#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: “Michael 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, a personable young lad 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.

So where are 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.