#87: County Councillor’s Report to October meeting of Highley Parish Council. (Longer version of the earlier ‘Forum’ article.)

Well, as far as Covid is concerned, the county council was still taking it seriously enough to announce that the last Full Council was once again held at Theatre Severn. Not the best venue because movement is restricted and the audio isn’t the best during debates. I wasn’t best pleased at having to miss that meeting – but health issues took priority – because there was a debate and vote on the crazy, short-sighted decision to close Stourbridge Road highways depot, the base for winter highways maintenance in the east of the county, a closure that would leave just the three depots in the west of the county. That was a decision made by someone who couldn’t read a map!

I was by now hoping to have at last come to terms with the new way of working, which isn’t working whatever anyone says because it is not a case of “the same, just different”, it is totally foreign to someone like me who has spent seven years (pre-lockdown) working face-to-face with officers. Those working relationships work because they smooth the working of the council, but new councillors will know officers only as a name under a face on a monitor screen.

I don’t know about you but outcomes are unquestionably better if either party feels comfortable enough to raise a laugh to relieve the tensions generated by both having to work with limited resources and finding a way to work with those limited resources, especially over a remote connection. But no more.

We could have tried to pretend that things are still how they were, were it not for what seems to be a deliberate policy of separating-off the staff functions from what I always thought were the critical functions that kept a representative democracy functioning, one of which was the answering of awkward questions from elected representatives acting on behalf of their constituents. And not just any old answer, either, but one which explained the logic of how the answer got there, using words we all understood the meaning of, not words that had been spun so many times anyone could make them mean anything.

Then out of the blue on the 16th September I’m presented with a headline in the Shropshire Star telling me that Shropshire Council is no longer looking to close Shirehall and move its “civic centre” into the Pride Hill shopping centre. I’m left sitting staring at the screen in disbelief. I have challenged and questioned the sense of that move since the very beginning and met closely argued opposition from the outset, so I’m sitting there reading what’s being said VERY carefully. What’s going on? We don’t know because the Executive is refusing to say what plans they have, if any, for the future. (Mind you, that reluctance to engage only stretches as far as councillors, they’re always ready to talk to the media, in fact it’s the Shropshire Star and Oswestry Advertizer who keep me up to date with happenings at Shirehall, although twas ever thus. Says it all!)

With a few reservations over the commercial proposals in the £380,000 consultant’s report presented to us councillors by ex-Leader of the Council Peter Nutting and ex-Chief Executive Clive Wright, there was/is a lot of sense in retaining the Shirehall well into the future. It might not be a beautiful building (although it has its charms), but to those of us who were around in the 60’s functionality was at the core of a lot of civic architecture and the Shirehall was built for the purpose of civil government.

Internally it needs hardly any remodelling and what it does need can be easily realised because once you take the internal walls down you have a blank canvas, spaces that can be redesignated to suit any need. Structurally it is sound, only infrastructure like air conditioning and double-glazing would require major work, and then only in terms of time, not fitting it. Likewise a fire sprinkler system can be retro-fitted, as it will have to be in most older civic buildings anyway.

And the beauty of it all is that, because of the building’s layout all the work can be done on a rolling schedule with minimum hassle.

But that subsequent decision to close and sell off and demolish Shirehall was made under pressure from service directors and councillors with egos they felt they had to live up to who had different ideas about the working environment they wanted to match their aspirations as empire builders.

Distinctly uneasy with the decision to go back on those earlier plans and not a little confused, given the original enthusiasm to go with the consultant’s report, I asked the service director (Mark Barrow) driving the plans for closure in favour of the move to Pride Hill, for the data on which the decision to condemn and demolish Shirehall had been based. I was sent the £380,000-worth of specialist consultant-generated data on which the original decision to RETAIN, remodel and repurpose Shirehall had been based!

You couldn’t make it up.

These people are paid six figure salaries. Triples all round.