Report to Highley Parish Council, March 2022.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which said it all.

Indeed, so much said in so few words.

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