine that doesn’t work – my cappuccino was more like a black coffee – and a vending machine full of unhealthy snacks.

For the sake of staff and councillors can something be done urgently to improve the food and drink offer at Shirehall? And there is a clear case of discrimination against staff who find it very difficult working from home and need to be permanently based in Shirehall.

Anybody would think that managers were actively discouraging people from attending Shirehall and making a visit as unpleasant as possible.

Best wishes

David

Cllr David Vasmer

Underdale

Leader, Shropshire & Shrewsbury Liberal Democrats

07738 111023

From: Mark Barrow <Mark.Barrow@shropshire.gov.uk>
Sent: Friday, March 25, 2022 4:08:20 PM
To: David Vasmer <David.Vasmer@shropshire.gov.uk>
Cc: Members <Members@shropshire.gov.uk>; Andy Begley <Andy.Begley@shropshire.gov.uk>
Subject: Column Restaurant

Hi David,

The decision to close the restaurant and make the staff redundant was taken very early in the pandemic in 2020.  The staff were furloughed for a short while but as it became clear that we would never return to the model of office working that existed previously and given the shift to hybrid/home working, Shirehall would only have circa 150 people working in it at any one time and it was judged to be simply financially unviable to continue. You will recall from the recent reports to Cabinet in respect of trading losses within Shire Services and its schools contracts that we simply have no financial headroom to subsidise such facilities any more.

Very few people now do work out of Shirehall on a daily basis and we have been tracking the impact on staff through staff surveys, discussions with employee groups etc. What most people now do is either bring their own food/snacks or pop next door to the Sainsbury’s Local adjacent the main entrance. Work is underway to create a range of areas, including the sort of break out spaces you refer where food can be eaten.  I will pass your comments on the facilities team about the coffee vending machine as clearly something is not working as it should.

Regards, Mark

From: Nigel Hartin
Sent: 26 March 2022 08:21
To: Mark Barrow; David Vasmer
Cc: Members
Subject: Re: Column Restaurant

When were members consulted on this decision Mark, I don’t recall seeing anything about this at the time?

Nigel

From: Roger Evans
Sent: 26 March 2022 09:3
To: Nigel Hartin; Mark Barrow; David Vasmer
Cc: Members; Andy Begley
Subject: RE: Column Restaurant

I too cannot remember any messages regrading this being sent out.

This message is also not sent from a political angle but from an elected member position.

Was this discussed with any elected members, it certainly wasn’t with me as at that time the Group Leader of the largest opposition group on the council. This was, is, a fundamental change in policy and surely should have been consulted on and information sent out to all members.

Have any other similar type of policy decisions been made.

I am also not aware of any figures being published, internally or publicly of the Shire Services trading position which showed how the different and separate arms were performing.  At a recent Schools Forum meeting when the Shire Services figures for schools were presented, shown them they expressed complete surprise as no one had previously thought they needed to know them. No warnings had ever been given out. They had not been told that consultants were, had been employed to look them and to make recommendations on how to eliminate them.

Were staff consulted on this loss, and if they were can we be shown the result. The decision of the restaurant seems to go very much against the comments made that SC is a member driven authority.

Finally, can it be confirmed that when the next council meeting is held in the Shirehall refreshments will be made available for members.

Regards

Roger Evans

From: Dave Tremellen
Sent: 31 March 2022 08:01
To: Roger Evans; Nigel Hartin; Mark Barrow; David Vasmer;
Cc: Members ; Andy Begley;
Subject: RE: Column Restaurant

Ah, Roger, you’re forgetting the memo that was sent to all of us ELECTED representatives of the people in this democracy of ours… well, a version of democracy any way.

I’m sure there must have been a memo. Anyway, even if you weren’t told it was about to happen, you were certainly told that it HAD happened, although the Column restaurant wasn’t mentioned specifically…

£1.8 million council pay-offs funded by the taxpayer | Shropshire Star

Happy days.

Regards

Dave T

From: Roger Evans
Sent: 31 March 2022 10:17
To: Dave Tremellen; Nigel Hartin; Mark Barrow; David Vasmer;
Cc: Members; Andy Begley;
Subject: RE: Column Restaurant

Thanks Dave,

Had missed this memo from the Shropshire Star. I am usually good at reading all the messages they supply. I was away on the date when this was published !

As I assume it is with you, local media and recently press releases are the source where I get most of the information concerning Shropshire Council.

I did note though that in a report I read last year, buried within it, was a statement that two employees had left the authority during the financial year 20/21 at a cost of just under £1M. This report didn’t identify how this total was arrived at, nor the names of the former members of  staff involved but costs would have included redundancy and pension cost.

Best wishes

roger

Now, I haven’t printed my original response to Roger here because I’ve just noticed that it is riddled with syntax errors. Nothing suspicious there, just that the first paragraph of my response to Roger doesn’t deserve exposure in decent company. What follows is what SHOULD have been printed. Mea Culpa to Roger, everyone else, and especially to the English language which I know I play fast and loose with sometimes but there is a limit, even for me.

From: Dave Tremellen, to: Roger, Nigel, Mark, David, Members, Andy

And Roger, don’t forget the cost of the NDAs. NDAs do not evidence largesse on the part of a Local Authority (!) or rather, because THEY’RE the ones paying for it, on the part of the local taxpayers.

Those of us who were closely involved with earlier cases, although I suspect also included the redundancies you refer to, have a mass of evidence concerning the way in which Shropshire Council operates its NDAs. I suppose that because the senior manager/director responsible for operating “our” NDAs has now left the authority with their own pay-off, we can at last get the full story out there (including, some years ago, a denial that Shropshire Council even applied the pressures of NDAs to avoid embarrassment – and the person making that earlier statement will suprise quite a few), being careful to avoid financial penalty for the innocent parties, whilst maximising the impact on those who feel they have so much to hide that they keep the cosh in the velvet glove of a NDA. Let’s see how far they can be provoked.

The response from Shropshire Council will certainly be a threat of civil legal action, having first got themselves an injunction, which is when the full story of Shropshire Council’s nefarious goings on will be subjected to the spotlight of the open court.

Responses to enquiries (forget Freedom of Information requests) are a master class in dissembling, in fact I’m just waiting for an online briefing in that particular linguistic skill.

Watch the spaces!

Regards

Dave T

#92: You can’t beat a bit of deja vue, as long as nobody else knows.

Doesn’t really need any comment, does it? because it speaks for itself, although it does point up that my criticisms of Leader and CEO, or rather the “policies” that they’re promulgating, apparently in ignorance (arguable) that it’s all been tried and abandoned before, are anything but a case of my making mischievous political capital out of the ignorance of others.

But be assured that my criticisms have a basis in “our” experience of those earlier policy changes. Relative newbies are doubtless scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m talking about 2013.

Although – in this context – “policy” is probably the wrong word, it’s more about the decision to simply do nothing to counter criticism because, hey, why bother? After all, what is there to bother about anyway? Although that’s not strictly true because at least one of the opposition makes their opposition known by parking in a clearly signed “Cabinet Members Only” reserved parking spot. Well, revolutions have to start somewhere and it’s a harmless enough vanity anyway. Bit sweet, actually.

But a bit of history for you that will probably earn me another accusation of vanity, but after all, isn’t that what a “journal” is all about?

I’m actually the only councillor to have resigned from a scrutiny committee after its first meeting, after allowing time to “sleep on it”, to allow any doubts to settle.

What doubts there might have been settled readily enough, long enough to realise that the system was a waste of time, and explained why Keith Barrow had given me a funny look when, a few days before, during one of the occasional breaks when a bunch of us were having a cosy collegiate cross-party coffee in the (politics-free) ‘Members Room’ (ah, those were the days), I’d congratulated Keith on setting up “a cross-party system of scrutiny along the lines of the AllParty Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) to hold his (Keith Barrow’s) Cabinet to account”. Ah, the innocence!

Whilst I was genuinely impressed, poor Keith was genuinely taken aback, doubtless wondering what the hell he’d said to give me that impression, whether he had, in fact, committed himself to such a nightmarish position as to open himself up to effective criticism. I remember a couple of other heads had turned on hearing what I’d said, but no one said anything, probably, I realise now, because they couldn’t believe anyone would be daft enough to actually read as much into the situation as this innocent new councillor with so much to learn about how our council worked!

I held on to my innocent conviction that all was right with the world until our first scrutiny committee meeting when the law according to the Cabinet was read out to us.

Also on that scrutiny committee (I can’t for the life of me remember which one it was, only that it was chaired by Vince Hunt) was the venerable North Shropshire councillor Arthur Walpole, a straight-talking guy of few words, although those few were usually pertinent enough to be worth remembering. I liked Arthur from the off.

I resigned with Arthur Walpole’s reaction still in my head, having been told by the committee officer at that first meeting that scrutiny committees were critical friends to Cabinet: “Bees that pollinate, not wasps that sting!

Arthur (I still recall his distinctive no-nonsense northern voice) was sitting directly opposite me in the Shrewsbury Room and sort of “exploded”. He turned to Vince and said: “I wouldn’t have bothered if I thought we were here just to point out where the banana skins were to members of the Cabinet!”

When I resigned from that scrutiny committee there was an avalanche of protest, none of it addressing the reasons given for resigning – based largely on my agreeing with Arthur that it was simply a waste of time and breath.

Over the following few days I was accused of putting extra pressure on my “colleagues” who would, now, have to pick up the slack that that my standing down had created; that I was throwing away the opportunity to “have my say” (which was precisely my point, that “saying” was all committee members could actually do); and put our Independent committee position in jeopardy. Gosh. I genuinely couldn’t believe that my action was having such far-reaching consequences; this was the end of the world, or some worlds anyway!

I did subsequently reverse my decision but only because the then Leader of the Independents, Pauline Dee, more or less pleaded with me to retain the group’s place on the committee. So it was affection and loyalty for Pauline Dee that caused that betrayal of that earlier conviction. (Incidentally, not always reciprocated, as witness my expulsion from the group for aligning with UKIP – an honest, open, purely pragmatic move to help get Brexit done, it had sod all to do with “immigration” beyond advocating a MANAGED policy that actually acknowledged the value of immigration in terms of its economic benefits to the UK – despite the LGA’s official recognition of UKIP as a legitimate member of their Independent Group. That cut no ice with Pauline who had several members of her family living in Europe at the time, so I became a ‘Non-Aligned Independent’, banished from the Group’s room; condemned to take my coffee back in the Member’s Room.)

And yet it could work, allegedly.

Scrutiny could work as its legislation naively intended and, indeed, a number of independent reviews of Shropshire’s scrutiny system have all, without exception and without qualifying their judgement, criticised the Shropshire Council ruling group for continuing to refuse to allow any of its scrutiny committees to be chaired by a member of the opposition.

Trouble is, everything is stacked against that ever happening when a political group has the edge when it comes to taking a vote on the matter, arguing that “that’s democracy”. Indeed it is, but in consequence the odds are stacked against effective scrutiny.

This is the opening page of ‘Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities’ (with a Forward by Rishi Sunak MP)…

Crucially, this guidance recognises that authorities have democratic mandates and are ultimately accountable to their electorates, and that authorities themselves are best-placed to know which scrutiny arrangements are most appropriate for their own individual circumstances.

That’s just the first let-out, there are plenty more to follow. Still within the opening few paragraphs…

“The guidance recognises that authorities approach scrutiny in different ways and have different processes and procedures in place, and that what might work well for one authority might not work well in another.

But of course, the very word “guidance” is the clue for the free-for-all that can follow.

Define “guidance”.

Go on, define it in a way that makes whatever follows if not mandatory then at least tightly enough drawn to cause a conscience or two to twitch in embarrassment.

Difficult, isn’t it?

This guidance has been issued under section 9Q of the Local Government Act 2000 and under paragraph 2(9) of Schedule 5A to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, which requires authorities to have regard to this guidance. In addition, authorities may have regard to other material they might choose to consider, including that issued by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, when exercising their overview and scrutiny functions.

That’s alright then.

And yet…

1. Executive Summary

Across the council, members and officers are keen to ensure that overview and scrutiny delivers positive outcomes for the people of Shropshire. There is a broad consensus that the function, as it stands, is not fit for purpose – a conclusion with which the peer team agree, and whilst there is a clear commitment to making it work, the best way to progress this has, to date, been unclear.

Heretics creeping in when no one was looking, printing their scurrilous reports?

Nope…

It was the LGA (Local Government Association).

3. Summary of the Peer Challenge approach

Peer challenges are delivered by experienced elected member and officer peers. The make-up of the peer team reflected [Shropshire Council’s] requirements and the focus of the peer challenge. Peers were selected on the basis of their relevant experience and expertise […]. The peers who delivered the peer challenge at Shropshire were:


 Lead officer peer: Ed Hammond, Director, Centre for Public Scrutiny


 Member peer: Councillor Terry Hone (Con), Deputy Leader and Finance Portfolio Holder North Hertfordshire District Council and Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny, Hertfordshire County Council


 Senior officer peer: Sara Turnbull, Head of Member Services, Buckinghamshire County Council


 Senior officer peer: Clare Pattinson, Legal Manager, Governance and Elections, Durham County Council


 Challenge Manager: Patricia McMahon, Adviser Local Government Association.

That peer review report should be essential reading not only for every elected Member, but for every member of salaried staff, especially the senior managers and directors of service. Unfortunately, it’s a pdf document…

… so some of you might have difficulty accessing it. In which case, go to the council’s website and put in a search for “scrutiny peer review” and look for “Diversity Peer Challenge Draft Report”.

County Councillor’s Last Report to ‘Highley Forum’ (April edition 2022)…

This will be the last of these reports from the front line because I’m standing down as your county councillor on the 29th April.

Elected in May 2013, and despite the ten years since being some of the most frustrating times of my 78+ years, until 2021 I’ve enjoyed them all.

So what did I aspire to back then; what got me going on the campaign trail? Well, quite a bit, some of which has been sorted, some of it still there for someone else to pick up on, like…

  • Lack of employment opportunities.

This will always be an issue for Highley, but despite efforts to promote rural industry by providing small workshops at affordable start-up rents – perfectly feasible schemes if only the concentration on Shrewsbury could be broken – there have always been too many vested interests.

  • Poor bus service making it difficult to access both work and leisure activities.

Another arguable one because our ‘hourly’ bus service is way better than most villages in Shropshire get. That the service stops at a time when leisure activities start is down to our failure to use it, making very real the old saying: “Use it or lose it!”

  • Lack of awareness and poor promotion of Highley’s historic past.

Ah yes, tourism, what could be the jewel in our crown but which is criminally neglected thanks to the cut-backs that were inflicted on us back in 2013. The terrific work done by the Highley Initiative back in the day was simply thrown in the bin by an uncaring council. Much anger at the time and it still rankles.

But it hasn’t all been negative, I did manage to cut through a lot of negativity to get the Highley Carnival started again although not quite in the format originally envisaged, and the Highley Neighbourhood Watch scheme was re-vitalised and currently has 1,100 members. And, of course, “the roads”. What an epic saga that’s been.

I’ll miss it and, of course, I’ll miss you lot, although I was told by one of you that whilst they were interested in what I had to say in these reports, she found a lot of it “a bit gloomy”. Well, that told me!

I’d promise to try and lighten up but I have to go.

Dave Tremellen

Report to Highley Parish Council, March 2022.

I often read over exchanges of emails from the early years and feel so sad that it hasn’t been a case of people “getting on with their job”, but rather that politics and egos got in the way. The only thing that saved my sanity was my stand as an Independent. I was answerable to no one except the people of Highley.

But it’s time to stand down and let someone else take it all on because frankly I’m tired of the way things are going.

There won’t be much of a council to work with anyway, in fact there isn’t much left of it now, so all that’s left to do is talk, not do.

I only stood again in May 2021 because I could see no one out there who would represent Highley’s interests and not follow the agenda of some national Party.

At the 2021 election I saw some really good people leave the county council, one of them with substantial time as a local councillor, serving with distinction on a number of high-profile committees, but de-selected by their Constituency Association who wanted a more compliant advocate for their Party’s national core values, and another who, totally disillusioned with a Party he no longer recognised as the principled one he had joined, relinquished the Party Whip with words that showed how betrayed he felt and stood (and won) as an Independent.

I’m hoping that someone will be found who, despite their outward political leanings, stands for Highley rather than Westminster and there are signs that that might actually happen.

Whoever it is, they’re entering a changed world in which the key word is “Shirehall”, except that it isn’t “just” a word; for me it encapsulates our individual idea of what a “council” is and does.

If I have a reference point it goes back to 2015 and ex-council leader Keith Barrow’s ambitious plans for “his” council-owned trading company, ip&e, and what most people wouldn’t be aware of, a subsequent police report (2016), which said that whilst the initiative established a more “businesslike approach” to the council’s activities, it also removed those activities from the scrutiny of Shirehall, raising the question of whether that removal from scrutiny was intended or was just an unintended consequence.

Intentional or not, closing Shirehall and moving its activities to a town centre location (or, as a leading member of the Green Party in council suggested, moving council activities out to the “outlying” areas in order to spread democracy around – totally impractical) achieves that same outcome by removing those activities from immediate scrutiny because councillors are, at a stroke, removed to the periphery where they’ll be chasing from pillar to post trying to locate the “right” officer in possession of the information they need. As daft ideas go, the words “lunatic” and “asylum” come to mind.

To me, Shirehall is more than a concrete symbol of 1960’s architecture, it is demonstrably a well designed building for its purpose, although that will obviously be open to debate, much of it based more on personal prejudice and vested interest than the £380,000-worth of detailed technical consultancy that argued a solid case for the original decision to retain and refurbish Shirehall but which later, as if by magic, was used as the basis for the subsequent decision to demolish Shirehall.

In all innocence, when the decision to demolish was announced, I genuinely thought that another extensive, detailed study had been done and so I asked for the data on which the decision to demolish Shirehall was based. I was sent the identical documents that had made the case for its retention and refurbishment.

Thinking a mistake had been made, I pointed out that what I had been sent was the identical report that supported Shirehall’s retention. The senior officer I was talking to merely looked at me and smiled. It could have been paranoia but I’m sure I detected a faint look of pity in his eyes.

The word “Shirehall”, as much as the building itself, represents all the established principles of local government that have been established by successive administrations over the years but which now finds itself threatened by what seems to be an endless search for ways to up-end those principles in pursuit of what I have a distinct feeling will turn out to be a bad dream.

Activity at “council” continues to be restricted to limited meetings that are, to all intents and purposes, ‘invitation only’; the days when meetings were going on, somewhere, almost continuously, are now long gone.

Quite apart from the power this shifts into the hands of the unelected Executive, the justification for this closing down of the human side of council activity is the financial savings that the Administration are realising through staff working from home. Concerns about decisions being made in what is, to all intents and purposes, closed session, are dismissed by making the RECORDINGS of such meetings available on the council website.

Although management play down concerns and talk up the opportunities flexible, remote working offers, a lot of staff are desperately worried about redundancies, of which there will be many this time around and far fewer voluntary redundancies than there were back in 2013, the impact of those redundancies back then were catastrophic and the effects are still there in the corner cutting that goes on as a matter of routine (NOTE: more to come on that with an in-depth look into some pretty whiffy planning decisions), and when efforts are made to uncover the consequences of that cutting of corners, Freedom of Information requests that are trying to unravel often complex situations are dodged with an evasive response accompanied by the threat of being labelled ‘vexatious’.

It is impossible to exaggerate the benefits of personal contact, especially the ability to pick up on an unconscious facial tic when an awkward question is asked. Those little unconscious, revealing, moments often saying more than several minutes of carefully rehearsed bullshit when you’re looking for what is really behind an executive decision – like demolishing Shirehall? Just joshing.

Looking back over my old diaries, in the days leading up to the Covid lockdowns I was at Shirehall at least twice, often three times a week, occasions when I fitted in meetings with individual officers to follow up on something local to Highley or personal to a Highley constituent.

There were often meetings of various committees going on which you could drop into and eavesdrop on proceedings and, because of the “open forum” nature of such meetings, if there was anything arising that piqued interest, it was not only allowed but expected that “visiting” councillors sitting-in on the meeting contributed (at the invitation of the committee chair, of course) to the proceedings from the public ‘gallery’. That’s open democracy. We’ve seen the last of that!

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that when I first raised my concerns that our Administration’s practice of by-passing local councillors with plans for their new way of working, further side-lining councillors by abandoning briefing notes and announcing policy changes in the local press, the response I got from our Chief Executive was: “Your comments have been noted.”

Which said it all.

Indeed, so much said in so few words.

Basically, the new top layer of administration is accountable to no one but itself and, critically, the body of professionals who meet regularly to formulate the policies that determine the direction in which the county is now running, so the question about what will happen when I step down is a purely academic one unless they’re prepared to be as big a pain in the ass to the Administration as I’ve been!

Should Standards in public life matter, and if so then to whom?

I was recently re-reading: ‘Standards Matter 2: Independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL)’, September 2020. [https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/standards-matter-2-public-consultation-and-public-sector-survey]

Oh to get out more!!

Promoted as a ‘landscape review of the institutions, processes and structures in place to support high standards of conduct in public office’, it struck me that the whole canon of published standards could have been written with Shropshire Council in mind because escape clauses abound, and we all know that where Shropshire Council is concerned it is escape clauses that matter.

In the case of Shropshire Council the presumption is that in the absence of outright criminality (and even then at a push) even when found guilty the accused should not be expected to carry the burden of guilt by being named. (And I still say that, even with the threat of an intimidating – well, I assume it was meant to be intimidating – Code of Conduct Complaint hanging over my head!!)

So much for the idea that: “It is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.

In fact, on Shropshire Council’s part, the presumption goes further, in that unless the outright criminality involves aggravating factors (someone has lost out financially) that can’t be ignored, then on the basis of “rank”, the presumption is to give the benefit of the teeniest weeniest doubt, however arguable.

I’ve had two Code of Conduct Complaints against senior councillors summarily dismissed despite, in the one case, the MP3 recording of the damning interview with a BBC reporter in which that senior councillor clearly lied. It was found that there was no case to answer! The verdict was delivered to me with a look that dared me to take issue, which of course I didn’t because, especially in the case of the more serious complaints, if you dare push for a more ‘helpful’ explanation you’ll find that the independent panel of three of your peers, having applied the wisdom of their broad experience, are of the opinion that your complaint was “politically motivated”. Think about that.

For the record, the “aggravating factors” that determine whether the police can be bothered to get involved, are when financial or other personal loss is involved, which sort of rules out those pesky nebulous ethical responsibilities that the general public still naively take to be the expectations of public office because, after all, whilst it’s alright pointing the finger, if you can’t actually put your finger on something and squash the life out of it, it doesn’t count for much. It certainly isn’t something the police would get out of bed for. (see #24. When the burden of proof is on trial.)

Well, it’s a view that certainly makes for a quieter life for Monitoring Officers, even those who, in what were once regular briefings on ‘Standards’, insisted that regardless of any arguments to the contrary, what should always be uppermost in the minds of Elected Members is “public perception”.

I’ve attended a number of briefings given by the Monitoring Officers of neighbouring Local Authorities and, used to dealing with a form of reality not quite meeting what was actually being said, always asked those legal officers of neighbouring authorities if they genuinely believed what they were saying and was asked why I asked that question. I cited a number of instances (all of them related in these blogs over the years) and eyebrows were raised, but my query was answered in the affirmative, quite strongly actually. Yes, of course they not only believed what they were saying but practiced what they preached. Answering the question what local authority I was from, in one case got me the response: “For god’s sake don’t repeat what I’ve just said!” That got a knowing laugh from some of those present.

And it isn’t just Shropshire Council (although our council did tend to get a mention quite often back in the day). Every edition of Private Eye has pages of the stuff in its regular feature ‘Rotten Boroughs’.

One issue that is particularly irritating is the failure of Monitoring Officers (and Shropshire’s isn’t alone in this) to insist that councillors give details of political sponsorship in their legally required ‘declarations of interest’, some local authorities do and some don’t, and the reason given by Shropshire Council – that a councillor’s “political sponsorship is obvious from their stated political allegiance” – is disingenuous to the point of being downright dishonest, because every candidate standing for election for a named political party is sponsored in the form of their election expenses and back-office support.

Again, we’re talking about what matters within both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law: that nothing should be taken for granted, especially not when it comes to public perception, something that Shropshire Council’s legal department always made much of in public but tended to be a bit coy about when challenged. It’ll be interesting to see if anything’s changed with the recent changes at the top.

All of which begs the question: ‘OK, so if standards do indeed matter, is it really a question of by how much and to whom?’

Appears so.

County Councillor’s Report, Highley Forum, March edition.

I’m pushing my luck talking about the roads being finished at last because I’m writing this in order to meet this edition’s deadline of the 15th February (actually today) and the work actually started yesterday, but ever hopeful I won’t be proved a liar when I say that we can, at long last, drive over roads that we should have had eight years ago if only everyone who made me promises at that time had kept those promises.

In a regular furtle through old stuff, I often read over exchanges of emails from those early years and feel so sad that it hadn’t been a case of people “getting on with their job”, but rather that politics and egos got in the way. The only thing that saved my sanity back then and over time since was my stand as an Independent. I was answerable to no one except the people of Highley.

But it’s time to stand down and let someone else take it all on.

They won’t do it the same as me because I can’t find anyone prepared to do the job without the support of a political group because that’s the way they believe it has to be done. Well, so be it. There won’t be much of a council to work with anyway, in fact there isn’t much left of it now, so all that’s left to do is talk, not do.

I’ve always believed that no one should stand for more than two terms in office anyway and I only stood again in May 2021 because I could see no one out there who would represent Highley’s interests and not follow the agenda of some national Party. When you see people who have worked at this job for more than two terms (which, remember, is actually EIGHT years) you’re looking at someone who has – consciously or unconsciously – “got their feet under the table” and as a consequence become part of the Establishment and part of the problem.

At the last election I saw some really good people leave the county council, one of them with substantial time as a local councillor but de-selected by a constituency association who wanted a more compliant advocate for their Party’s national core values, and another who, totally disillusioned with a Party he no longer recognised as the principled one he had joined, relinquished the Party Whip and stood (and won) as an Independent, the two of them exiting with words that showed how betrayed they felt.

The point is that both those distinguished but bitterly disillusioned councillors had supported all the changes that have reduced what used to be an honourable institution to the rump estate it is now by saying nothing. Remember this?

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. [Attribution questionable, apparently.]

Dave Tremellen

Member for Highley Division of Shropshire Council.