#73: On coffins and premature political deaths.

Confirmation, if confirmation of what I’ve been predicting for the past few years is needed then the final nail in the lid of Shirehall’s coffin is here…

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/local-hubs/shrewsbury/2020/08/26/council-bids-to-block-listing-of-shirehall/

When I read that I immediately circulated an email to all councillors asking…

Would anyone care to comment on this?

Shropshire Council has applied for a Certificate of Immunity to prevent the Shirehall being listed, in an attempt to open the way for sale and demolition. If you wish to object write to Rachel.Williams@HistoricEngland.org.uk

The deadline for consultation is 28 August, 2020.”

Who, outside of Cabinet, knew of this?

And if true, would anyone care to explain why the “new way of working” has become so Presidential that it precludes ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES outside the Cabinet from being consulted prior to such a move?

Ironically, one of the criticisms of Keith Barrow as Council Leader (2009 – 2015) was that he had a bullying style of management, although that was an element of Keith’s regime that I personally never experienced, once Keith had stepped down from council I had such stories coming at me from all directions.

Many of the councillors who related their unhappy experiences under Keith in 2015 are the same councillors who, unaware of the irony, are quietly supporting an equally unaccountable Executive under Peter Nutting.

Following Peter Nutting’s actions since his takeover of the council in 2017, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of forethought. Statements of intent have undoubtedly been made, but without consideration of the implications for Shropshire people of council staff having to work from under-resourced homes, which is serious enough in itself, but the implications for town and parish councils will be far-reaching and profound, given the hinted-at extra responsibilities likely to be piled onto their agendas that will seriously affect their ability to deliver the services that Shropshire people expect for their council tax, because what Peter Nutting and his service directors don’t say is that town and parish councils will be told what to do and expected not only to get on with it but pay for it.

What’s happening now is, in essence, a complete betrayal of every principle of representative democracy, with consequences the Executive cannot claim were unintended, well, not without sounding like someone who interprets the sinking of the Titanic as an excellent opportunity to learn how to swim!

When Nasser was President of Egypt he once told the local Head of the CIA Egyptian office:

The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves that make us wonder that there may be something that we are missing.”

That’s exactly how I find myself reacting to Peter Nutting’s initiatives.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to accept at face value what’s been done since he took over in 2017, I have honestly tried, even putting ‘The New Saints’ £80,000 Legacy Grant case behind me, filing it under ‘Historical Cock Up’ together with the Code of Conduct Complaint that I made against Peter Nutting over the questionable way that he, together with ex-Chief Executive Clive Wright, handled that sorry episode.

[Whilst bringing Peter Nutting to some kind of justice for his misleading statement about what he was doing about the TNS loan/grant between June 2017 and January 2018, when my Code of Conduct Complaint led to the case being passed to the council’s Audit Department for what was – credit where it’s due – a thorough investigation, that Code of Conduct Complaint had as much to do with exposing the fallacy of justice ever being done by a Standards Sub-Committee whose outcomes are wholly predetermined by the way cases are presented to it by the council’s monitoring officer, Claire Porter. It should have been prima facie given that Peter Nutting was condemned by his own words in the MP3 recording of his interview with Joanne Gallacher of BBC Radio Shropshire that I submitted in evidence, and yet the Standards Sub Committee ruled that there was no case to answer!]

Peter Nutting’s talent, honed over the many years he’s been in local government, is his ability to pull off an administrative sleight of hand in a way that, by the time anyone realises what he’s actually done, it’s too late to do much about it. If that is genuinely his intention at the outset then his doubters have got it wrong and the man is a manipulative genius.

But I doubt that explains the deafening silence from members of the ruling Conservative group about the proposed demolition of Shirehall and the dispersal of staff and services either to their homes or to satellite offices, with all that means for the effective operation of representative democracy in Shropshire, because I know there are Conservative councillors who don’t agree either with what’s being proposed or the way that Peter Nutting’s Cabinet is going about it.

There are a lot of good men and women in the old Shirehall Conservative Party and despite having had to sign away their souls to be accepted as an official Conservative candidate in local elections, a handful were, back in the day, prepared to openly question, if not openly challenge, some of their Group Leader’s pronouncements, amongst whom, ironically, you could at one time have counted Peter Nutting.

Back in June 2016, I was at the EU Referendum count in Shrewsbury and at around two o’clock in the morning I spotted Peter Nutting standing alone against the back wall of the hall.

Only a matter of days before, as reported in the Shropshire Star…

It is understood the disagreement centred around an aborted challenge from a group of councillors to Councillor Pate’s leadership. Councillor Nutting, who would not be drawn on the reasons behind his dismissal, said: “We had a disagreement and I was removed from my position.”

In fact, he told me, he’d been kicked off the Cabinet by Malcolm Pate for ill-judged comments he’d made at a North Shropshire Constituency drinks party. As he was amongst “friends” his guard was down.

He’d been too trusting of the company he was in and the following morning he was called into the Leader’s office and summarily dismissed to the back benches.

But, and there’s always a ‘but’ in politics…

Following the local elections on May 4th 2017, Malcolm Pate got an object lesson in the error of counting chickens before they’re all hatched when, on the Monday preceding full council on May 18th, Peter Nutting replaced Malcolm Pate as Leader of their party.

(On the morning of that fateful meeting I’d been told to expect “a few surprises”. When I asked that gleeful Conservative friend what he meant by that he said: “Malcolm has got his sums wrong”. I didn’t have long to wait to find out what he’d meant.)

But all that was yet to come when I saw Peter Nutting standing against that back wall of the counting hall. Feeling genuinely sorry for him I went across and said: “Standing here like Billy No Mates, Peter, I’ll talk to you even if no one else will.”

Now that is normally taken as a joke heavy in irony by most people and allowed to pass as such, but Peter took me at my word and within minutes I was as depressed as he looked.

What came out was pretty much the statement of intent that has resulted in everything he’s done since he took over in 2017, summed up as “get rid of the dead wood and make the council more businesslike”… “sell off assets to invest for growth” (municipal golf courses were mentioned)… “use reserves to reduce the budget deficit”… ad inf.

You get the idea. All conventional classical liberal economics stuff. But selling off Shirehall wasn’t in there.

One thing that did surprise me was his assessment of the calibre of Malcolm Pate’s Cabinet: “Most of them are there because without the special allowances they’d be broke”.

And there was I thinking that all Tories are rich. I made my excuses and left.

The memory of that otherwise insignificant incident has never left me because in politics it is moments like that which, even in a relative backwater like Shropshire, shape history.

And like a bad Indian take-away, history is indeed proving its tendency to repeat on you, going a fair way to explaining the current silence of the Party lambs, the collective memory of what happened to Malcolm when he crossed Pete the Avenger informing constituency members (especially North Shropshire members) that you cross Peter Nutting at your peril.

But I was still VERY surprised to be told that there were rumours (the status of the source of that rumour giving it considerable weight) of the de-selection for the 2021 local elections of three senior Conservative councillors who I would have considered so well rooted in the Party’s establishment, in fact one of them with a right-wing pedigree quintessentially Establishment enough to render them untouchable, that to even consider de-selecting them simply “wasn’t on”.

Had I been the least bit inclined to scepticism, then the prospective candidate lined up to replace Keith Roberts was of such impeccable national significance within the Conservative Party machine to convince me that the North Shropshire constituency was taking what it saw as the necessary steps to strengthen its presence at Shirehall – or at whatever they replace it with!

The other two are (so far) Karen Calder, and someone of such sound credentials that her going will have a significant impact way beyond Shropshire Council’s remit, Ann Hartley, Chair of Shropshire Council!

When I heard that I thought that not only the North Shropshire Tories had gone mad but the whole bloody world. Keith Roberts has presence enough, but Karen and Ann are, by any measure, big hitters and therefore, as warning shots across the bows of the timorous, they are deafening.

Who, in their right mind and with an eye to the May 2020 local elections (Covid permitting), is going to challenge Peter Nutting now? If those three are for the chop then no one is safe.

At which point, perhaps an explanation to those not in the know of what goes on behind constituency doors in preparation for an election will help. It involves the selling of souls.

Way back in 2015, following Keith Barrow’s standing down, I was approached by two Conservative friends and actually thanked for pushing ahead with the Code of Conduct Complaint that led to his going. It was, they explained “long overdue”. Bemused, I asked: “If that’s the case, where have you guys been for the last five years?”

Feeling guilty for putting them on the spot, I asked whether the reason so many of their fellow councillors had remained quiet had to do with the piece of paper all Conservative candidates have to sign, pledging unquestioning support for their political group at Shirehall, their Leader at Shirehall and, if their standing MP was of the Party, committing always to work to keep them in place. Failing in any of those commitments, the Party reserved the right to claim back all the expense of getting them elected. Both my friends disputed that was the case. I assured them that as the official candidate for the Highley division of Ludlow Constituency Association in 2013 I had indeed been presented with that ‘contract’, in fact it was the reason I opted out – to stand as an Independent – because I wasn’t prepared to toe the national Party’s line and stop thinking for myself.

They still insisted that they had signed no such document and said they’d settle the matter by consulting with the resident Party apparatchik at Shirehall, Dean Carrol, a personable young man who had cleverly got his girlfriend to stand for the Green Party in 2013 in order to split the opposition in what was known to be a closely-contested electoral division.

The next day I wrote (and this is the text of the email sent)…

Morning ***.

I was genuinely surprised when you said that no party pressure was applied by Conservative constituency offices because the expectation of conforming was equal to my concerns over the NPPF* (especially its impact on those of us campaigning against wind farms) in deciding me against standing as the official Conservative candidate. When Philip Dunne and Keith Barrow phoned me after I’d told Philip that I was withdrawing, it was one of the things I mentioned, KB actually reassured me that no party whip was applied at Shirehall although he certainly didn’t insist that one didn’t exist, just that it wasn’t applied.

The “expectations” were set out in the form I signed accepting the ‘nomination’ and there is evidence that some constituencies apply it, even if your branch doesn’t. Remember the Mark Reckless [My note: he defected from the Tories to UKIP in 2014] case? When he defected to UKIP his local constituency office demanded he repay all his election costs.

It’s why I have always assumed that silent acceptance of Keith Barrow’s dictats by members of the Ruling Group had to do with what it would cost them if they opposed.

* NPPF = National Planning Policy Framework

In reply I got an email saying that when they had checked with their constituency’s rep at Shirehall, he told them that they had indeed signed such a document but that it was so long ago they’d obviously forgotten it.

A good job some of us have not only a reasonably good memory but a good filing system.

Oh, and some on-the-ball LDRS (Local Democracy Reporters), like Keri Trigg, who recently Tweeted this revelation…

WHIP TWEET 2 copy

Sorry that’s so difficult to read but it’s a screen-shot of a leaked memo, circulated to all Conservative Members before the Full Council on Thursday 24 September, instructing them on how to vote in the debate on the how, why, and when of implementing 20 mph safety zones around Shropshire schools. The issue here isn’t so much how Tory Members were being “advised” to vote (actually in favour of a REDUCTION in the time to implement) but the fact that it proves the existence of the Party Whip they always deny exists.

So where were we?

Well, still not answered is why, in the eyes of what appears to be all Conservative councillors, Shirehall has gone from being a building that Peter Nutting thought worthy of spending £380,000 on consultants to support his contention that it was worth saving to, and I quote the recent Tweet from one of Peter Nutting’s Cabinet: “… an energy eating awful architectural dinosaur, not to mention a fire hazard”.

So apart from Covid-19, what’s happened since those earlier meetings in the Wenlock Room at Shirehall, in which the £380,000 consultant’s report was presented, to cause such a rapid structural deterioration? Because I don’t recall any Conservative member present at that earlier meeting expressing ANY opinion, pro or con. In fact the only senior Tory I remember saying anything was Claire Wild, who came up to me immediately after the presentation to say that there was a better way to improve Shirehall than the extravagant plans drawn up by the consultants. She was quite upset, but then as an experienced property developer she was better qualified to question the plans and express an opinion than most of those present, in fact to console her I asked her if she needed a hug. (Most inappropriate, but then exceptional circumstances demand an exceptional reaction.)

And casting my mind back to that meeting, I remember how instructive it had been in understanding how certain minds work at Shirehall. When Keith Barrow had scheduled Shirehall for sale he was supported 100% not only by his Cabinet and Conservative colleagues, but by the same Chief Executive, Clive Wright, who had miraculously become a very vocal supporter of the £380,000-worth of proposals so enthusiastically promoted by Peter Nutting.

Come the change of administration when Keith stood down from the council, opening the way for Malcolm Pate, the plans to demolish Shirehall were quietly binned and Clive Wright switched sides overnight. The retention of Shirehall was suddenly a bloody good idea, thus proving that holding the office of Chief Executive is no proof of infallibility and that, moreover, it’s a distinct advantage to believe that obstacles can be overcome simply by being overlooked.

Shropshire Council has, over the years, shown a marked propensity not to learn either from its own mistakes or those of others.

Shirehall has some pretty clever people working in it, whether as officers or councillors, so when they do err they are better able to construct arguments to justify their reasoning, insofar as they choose to engage with a differing opinion, that is. And when they do deign to engage it’s only because their sensitivities have been aroused when their “professionalism” is challenged (planners are particularly prone to this trait), which makes them even more dogmatic in their views, their ‘bias blind spot’ meaning they are less able to acknowledge, let alone admit to, holes in their logic, the Local Plan Review being a case in point.

Basically, it’s about intelligent people making incredibly stupid decisions because they’re not thinking, they’re just rearranging their prejudices, which for politicians means along Party lines.

For senior officers, it will be along lines of self-preservation, although that didn’t help Clive Wright avoid an untimely demise. In the absence of any convincing official reason for his going, I’m tempted to wonder if he’d argued with Peter Nutting that yet another change of heart over Shirehall’s future was a change of heart too far.

It’s professional scepticism that stops an organisation driving itself off a cliff, but all the signs are that our Executive is blissfully committed to the functional stupidity of demanding unquestioning corporate loyalty where even the hint of criticism is seen as a betrayal punishable by death.

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Friday 9th October 2020

An Open Letter to Shropshire Councillors.

Dear Councillor,

The ‘SOS Save our Shirehall’ group would like to flag five serious concerns over Shropshire Council’s rushed-under-lockdown, but far reaching, decision to dispose of our County Shirehall:

1. Loss of a significant and central building. To symbolise the prestige of our historic County and be a focus for civic pride. Is Shropshire to be the only county in England without a County Hall?

2. Impact on services. With staff and departments reduced and dispersed county-wide and more home-working, direct access to services and our local government will be badly hit. Pop-ups are here today, gone tomorrow and are no substitute for proper access. Is this good enough?

3. Climate Emergency. The Royal Institute of British Architects has stated in its ‘Climate Challenge 2030’ report that it is highly irresponsible to demolish perfectly good and re-furbishable large buildings. Re-using and adapting what exists is acknowledged best practice to reduce carbon emissions and is less wasteful. Is the Council taking its adopted Climate Emergency seriously?

4. Staff. Measures required by a crisis have been used to serve an argument of obsolescence for the building, but why would this be good for permanent working with the loss of spontaneous cooperation with colleagues and the social and creative benefits that are fundamental to working life and human well-being. With many already suffering from isolation under lock-down, staff are being asked to embrace even more solitary home-working and uncertainty over their future. Are the staff being considered, particularly when Shirehall offers a large and adaptable space which could serve safe, socially distanced working so well?

5. Democracy. We are concerned that these above considerations have not been adequately discussed and decisions already arrived at or, is lock-down an opportunity to avoid open and transparent government and full discussion of such an important change for the County?

Additionally, we ask if you share our worry that the apparent lack of consultation, transparency and features of due process may risk reputational damage to the Council?

In the interests of all those affected, and the people of Shropshire, we ask for your response to these questions.

If you would like a copy of ‘Shropshire’s Shirehall – a Social and Architectural Appreciation’ please let us know.

Yours sincerely,

Martina Chamberlain

07913 439062

chamberlain.martina@gmail.com

Sally Stote

01743 362126

sallystote0@gmail.com

SOS Save our Shirehall: sos.saveourshirehall@gmail.com

#72: President Pete’s New World Order.

At last, the message is getting out there. Understandably, it’s taken time to filter out, but that’s no surprise given how quietly the Shirehall Establishment has slipped things out under cover of Covid-19.

(See #69: Is Democracy Dead Or Just Taken Apart And Put Back Together With Some Bits Missing?)

This gives you an idea of how profound the changes at Shirehall will be – EVERYTHING is changing, and not just from the point of view of how Shirehall staff will be working.

As I’ve said many times in the past, the days when a local councillor or parish clerk could just pick up a phone and speak to the person they needed to speak to are long gone, as are the times when a councillor could just knock on an office door and spend a few minutes discussing a local issue with the head of a department and get something sorted on the spot. Nowadays you need to know your way around a labyrinth you can’t see to get a pointer in the direction you should be heading in.

Eventually, it will be the normal way of working but I suspect that as far as the general public go their expectation will be that everything is still as it was a few years back and their frustration will grow before the realisation kicks in that things have actually changed and will stay changed however hard they refuse to accept it. I guess that in that regard the move away from Shirehall will finally bring it all home.

It’s happening now, in a recent case a local couple were so convinced that I wasn’t doing “enough” that they by-passed me to go directly to the planning department, only to get the answer I’d given their neighbour, with whom I’d exchanged a number of emails and telephone calls; another couple wrote to MP Philip Dunne only to get a reply that referred them to the “cogent arguments in Dave Tremellen’s submission to the planning committee.”

It’s harder to get across an argument in support of the community you represent nowadays because it’s easier for officers to ignore local opinion, national planning policies having given local authority planning officers far more power than they’ve ever had before.

But I’ve explained all of that in some detail in my blog articles.

Look at what’s happening in Bridgnorth with the Stanmore and Tasley developments, all of that has happened despite ALL six of the local councillors involved (William Parr, Les Winwood, Christian Lee, Michael Wood, Elliot Lynch, Robert Tindall) being Conservative and loyal to the ruling group (with the possible exception of Robert Tindall, who resigned the Tory whip because he insisted there wasn’t enough south of the county representation on Peter Nutting’s Cabinet – there still isn’t, but hey).

No one has been more critical of these changes than me, especially the way elected representatives have been effectively sidelined by both the interim Chief Executives addressing ‘news’ of staffing changes to salaried officers only, with elected councillors copied-in only as a courtesy. Peter Nutting has encouraged that approach, dismissing what few criticisms there have been with a shrug. But then, as a Shrewsbury councillor his position is safe as long as he continues to look after Shrewsbury!

There is more change to come, without a doubt, not least the closing down and sale of Shirehall. I’ve come to terms with the fact that between now and the terminal closure of Shirehall in 2023 nothing is going to be easy, especially if you don’t know your way around the virtual new world – names will just be names, featureless profile pictures will be the fixed image of what at one time would have been an animated face giving off body language that often spoke louder than words.

Welcome to President Pete’s New World Order.

71: Standards In Public Life: Is it STILL all a matter of perception?

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/2015/12/04/keith-barrow-quits-as-leader-of-shropshire-council/

………………………………………………………………….

Re-written blog article, originally published on 12th December 2015.

As the result of a Code of Conduct Complaint submitted by me, Keith Barrow was found guilty of a serious breach of Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct.

At the time it was reported in some quarters that…

In accordance with the Council’s procedure for the resolution of findings of a failure to comply with the Code of Conduct, Members of the [Standards] Sub-Committee were satisfied that the proposed apology and commitment of Councillor Barrow to undertake training represented a reasonable outcome without the need to hold a formal hearing.

For the record, as is obvious from the Shropshire Star article, he didn’t actually make a public apology but he did resign as Chairman of the council-owned trading company, ip&e, which he had established. A week later he resigned as the Conservative councillor for Oswestry South, ending his tenure as Leader of Shropshire Council, a post he’d held since the authority became a unitary one in 2009.

In fact I had the final choice whether the matter should be taken further or whether it should be dealt with “in house”. I chose the latter because Keith Barrow had been found guilty of something I hadn’t actually accused him of!

I’ll give you some of the back-story because it has significance for the electorate of Shropshire who have a justifiable expectation that their elected representatives are seen to promote and maintain the highest values of public office, observing standards that are, by any measure, beyond reproach.

Now I’m going to have to take a step back here because events began to merge, confusing the chronology, so bear with me.

Keith Barrow was a partner in Peakfast, a company that existed solely to hold interest in land immediately adjacent to a potential development site in Morda, just outside Oswestry. Setting aside the propriety of the Leader of the Local Planning Authority owning a share in a potential development site whose value was wholly dependent on decisions made by the Local Planning Authority that he led, of far greater significance than Peakfast’s ownership of that land was the link between Keith Barrow and one of his fellow partners in Peakfast, Tony Mathews, who just happened to be the principle partner in accountants DRE of Oswestry, a potentially beneficial interest (known as a ‘pecuniary interest’) that Keith Barrow failed to declare at crucial times during the process that led to DRE being appointed as independent auditors of ip&e, a failure that not only breached Shropshire Council’s Code of Conduct but breached the guidelines of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

It was the link between Keith Barrow and Tony Mathews that was the basis of my complaint, the breach of the guidelines of the ICAEW, not what was subsequently revealed to the independent solicitor investigating my Code of Conduct Complaint: the non-disclosure of Keith Barrow’s pecuniary interest in the mutual business dealings with Tony Mathews during the appointment of Peakfast as ip&e’s auditors.

My written Member’s Question to Full Council questioned the propriety of DRE’s appointment as auditors to ip&e, I never for one moment believed that ANYONE, let alone an experienced businessman like Keith Barrow, Leader of the local authority that ‘owned’ the company he was chairman of, would be stupid enough NOT to declare that pecuniary interest prior to a meeting of ip&e’s directors to select the accounting firm that would become ip&e’s auditors.

My question was in fact intended to give Keith Barrow the opportunity to put the record straight. This is the first time the original Member’s Question has appeared in print…

Given the extent of public disquiet surrounding the creation of ip&e would Council agree that, purely in the interests of probity, the appointment of auditors for ip&e should have been on the basis of competitive tender from companies throughout the county, rather than on the basis of what could unfairly be interpreted as a long-standing personal and professional relationship with a director of ip&e?

[Note: I subsequently stated in the phone call to Claire Porter (in response to her voicemail to me) that, had the question gone through, I wanted “probity” to be replaced with “prudent accounting practice”.]

It was in that exchange with the Head of Legal & Democratic Services that the suggestion that a formal Code of Conduct Complaint would be a more appropriate vehicle – “given the seriousness of my allegations” – to address the issue I’d raised.

Who was I to argue?

As to the eventual outcome? Of considerable significance was the subsequent testimonies to the independent investigating solicitor by directors and senior council officers involved in ip&e that, despite Keith Barrow’s failing to formally declare his connection with DRE and Tony Mathews, they insisted that Keith Barrow had never “influenced” the process that led to DRE being chosen over the other three candidate firms who had tendered for the contract. They were, in effect, expecting us to accept that they were ignorant of the distinction between a sin of omission and a sin of commission.

In that sense, Keith Barrow did not act alone.

https://www.icaew.com/technical/ethics/auditor-independence/auditor-independence-approach

#70: Vexatious, or a necessary irritant?

I know from my own attempts at discovering what’s behind some of the happenings at Shirehall just how difficult it is to get at the truth when you’re following up on the vaguest of clues that make up just a small part of what you sense to be a much larger picture you have only a vague outline of.

It’s a process of iteration, often depressingly slow because it often happens that the only way of obtaining the information you need is with a Freedom of Information request to Shropshire Council, a process that should get you a response “within” the 20 day time limit but which is grudgingly taken to the extent of that limit.

When that happens, it is tempting to blame a natural bureaucratic reluctance to release information on the grounds that such information is no one’s business but the Administration’s – and you’d be right, although there can be occasions when you suspect something more sinister is afoot, but when such thoughts do occur they’re usually attributable to the paranoia generated by the council’s anticipated knee-jerk reaction in putting up obstacles rather than it being a case of their openly defying the law, although that can occasionally happen…

https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2020/03/council-employee-fined-400-for-illegally-deleted-audio-file/

What is particularly significant about that local case is what was said by the Group Manager in Enforcement at the Information Commissioners Office:

This case is about the public’s right to know, and we will not hesitate to take action to protect people’s right to access the information they are entitled to.”

This case emphasises the critical importance of transparency for public authorities in the way they carry out their business.”

People should have trust and confidence that they can access public information without the danger of it being doctored, fabricated or corrupted in any way.”

So, you ask a question and get an answer that often raises further questions by intimating something you wouldn’t otherwise have known existed and which points to a new avenue of enquiry; such moments are golden.

Either way, further questions, often to the same officer or department, have to be asked in order to either confirm a line of inquiry or dismiss it and move on, and that’s when an enquirer can find themselves labelled as vexatious, the questions are too close to an earlier line of enquiry. Can you see how that can happen? You’re following clues, but on that basis how do you “prove” the legitimacy of your enquiry until those clues are linked? And how do you know they’re linked if they’re still out of sight in a folder in someone’s desk drawer?

Keith Barrow’s forced resignation in 2015 brought a change of Administration to Shirehall and the cancellation of his disastrous plan to sell off Shirehall and scatter council staff to locations around the county. That change would not have happened if a situation that had been ignored for years been allowed to continue unchecked ever since Shropshire Council went unitary in 2009.

There is only one way to apply sanction to someone wielding that kind of power and that is to use whatever information is out there about what they have been up to, when and with whom, in order to determine beyond reasonable doubt whether they have a case to answer which, in the case of someone holding public office, will concern the extent to which they may have brought that office into disrepute and opened themselves up to a charge of misconduct in public office, a criminal offence under the Localism Act 2011.

But back then, Shirehall labelled ‘vexatious’ one of the people I had worked with for a number of years gathering the complex information needed to make the case against Keith Barrow. I was not impressed to be told that the justification for Shirehall’s action against Steve Mulloy was that they considered the sheer number of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests placed too great a strain on limited resources.

It’s perhaps worth taking a look at what the courts say about the term ‘vexatious’ in the context of FoI requests…

‘…emphasis should be on an objective standard, and the starting point is that vexatiousness primarily involves making a request which has no reasonable foundation, that is, no reasonable foundation for thinking that the information sought would be of value to the requester, or to the public or any section of the public.’

Interestingly, the court (in Dransfield v Information Commissioner) has said that even a vengeful request could be non-vexatious if the information that would be disclosed is important, ought to be publicly available and promotes the FoI Act.

https://www.vwv.co.uk/news-and-events/blog/higher-education-law/freedom-of-information-how-to-recognise-a-vexatious-request

That’s where the problems came in for us, because the onus was shunted onto us to prove that, in our opinion, the information that would be disclosed was indeed “important [and] ought to be publicly available”.

Shirehall insisted (and still insists) that it is at THEIR discretion to make that distinction. I don’t blame them, if I was in their position I’d probably do the same, except that I’m not in their position because I’m coming at it from my position as an elected Member, not as a salaried officer protective of my organisation’s (and, by implication, my professional) reputation, especially if the information I’m choosing to withhold could seriously compromise that reputation if it proves damning.

In Steve Mulloy’s case it was down to him to formally appeal against his being labelled vexatious because the onus is on the appellant, who is, effectively, guilty until they have proven themselves innocent. Hardly fair. But then:

Law is a human invention; Justice is a divine inspiration.”

I’d interpret that as saying: “You’ll get justice if and when you get to heaven, meanwhile you’ll have to make do with English Law.”

But in Steve’s case he proved that Shropshire Council had based their labelling of him as vexatious on the wrong section of the law, forcing them to back down although, churlishly, Shropshire Council insisted they had the right to reserve their position at the next opportunity confrontation.

So what have such attempts at censoring meant for ongoing investigations into the more shadowy corners of Shropshire Council? Well, it has obviously slowed them down but it certainly hasn’t stopped them.

At the time of going to press investigations are ongoing into a particularly disturbing case too sensitive to be other than hinted at here.

Watch this space.

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Notes:

Law is a human invention; Justice is a divine inspiration.”

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=00mkBQAAQBAJ&pg=PT123&lpg=PT123&dq=%E2%80%9CLaw+is+a+human+invention;+Justice+is+a+divine+inspiration.%E2%80%9D&source=bl&ots=fCR_cznOjW&sig=ACfU3U0BxRAWSeNSsyqZ6WszEXlRBhLmjQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiphaDw9o3qAhVcQkEAHeRWAuEQ6AEwAHoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CLaw%20is%20a%20human%20invention%3B%20Justice%20is%20a%20divine%20inspiration.%E2%80%9D&f=false

#69: Is Democracy Dead Or Just Taken Apart And Put Back Together With Some Bits Missing?

In its original version, this first appeared in the July 2013 edition of the Highley Forum, since when events have overtaken it to exceed even the extent of the break-up that I foresaw back then.

Well, local democracy as we used to know it, anyway? The sort that channelled a collective local voice into the decision making processes of what used to be “the local council”, whether parish, district or county, the last two long defunct in Shropshire since 2009 when unitary and its ‘Strong Leader with Cabinet’ model of governance came in.

Conversion to the unitary council model in 2009 channelled decision-making into the hands of the individuals chosen by the Leader (capital ‘L’), who is voted into place by members of the largest political grouping at Shirehall which in Shropshire’s case is the Conservative Party. The chosen few form a ‘Cabinet’ and assume the authority to make decisions as an executive not answerable, and certainly not accountable, to anyone.

In theory scrutiny committees do exist, with the nominal power to question proposed policy changes but which, in reality, are able only to “recommend” changes which the Cabinet is under no obligation to accept.

If the shift of power started when Shropshire went unitary under Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2009, it was when the Conservatives under David Cameron won the May 2010 general election that the consequences of that shift in power really took hold.

Council offices in Ludlow and Bridgnorth were off-loaded and staff offered voluntary redundancy. Only later, with the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2013, would the full implication of the resultant loss of 40% of the authority’s senior, more experienced planning staff begin to manifest itself, and continues to be felt now, in 2020!

We councillors were told (usually via the Shropshire Star) to get ready to come to terms with changes to the way local government would operate in Shropshire because central government was determined that things would change and the Executive at Shirehall were determined to toe their Party’s line.

The ‘For Sale’ signs went up on Shirehall and Shirehall started working to render itself obsolete by moving many of its functions into the council-owned company established by Keith Barrow, ‘ip&e’ (wound up in 2016 after Keith Barrow was forced to stand down at the end of 2015).

The sale of Shirehall was pretty much a foregone conclusion; earlier optimistic talk of a move to the Guildhall in Shrewsbury – retaining at least a semblance of the old way of doing things – was out because it was earmarked for use as part of the ‘campus’ of the University of Shrewsbury.

With Stonehouse in Ludlow and Westgate in Bridgnorth closed down, officers were even then either ‘hot-desking’ or operating from home or from their car, the Executive’s ambition for the wholesale move to a virtual council was only slowed by the poor-to-non-existent broadband coverage over great swathes of the county, particularly in the west.

But as internet connection improved, that impediment was overcome and the way was open to complete the transition to a truly remote council with all the advantages that offered to an Administration intent on cementing itself in place and, moreover, cementing itself in place in perpetuity.

But how to sell that idea?

Well, along came Covid-19 and handed them the solution on a plate.

On Friday 22 May 2020 all elected Members were copied-in to the daily Covid-19 “up-dating” text from one of the interim Chief Executives, Andy Begley. In the middle of the text it said

Over the past several weeks we have all been working differently. Our new ways of working, specifically the use of technology to deliver services, are foundations for a brighter, better and more sustainable authority.

We have mentioned changes and the new normal many times, but what has perhaps not been as clear is the fact that we will not be returning to the old ways of working. We cannot return to how we worked for many reasons. Covid is an obvious issue, but the reality is we need to make sure that our services and our organisation, as a whole, is fit for purpose going forward, and able to serve our residents as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Funding, advances in technology, changes in service requirements and closer working with the NHS are all fundamental shifts in how we work and Coronavirus has been a huge catalyst to accelerate necessary changes – propelling us into a future we would have strived for over years, but one we can now step into together, as a better, more vibrant, inclusive and innovative Council.

We have discussed the idea of public sector staff being doers and right now we need you to continue doing your jobs, but we also need you to be curious about what could be better and work to truly transform.

There is no more room for inefficiencies, there is no more time to delay – this is here, the need is now.

As a management team, and with the support of several council services, plans are being drawn up as to what Shropshire Council could look like. These plans are being fed by responses from the staff survey, data we have about how we are working now, service requirements and Shropshire’s future needs.

Throughout this process we will work with staff to make sure everyone has a voice and right now we need you to stay strong, keep innovating and to consider the best bits from how we used to work, whilst planning for a new tomorrow – one we’ll shape together to be the best local authority we can be.

A new tomorrow? That’s the first Elected Members had been told of it.

I read through it again.

foundations for a brighter, better and more sustainable authority” … A sentence we saw many times during the changes wreaked wrought back in the dark days of 2013.

the fact that we will not be returning to the old ways of working” … So no talk of consultation with elected councillors or the thousands of people they were elected to represent, so essentially an unequivocal statement of intent sealed with that one word “fact”.

“… propelling us into a future we would have strived for over years” … Except there has never been a “would” in there since 2013, that bit should more accurately have read: “propelling us into a future we have strived for over years”.

The old-fashioned concept of democratic representation had long ago moved into the cross-hair sights of the Executive, its finger poised over the trigger which, given the opportunity to blow a hole in democracy’s head, just needed a nudge.

And just in case anyone had any doubts about how serious the Executive was about finally realising that ambition…

There is no more room for inefficiencies, there is no more time to delay – this is here, the need is now.”

Now”. BOOM!

These plans are being fed by responses from the staff survey, data we have about how we are working now, service requirements and Shropshire’s future needs. […] Throughout this process we will work with staff to make sure everyone has a voice”.

And all that achieved without once consulting with elected Members outside of the ten-person Cabinet?

“… everyone has a voice”?

Whilst I’m obviously not happy about the distancing of people from the administration of their affairs through the diminution of local representation as indicated in that email, given the increasing apathy of people towards the machinery of government, local as well as central, I can understand people believing (wanting to believe?) that the profound changes that are happening will not impact directly on them.

Perhaps democracy is increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily lives?

Ah well, as long as nobody goes looking for a council office door to knock on. Oh, and they pick whatever the right time is to do it, just in case…

Technology, message from ICT:

Some people experienced issues this morning with their technology and we can only apologise. We believe the issue resulted from high demand on the infrastructure. This increase has been seen across the country, potentially as a result of organisations returning to somewhat normal work. Whilst we hope this issue does not recur tomorrow, we cannot guarantee, so please be mindful if there are problems tomorrow and if there are, they will likely ease mid-morning.

We are monitoring this, looking for opportunities to overcome the issues and have developed a plan to overcome the issues. We will keep you posted on your Directorate Teams sites.

02 June 2020. Staff Update Covid-19.

Karen Bradshaw & Andy Begley

Acting Interim Chief Executives

#68: Now you see him, now you don’t. Lifting at least a corner of the Shirehall carpet.

I am determined that this case should not be lost in the chaos and confusion of the Covid-19 pandemic because it is symptomatic of what is wrong with some parts of Shropshire Council.

The parts of Shropshire Council that are right tend to be at the lower operational, individual officer levels, it’s when you start looking at the very top that things start to get a bit questionable – and whilst politics isn’t always to blame there are systemic faults that run to its very core.

The case of what happened to one particular senior officer has a significance that taints everyone by association, not least because as one long-established Tory councillor said to me in a discussion about the issues that have seen Shropshire Council making regular appearances in the ‘Rotten Boroughs’ section of Private Eye: “When we’re elected we hand our reputation to Shropshire Council and have every right to expect them to look after it”.

We’re talking here about how an organisation goes about its business, and that affects everyone engaged with whatever business that organisation is engaged in, severally and collectively, because everyone in that organisation is accountable “by association”.

Everyone. Well, apart from the few who arrogate to themselves the apparently immutable right of privilege they assume comes with the ability to face down anyone who challenges them.

But this is a case deserving of challenge, especially under the present conditions, with everyone’s attention so focused on Covid-19, which is proving to be a carpet big enough to sweep a lot of highly questionable stuff under.

………………………………….

What set it all off.

What made this case go from a curious incident to a worrying case worth looking into was a chance meeting with the person at the centre of it all in, of all places, the dairy aisle of Sainsbury’s in Shrewsbury, when the usual niceties of a chance meeting went from the usual niceties to worrying tales of a betrayal that led to an over-reaction by Shropshire Council’s then Chief Executive that would have significant cost implications, although the extent of those costs wouldn’t become obvious until much later. About eighteen months later in fact.

So, stepping back in time, imagine that you’re engaged in negotiations with colleagues less qualified, less senior and less experienced than you, and there is a disagreement amongst the group about the way to go about making changes to the way the organisation is set up, and one of the more junior colleagues goes to the Chief Executive and complains that you’re “being difficult”, and the Chief Executive calls you in and tells you that, on the basis of that junior colleague’s word, he is suspending you and then emails the wider organisation telling them that he’s suspending you for having committed a very serious breach of some unspecified protocol.

And if, a few months later, your suspension is lifted without so much as a public apology or follow-up statement about the facts of the case, which meant your accuser gets away with having been responsible for adding the insult of that original public statement to the personal injury of impugning a reputation you’d built up over an unblemished career spanning 37 years well, without putting too fine a point on it, you’d be more than a bit pissed off.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This is the email, widely distributed to all Shropshire councillors, that started it all off…

From: Clive Wright
Sent: Thursday, August 30, 2018 5:36:12 PM
To: Members
Subject: Strictly Confidential

This is to advise you that I have suspended (let’s call him ‘Jim Smith’) from his duties at the Council pending an investigation.

The investigation concerns a potentially serious matter which I cannot disclose at this juncture.

The fact that we are investigating does not mean that there is any guilt or wrong doing.

In the meantime the following staff are dealing with operational issues:

[LIST OF STAFF]

For strategic matters please contact me.

Please contact me to discuss any concerns you may have.

Due to the sensitivity of this matter it is extremely important that you do not discuss this further.

Best wishes.

Clive Wright
Chief Executive
Shropshire Council



I read it again and did a double-take at…

The investigation concerns a potentially serious matter which I cannot disclose at this juncture.”

Fair enough.

The fact that we are investigating does not mean that there is any guilt or wrong doing.”

So what was with the bit that said: “a potentially serious matter […] does not mean that there is any guilt or wrong doing.”

I thought, OK, so a potentially serious matter? Surely it’s either serious or it’s not, and if there’s potentially no guilt or wrong-doing then:

“…suspended pending an investigation into allegations of a breach of standards”

…would have sufficed?

You’d have thought so. I certainly did. Chief Executive Clive Wright obviously didn’t.

So what?

Unless seriously serious, an everyday breach of standards leads to a formal Code of Conduct Complaint which is referred to the council’s Standards Committee, in this case I was surprised that what was being called “a potentially serious matter” wasn’t referred to the police, although in my experience such a referral usually results in the complaint being dropped because of ‘insufficient evidence’, even if it’s actually the case that the law has been broken, because the police aren’t interested in the internal affairs of the council if they lack the “aggravating factors” that would make it a “real” crime; basically, that nobody’s lost out financially. Breaches of the Localism Act being a case in point.

But this “potentially serious matter” wasn’t being referred to either of those two channels. It wouldn’t be the first time in this case that I’d ask: “What’s occurring?”

There are in fact a number of options.

Part 5 of Shropshire Council’s Codes and Protocols says:

Any concerns regarding Members’ conduct in relation to the relevant protocols listed at paragraph 1 above should be considered in the first instance by the Monitoring Officer. If the conduct gives rise to section 151 statutory officer issues, the Monitoring Officer will consult with that officer. Where the concerns relate to potential criminal actions, the Monitoring Officer shall make an immediate referral to the Police. Where there has been a potential breach of the Code of Conduct the “Procedure for Local Assessment and Investigation of Complaints that Councillors have Breached the Code of Conduct” shall be followed.

On completion of the report and any response from any affected Members, the Monitoring Officer will determine whether to:-

i) take no further action

ii) resolve the matter informally

iii) refer the matter to the Assessment Sub-Committee to decide what action to take

iv) refer the matter to any outside agency, e.g. Ombudsman

But not a word followed that original email notification of that senior officer’s suspension.

The officer in question had been central to a lot of stuff going on in my constituency, his name was on a lot of paperwork, including his being copied-in to emails from (civil) partners outside the council who wouldn’t have received that initial email because it was marked “Strictly confidential”.

People needed to be told because business needed to continue, hence on receipt of that email advising of the suspension I wrote to Clive Wright…

31 Aug 2018, 09:19

Jeez! Still reeling.

There is one area that ‘Jim Smith’ was closely involved with and ‘Jim Smith’ would have been First Point of Contact about, issues concerning the Severn Centre.

‘Jim Smith’ was in direct contact with the CEO of Halo Leisure, especially about an ongoing issue. Will correspondence be diverted or can Scott be advised of an alternative contact without revealing details?

And are the parish council clerks ‘Jim Smith’ had direct (not just through the CET) dealings with being advised of “alternative arrangements”?

Regards

Dave T

To which Clive Wright answered…

31 August 2018 09:40

Dave

Thank you

I will do my best to ensure that these loose ends are picked up.

Best wishes

And that’s when it all went quiet. Not a word until, in May 2019, eight months later, the new Senior Management Structure was circulated which clearly showed ‘Jim Smith’ where you’d expect to find him, just below the head of the structure!

So why, as far as anyone knew, was ‘Jim Smith’ still suspended.

What the hell was going on?

Busy with local issues, I left things as they were to see what, if anything, transpired. I hadn’t pushed it further because at this point I was anyway more curious than suspicious.

I checked that management structure diagram again to see whether Shropshire Council’s imported “highly experienced” highways consultant (at £1,000 a day for six months, an unnecessary indulgence given that our own ‘Jim Smith’ was probably equally as “highly experienced”) appeared in a permanent post, he didn’t and, seeing ‘Jim Smith’s’ name still there, I phoned around to ask if anyone knew whether ‘Jim Smith’ was STILL employed by the council. No one knew.

Now that struck me as odd because ‘Jim Smith’ had been heavily involved with a lot of projects in a lot of different departments, he was known and well-liked by everyone he’d worked with, so hardly likely to be overlooked by anyone he was supposed to be working with if he was, as that management structure indicated, still in the building.

This was showing all the signs that I’d seen so many times before in dealings with both elected and salaried members of the Shirehall Establishment, an Establishment so jealous of its power that it would do anything to protect itself from anything that threatened that power. I call it ‘The Purple Cloud of Obfuscation’, but choose any colour you like.

That someone could just disappear seemed a bit ‘Soviet’ to me – ‘Jim Smith’ had been Photoshopped out of the picture.

I don’t like loose ends, so…

22 Dec 2019, 11:13

Good day, Clive.

Given the size of this organisation, it always amazes me that it doesn’t operate like other organisations of its size and complexity, although perhaps I’m unfairly comparing it with organisations I’ve worked with in the past who appreciate how important it is to maintain their management information systems.

Or perhaps ‘Jim Smith’, on the basis of the excellent work he could always be relied upon to do, has been taken back on because according to the attached “Senior Management Structure” dated, note, May 2019, and available on the council’s website, shows either ‘Jim Smith’ or someone with the same name employed by us in the same capacity.

Regards

Dave T

Unsurprisingly, I was not reassured by Clive Wright’s reply…

From: Clive Wright
Sent: 23 December 2019 07:17
To: Dave Tremellen
Cc: Peter Nutting; Claire Porter
Subject: Re: Senior admin roles

Dear Councillor Tremellen

Thank you for your email.

‘Jim Smith’ has not left the organisation and so the organisation structure diagram reflects accurately the current situation.

I assure you that the Council does take seriously the maintenance of its management information systems.

I hope this is helpful.

Best wishes

Clive Wright

… not least because of the significant change to the formal form of address: “Dear Councillor Tremellen” instead of “Dear Dave” or just “Dave”. In terms of making me take notice, that was like throwing a brick through a plate-glass window.

So quite apart from the change in tone, we now have Council Leader Peter Nutting and Head of Legal & Democratic Services Claire Porter copied-in and Clive Wright is no longer marking it “Strictly Confidential” which, together with the new players, was significant because the sensitivity that he judged made it “strictly confidential” he no longer thought applied because he wasn’t broadcasting it to all and sundry but just to me, but why would he bring in the big guns and bring them in over a year since the original suspension and 6 months since that Senior Management Structure was published showing ‘Jim Smith’ still in post?

I picked up that email three hours after it was sent and emailed Clive Wright by return…

23 Dec 2019, 10:19

Dear Clive,

Sorry, how on earth could I have got it so wrong, I must have completely misunderstood the conversation I had with ‘Jim Smith’ in Sainsburys some time back.

Has anyone actually told him that he’s still in post, or are we talking about two different ‘Jim Smith’s?

Regards

Dave Tremellen

Independent Member for Highley Ward

Shropshire Council

I wasn’t expecting a response and didn’t plan to push for one because experience has told me that I’d be wasting my time because above a certain pay grade few consider themselves answerable to anyone, especially not a ‘non executive’ councillor.

But then Clive Wright phoned me.

When I got over my initial surprise, why he was phoning soon became clear, not by what he was saying but by what he wasn’t spelling out whilst at the same time emphasising that “the whole situation was still very sensitive”.

He wouldn’t tell me why.

It was a conversation of about five minutes duration during which the less he said the more uncomfortable he sounded and the more I became convinced that he was trying desperately hard not to say something he’d regret later, something that it was obvious he desperately wanted to tell me but couldn’t.

I said goodbye first to end his misery and sat there frowning at the phone trying to make sense of what had just happened.

When people go out of their way to help you “understand” a situation without actually helping you understand, it’s because “something” is going on and they want you on-side, or at the very least neutralised!

And why copy-in the Leader of the Council and the Head of Legal & Democratic Services, because that last email of mine was in reply to an email that hadn’t been addressed to either the Leader of the Council or the Head of Legal & Democratic Services and which, moreover, on its own would not have made sense to anyone who hadn’t been party to preceding emails.

Conclusion? The Leader of the Council and the Head of Legal & Democratic Services had been party to whatever had been going on up to that point. Whether they had agreed with what had gone on was moot. They may not have been party to that original suspension but it was eminently likely that its consequences were beginning to be felt, sending a shudder right up to the fifth floor.

Some things are more somethings than other things.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that in this case the “something” was something legal-ish and, given the dodgy responses, the fact that ‘Jim Smith’ had apparently continued in Shropshire Council’s employ without actually taking up his senior post after being released from suspension without anyone being told…….?

Cue ominous music.

Ominous music indeed because on the 25th February, just two days before Full Council on the 27th, it was announced that Clive Wright had been summarily dismissed (sorry) “stepped down” at the meeting of the council’s ruling Conservative group on the evening of the 24th.

The reason for his going is still open to speculation. The reason in general circulation at the time had to do with his appearance on TV news saying that Bridgnorth hadn’t experienced flooding as bad as Ironbridge (upriver) or Bewdley (downriver). My own reaction to that as being the reason can be summed up in one naughty word.

The question that should have been asked – was begging to be asked – was:

Did the costs of hiring consultants over recent years (in excess of half a million pounds), added to the costs of what, if the ‘Jim Smith’ case turned out to be more than just a bit of an administrative nuisance, push Peter Nutting and the more conservative of his Conservative Party colleagues to do a few sums and decide that Clive Wright had committed a cash-strapped Shropshire Council to more commitments than it could afford to pay?

Which is when I brought in the guy who can sniff out a fact hiding under a mile-high pile of bullshit, Steve Mulloy, and we started taking a long, hard look at what passed for facts in the case of a council officer suspended for what was allegedly a potentially serious breach of an unspecified protocol that apparently didn’t carry any guilt.

There was a whiff of something in the air and there’s only one thing that carries a more distinctive smell than a case of constructive dismissal and that’s a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

The signs were there.

1. Senior officer suspended from duty for an alleged serious breach of an unspecified protocol that apparently didn’t carry any guilt and then quietly reinstated without his making an appearance, his post remaining open and empty for months.

2. A Chief Executive phoning me to explain things too sensitive to commit to email, but saying what amounted to bugger all.

3. The Council Leader and the Head of Legal & Democratic Services of Shropshire Council now involved.

Just begs a question, doesn’t it.

There had obviously (?) been an awakening to the fact that the sanctioning of ‘Jim Smith’ had consequences that went beyond anything that had been expected when the word of that junior officer had been taken without question, “pending investigation” of course.

So where to go from there? Perhaps an indirect approach might open a few cracks up?

So at the February 2020 Full Council I submitted a written question to no one in particular…

2. Question from Councillor Dave Tremellen Before employing outside consultants, could I, on behalf of what would appear to be a substantial majority of Shropshire residents, respectfully suggest that this Council submits any such proposal to whatever Scrutiny Committee is considered most appropriate so that this Council’s own internal fund of expertise, whether in the form of relevantly experienced officers or elected Members, is first examined to determine whether outside intervention is needed?

The idea was to open the way for the verbal supplementary question you’re allowed in response to the written answer you get to your original written question, which has to be submitted well in advance of the council meeting, in fact well in advance of Clive Wright’s dismissal, as it turned out.

I wasn’t holding my breath for anything other than a stock response and Peter Nutting didn’t disappoint on that expectation, instead of addressing the wider principle I was alluding to he did, as hoped, refer to the most recent highways consultant hiring, but as I said that didn’t matter.

Response from the Leader of the Council COUNCILLOR PETER NUTTING, LEADER

As Members will be aware, this Council rarely engages consultants and only does so if other opportunities have been exhausted. In this case it is obvious to us all that the effective management of our Highways Services has been an issue for some time. Indeed, highways issues is the most complained about in the Council. With respect, the Conservative Party is in power and has been elected to run this Council. Whilst we are open to and welcome challenge through the Scrutiny process we should not, and will not, make decisions through Scrutiny Committees, which, as Members will know, is not a decision-making function of the Council. I believe that our decision to engage this consultant was the best course of action. Whilst the short-term costs are significant, on balance the savings and improvement we are making far out-weigh this and so the arrangement offers value for money on an ‘invest to save basis’. This is the key point I would make to the public, the savings and improvement we will make as a result of engaging this consultant will be far greater than the costs. I want to pay tribute to all of our Highways staff who I know have welcomed the leadership changes we have made. The dedication and commitment this service has shown during the recent storms for example, demonstrates just how fantastic we can be when it really matters, and people are depending on us. Such dedication deserves good leadership. Sometimes when in power, tough and potentially unpopular decisions have to be made. We will not shy away from making these decisions in the best interests of Shropshire and our residents.

My supplementary question, adhering to the Keep-It-Simple-Stupid policy, allowed me to ask…

Where did I specifically mention highways? But as you’ve raised it: On the matter of employing the highways consultant, my primary concern is whether that consultant was needed given that a traffic engineer with 37 years experience is *still on suspension for an unspecified breach of a standard that has still to be investigated since September 2018.”

* NOTE: Still under the impression that ‘Jim Smith’ was suspended, it was a week after the council meeting that a confidential phone call from a council officer – who didn’t want to be identified – informed me that the suspension had been lifted almost a year earlier. This is how information relating to investigations involving the council often comes to light.

The person who answered the original question has the right of reply to a supplementary question, but Peter Nutting had to leave the meeting to meet a visiting MP, so all he said was that he didn’t think it appropriate to discuss matters relating to an officer who wasn’t present and asked me to speak to his PA to arrange a separate meeting in private. Fair enough. I thanked him and agreed. Under the circumstances and in such a public arena that was a generous gesture, it certainly took me by surprise – and I wasn’t alone in that.

It was reported to me afterwards that the face of the Head of Legal & Democratic Services “was a picture”. She was not happy.

A subsequent meeting was arranged but then the Covid19 lockdown intervened, meaning any meeting was likely to be postponed well beyond the foreseeable future.

Quite apart from Peter Nutting tacitly admitting that there was a matter of high sensitivity concerning the “traffic engineer” I’d referred to in my supplementary question, you don’t have to look far to see the position Peter Nutting had just placed the Head of Legal & Democratic Services in. He had acted like someone who was party to something shifty involving the unnamed person alluded to in my Question, we both knew who I’d been referring to, so did many of the rest of the Council Members. In fact one acquaintance wrote to me afterwards and said: “A number of us were asking ourselves ‘why Dave Tremellen’, why not the other 72 Members?”

The immediate question that sprang to mind that would have been asked had that meeting taken place was, given my earlier reference to the cost to the council of employing consultants at a minimum of over half a million pounds in the very recent past: “IF there IS an NDA, how much is it costing us?”

The focus shifts to the public interest factor.

I asked Steve to look for information on NDAs that might be relevant to this case and he found:

Solicitors engaged in drawing up non disclosure agreements (NDAs} on employment severance settlements have been reminded that, in any conflict of principles, the public interest in the proper administration of justice must came first. The warning appears in a practice note published today entitled Non-disclosure Agreements and Confidentiality Clauses in an Employment Law Context.

https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/practice/ndas-society-warns-public-interest-must-come-first/5068787.article

The position of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on ‘The Public Interest Test’ can be found here:

We know the response we’re likely to get from Shropshire Council from the dealings we’ve had with them before, when they’ve actually challenged our insistence that the public interest is best served through openness and transparency. The most obvious case of Shropshire Council’s intransigence on this being the barring of Steve Mulloy from making FoI requests, a move that got them a bollocking off the Information Commissioner’s Office for citing the wrong section of law.

Which leaves us where?

We need to get a response to an FOI request before dissecting all the arguments available in the above so that in the event of Shropshire Council denying the case we can let the Information Commissioner’s Office decide – again!

But come what may, we need to take away the lesson that decisions made by executives should always be open to scrutiny, or at least that executives making decisions should always act as if they are accountable to someone for the consequences of those decisions, and that clear records of those decisions are available for scrutiny in a genuine spirit of openness and transparency, because public interest is a matter for the public to decide, it should never be left to salaried executives or politicians to define.

Steve looked for information that gave us an idea of the prevalence of NDA’s within the local government sector, what came out was surprising – or perhaps not.

I don’t think I’ve ever done a settlement agreement without a confidentiality clause,” says Siobhan Fitzgerald, partner at law firm TLT. “Confidentiality is nearly always in there.” For instance, a 2016 investigation by BBC Radio 5 Live found that UK local authorities spent more than £225m on settlement agreements between 2010 and 2015 – most of which included an NDA. More than 2,000 agreements totalling £5.5m were attributed to Cardiff Council alone, which had used them routinely following redundancies, though it said that policy stopped in 2015.

[ https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/long-reads/articles/ndas-really-ruining-workplaces ]

What we turned up in Shropshire Council’s case didn’t really surprise us, because whilst out of sight often means out of mind, council’s depending on keeping their murkier stuff out of the public gaze can only bank on that staying the case if the subject is out of record. And whilst that record is often hidden away in some obscure filing cabinet, if someone who knows what they’re doing knows where to look…

In the minutes of Shropshire Council’s meeting of 24 November 2011, a question from a Mrs H Lillington, asked:

  • How many employees, faced with redundancy or dismissal from their job with the Authority for any reason, have pursued legal redress through either Employment Tribunal or Civil Court action?
  • How many of those cases have resulted in an out of court settlement with the Authority?
  • Of these cases, how many out of court settlement agreements have included one or more confidentiality clauses or binding non-disclosure clauses or what is commonly known as a “gagging order”?
  • In which year were these settlement agreements made?
  • How many employees who have left their job with the Authority, have had additional confidentiality clauses/binding non-disclosure clauses/gagging orders included in their settlement agreement above and beyond those nondisclosure commitments pertaining to the normal and reasonable confidentiality requirements of their job role?
  • Have any such confidentiality clauses applied specifically to the settlement agreement rather than to the employee’s job role?
  • Has the Authority made any discretionary payments associated with the agreement of such confidentiality clauses?

The question was answered by the then Deputy Leader of the Council, Councillor Ann Hartley (currently Chair of Shropshire Council):

It is quite wrong to refer to confidentiality agreements as ‘gagging orders’. It is

accepted employment practice that, where there is a dispute between an employer and employee, and both parties agree to a settlement of the proceedings without recourse to a full contested hearing, both parties will agree to terms and conditions of settlement which are beneficial to both parties. This often includes a ‘non disclosure’ clause for both parties not to discuss the terms of the agreement, to enable them to resolve disputes without any potential detriment to either party’s reputation.

Settlement agreements are a common practice for all employers and are good employment practice. The Council uses such agreements to assist in maintaining good employer/employee relations, but only a handful of such agreements are completed every year- only four have been used in the past 18 months.

Any settlement agreement relies upon some form of consideration from both parties. However, there is no agreement that has been undertaken by the Council that specifically applies to any employee being offered any settlement money as a consequence of maintaining confidentiality.

It’s that last bit that’s the killer exposé…

Any settlement agreement relies upon some form of consideration from both parties. However, there is no agreement that has been undertaken by the Council that specifically applies to any employee being offered any settlement money as a consequence of maintaining confidentiality.”

In other words, it doesn’t happen in this Authority.

Then what, precisely, IS going on?

Now there’s a question.

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men

Protest

Ella Wheeler Wilcox – 1850-1919

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

#67: May 1st: County Councillor’s Report

My last report generated quite a bit of comment on the local Facebook pages, but no one appreciated the full significance of the decision to allow those 20 ‘affordable’ houses intended for the site alongside the bridleway behind the telephone exchange. Understandable because there was a lot of smoke and mirrors involved in the process because the underlying sensitivity of this site lies in the impact the earlier decision to refuse permission would have had on Council plans for the larger site just yards away to the north.

I can only imagine the panic when the full import of that refusal by that case officer became known to the rest of the planning department. I bet it wasn’t long before the full weight of the more senior principle plannning officers descended on the poor man’s head.

Another refusal for that smaller site, especially on the grounds of “over-development” outlined by earlier Planning Inspectors, would call into question all of Shropshire Council planning department’s plans for the much larger neighbouring site, just a bridleway’s-width away, for 122 houses, a housing development equal to every housing development we’ve seen built here since 2013; that’s another Hitchens Way (58), another Staley Grove (35), another St Peters View (19) and Whittles Close (10).

As I said in April, I was particularly angry that the application repeated assertions about the low impact that those 20 affordable houses will have on the traffic situation at what is LOCALLY (Shropshire Council highways have a different take on things) considered to be one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Highley, both for vehicles and, critically, given the “affordable” category of family housing proposed, young children of school age.

Whilst that assertion of ‘low impact’ persisted throughout the officer and consultee comments on the earlier application for nine bungalows, it acknowledged that the relatively low impact was BECAUSE they were bungalows!

On the basis that a typical domestic dwelling generates on average 6 vehicle movements per day, the 9 dwellings proposed would generate possibly 54 movements plus any associated with the farm access, although it is noted that the dwellings are bungalows and are likely to be occupied by older people who may not make as many journeys each day.

But by carefully phrasing his report to committee to emphasise the classification of those 20 houses as “affordable homes” and the site itself as an “exception site” (= outside the development boundary of a settlement) the planning officer assigned to the resubmission over-rode all other considerations, amongst which I’d have to put ‘common sense’. What was also over-ridden and hence this second article on the subject, was the cumulative impact on Highley of that proposal for the 122-house development alongside it, using the same access exiting onto the same bend on the same stretch of road.

On the basis of those official calculations for the amount of traffic generated by one house, “on average 6 vehicle movements per day”, 122 houses would generate “on average” 732 (= 6 x 122) movements “plus any associated with the farm access” to Hazelwells Farm at the other end of the bridleway.

But hey, what the heck am I doing forgetting Tremellen’s First Law of Fundamental Errors, which has do with the disappointment generated by the lack of joined-up thinking being directly proportional to expectation. The greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment when that expectation isn’t met. Silly me.

Back in 2013 I was so naive that I didn’t understand the lack of joined-up thinking behind some of the decisions I saw being made at Shirehall. What was there seemed to follow an agenda that had a beginning and an end but nothing in between. Sleight of hand and tongue, the definition of words that took semantics into the higher realms of deniability was the norm, which sums up the report that the case officer on that application for those 20 houses presented to the planning committee. I can’t wait to see what he does in his report for those 122 houses, I’m sure it’ll be fascinating.

Dave Tremellen

#66: Define “whole”.

County Councillor’s Report

First appeared in the February edition of the Highley Forum.

Back in September 2014 I wrote…

Perhaps democracy is increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily lives.

I was talking then about the way changes at Shropshire Council were impacting on the way the council engaged with the people of Shropshire, although more accurately I should say increasingly disengaged with the people of Shropshire, a process that, if anything, has increased since then.

There are still a lot of people who persist in thinking that “the council” is still what they’ve always thought of as “the council” – it ain’t!

When, in 2009, the old district councils and county council became a single unitary council, changing from a committee system to one known as (and I kid you not) ‘Strong Leader Plus Cabinet’, Shropshire Council has increasingly become what I would call a “Service Director led administration”, where the directors of service departments, in close partnership with consultants, no longer just advise the elected councillors in the Cabinet but determine policy which is rubber-stamped by Cabinet portfolio holders and presented to ‘Full Council’ (which no longer meets monthly) where it is voted through by the majority of votes of the ruling group from which Cabinet is drawn.

Directors of Service and consultants are not answerable – and certainly not accountable – to the electorate whose lives they influence and who have to drive over the roads they have allowed to deteriorate to the point of absolute misery, adding insult to injury by forcing the electorate who pay the taxes that pay their salaries and consultancy fees to then pay for the resulting damage caused by their failure to do the job they’re employed to do.

For years the North Shropshire MPs and North Shropshire councillors who are nine of the ten members of the Cabinet have campaigned for the North West Relief Road around Shrewsbury. (Those of an uncertain disposition who have paid for new tyres and/or wheels try to contain yourselves.)

The Department of Transport has agreed to give £54m towards the construction of Shrewsbury’s north-west relief road, with work expected to start in 2022.’

The full cost of the road is estimated at £71m, with the council to provide any remaining funds.’

[My note: Do the sums: £71m – £54m = £17m of OUR money.]

Steve Davenport, cabinet member for highways and transport, said: “The North West Relief Road will benefit not just Shrewsbury but the whole of Shropshire…”’

Define “whole”. There is an argument for the NWRR, but there is an over-riding argument for the roads in the rest of Shropshire to be addressed with more than a passing sympathetic remark and an explanation of how cash-strapped the Authority is and therefore, “sorry, (forced smile, slight tilt of the head to one side and a shrug of the shoulders) you’ll have to wait a bit longer”.

Our MP (Philip Dunne, a nice chap) has just stepped up to the mark on behalf of South Shropshire. A little late, but welcome aboard Philip. Let’s see if anything changes on the B4555.

Dave Tremellen

16 January 2020