#77: Standards Matter. Really? (Or: ‘What’s your problem?)

As you do, in lockdown (now there’s a word now in everybody’s vocabulary) in the middle of a pandemic, I was recently reading ‘Standards Matter 2: Independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL)’, September 2020. Oh to get out more!!

Promoted as a ‘landscape review of the institutions, processes and structures in place to support high standards of conduct in public office’, it struck me that the whole canon of published standards could have been written with Shropshire Council in mind because escape clauses abound, and we all know that where Shropshire Council is concerned it is escape clauses that matter not the bulk of whatever they appear in, although I doubt the authors saw them as loopholes for Shropshire Council’s Executive to squeeze through.

But at least Shropshire Council didn’t take this one at its word…

There should be mechanisms in place to investigate breaches of the Code, although these can vary depending on the processes put in place by the local authority; these might include the creation (or maintenance) of a Standards Committee, but this is not a requirement.

…because Shropshire Council does have a Standards Committee, even though it takes the bit highlighted in red as the start and end of its commitment, in a sort of: “Oh, OK, thanks, we’ll take that and interpret it in the loosest way possible” which, in Shropshire Council’s book, means relaxed to the point of indolence.

Likewise, as if the report’s authors were familiar with Shropshire Council’s approach to minor irritants like literal interpretations of standards and codes of conduct, the adoption of a Standards Committee was done with fingers crossed behind backs because…

The presumption that hearings should be held in public.

Well you can forget that!

Not only do SC hold their hearings in closed session, they won’t even identify who the action is being taken against, as evidence the case of a Member who was “alleged” to have lobbied one of the planning committees on behalf of someone she knew!

So what price the expectations enshrined in ‘The Seven Principles of Public Life’ (also known as the Nolan Principles)?

…integrity, objectivity, selflessness, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership – were first articulated by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1995. The principles are not a general moral code, but a set of ethical responsibilities that outline the expectations of public office.

Well, what about them?

In the case of Shropshire Council, where those expectations are quite low, the presumption is that in the absence of outright criminality (and even then at a push) the presumption of innocence should prevail, and that even when found guilty the accused should not be expected to carry the burden of that guilt by being named and – heaven forbid – shamed into mending their ways.

In fact the presumption goes further, in that unless the outright criminality involves aggravating factors that can’t be ignored, then the presumption is to give the benefit of the teeniest weeniest doubt, however arguable.

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

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

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

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

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

NOTE: As an Independent I am indebted to NO ONE except the voters who continue to re-elect me on the basis of my constituency record.

Again, we find ourselves talking about what’s true within the letter of the law but NOT the spirit of the law: that nothing should be taken for granted, especially not when it comes to public perception, something that Shropshire Council’s legal department makes much of in public but are a bit coy about when challenged.

Still, they do come into their own at election time, except…

I recently circulated an email asking a general question of all Members about what they thought the prospects were for our seeing the regular local elections in May this year (2021), particularly whether anyone saw the prospect of a wholly postal vote to get around the logistical problems presenting by the Covid pandemic.

I got a response from Council Leader (of the Ruling Group) Peter Nutting which said that they were waiting on confirmation from central government on the form any such election would take. A postal vote wasn’t ruled out and therein lay the concern that had prompted my question – except that it wasn’t just concern, it was bloody real fear of a repeat of what had happened at the 2017 local elections!

My response to Peter Nutting’s reply was…

Thanks Peter, the point was to at least open up the subject in order to inform the decisions of current and potential Shropshire Council members.

I’m glad I did because it’s obvious from the replies so far that there has indeed been an exchange of conversations which, if shared at the time, would have gone some way (albeit not very far) to inform everyone likely to be involved in this year’s local elections, even if it was just to confirm the uncertainty that we now all take for granted.

As I intimated to Pauline (Dee, leader of the Independent group at the late Shirehall) in an earlier email, I have particular concerns about the administration of the 2017 local elections which I don’t want to see repeated – nothing to do with my own election because I was re-elected with a significantly increased majority – when there was confusion in some (particularly but not exclusively the elderly) postal voter’s minds over what to do with the parish council voting returns; I had empirical evidence of voter’s having been so confused by the lack of clear instruction on how to return the parish voting forms that they simply threw them away.

Voters had been told to put the county council voting slips into the envelope clearly marked for that purpose and seal it. There was no such instruction for the parish council voting slips and so, rather than enclose that slip with the voter ID form in the larger, clearly marked for anything but a postal voting slip return envelope, they threw it away.

The result for the Highley Ward was so close that recounts were held. One parish councillor of 30 years standing lost his place by 2 votes!

I was first made aware of what had happened in an informal discussion over the outcome. The person I was talking to said they hoped what they’d done hadn’t affected the outcome.

Puzzled, I asked why.

They’d opted for a postal vote because they’d been away on holiday during the elections and, in the absence of clear instructions and unsure of what to do with the parish return they’d thrown it away. OK, I dismissed it as of no consequence, it was one vote. It happens. But in the context of a losing margin of two votes? Hence their concern. This was an intelligent, professional woman in her 40’s.

Now, as exceptions often do prove the rule I decided to ask around. I didn’t have to spend too much time asking because when I asked if she knew how the elderly residents in her care had coped with the postal vote, the local Housing Support Officer said that one of her elderly residents was worried that they’d “get into trouble” for having discarded their parish voting slip because they had, following the “clear” instructions about what to do with the county council envelope, been left with nowhere else to put the parish slip, that I realised there could have been a real issue. It proved not to be the only instance.

So I looked into it and found clear guidance to Monitoring Officers on the Electoral Commission website advising them that, in their instructions to voters, they should not assume that everyone would know what to do and how to do it. I forwarded that guidance to Claire Porter (Shropshire Council Monitoring Officer with responsibility for elections) who did not take kindly to it.

So if we do end up with a postal vote across the board I’d like to see the instructions to voters couched in plain English in terms that allow no possibility of doubt because the 2017 outcome should not be allowed to happen again.

Regards,

Dave Tremellen

Member for Highley Division of Shropshire Council

Answer came there none. At the time of bringing to her attention that serious flaw in the way that postal votes had been administered, Claire Porter more or less accused me of lying in order to make ‘political capital’. And as for the clear guidance to Returning Officers by the Electoral Commission (hardly the most political of government institutions), which I’d produced to support my case, she dismissed it, ‘summarily’ comes to mind!

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

Appears so.

County Councillor’s Report

(First published in the Highley Forum January 2021 edition.)

Happy New Years all round.

Well, we got here, eventually, but by golly what a trip it’s been, uphill all the way to get to 2021, let’s hope it’s now a steady, even run and that cresting the hill after the uphill bit doesn’t lead into it all going downhill because, for sure, there’s a lot of change on the way and not all of it for the better.

Covid aside, on the Shirehall front, until we’re sure about the impact of the vaccine on re-opening business as near as possible to normal, with the local elections still – as far as anyone knows – scheduled for May, whether the talked about changes to the way the county council runs will still happen is in the hands of the gods.

As I’ve said in earlier articles, the various statements of intent that have come from the Shirehall Executive need to be considered in the light of events that have happened in previous years, especially because we’ve seen earlier policies completely overturned by a change in personalities at the top proving, as always in politics at any level, that even a week is a long time in politics.

But it’s what is happening at a national level that will see us impacted the most, especially the proposed changes to planning legislation. Within days of your reading this article a survey will be dropping through your door asking for your opinion on “affordable housing” in a scheme called ‘Right Home, Right Place’, what it won’t tell you is what worries me the most.

We already know that we have a lot of local people desperate for an affordable house, a better house, no argument there, an affordable house is a good thing, what isn’t always so good is the place where such houses are built, the 20 affordable houses behind the telephone exchange being a case in point. With an access opening onto a bend in the main road just along from the brow of Benn’s Bank, the children from those 20 family homes will be heading for school across a stretch of road generally acknowledged to be one of the most dangerous in the village!

In response to my pleading for the safety of those children, the planning committee placed a condition on those 20 houses stating that they should not be occupied until a suitable crossing point has been established. The developers have been given the go ahead to start work despite there being no crossing point and none in prospect. Logic is there none!

Looks like fingers crossed for 2021 then.

Dave Tremellen. January 2021.

#76: Through the wrong end of a telescope darkly…

I refer you back to blog #74: BOLT THAT STABLE DOOR, QUICK.

If you haven’t already read it, this item won’t make as much sense because what you’re about to listen to is Shropshire Council Cabinet making my point for me, specifically those parts where portfolio holder Robert Macey spells out why what’s happening is happening (or having to happen according to him and whichever planning officer wrote his script for him)… basically he seeks to convince us that there is no choice, despite the alternatives having been spelled out in considerable detail in the submissions made by dozens of ward councillors on behalf of their communities.

The portfolio holder’s craven arguments in response to the arguments of members of his own political party underlines the Executive’s confidence that their own arguments will prevail; that with an election pending in less than four months time (Thursday 6 May) NO ONE in his party will dare challenge him in any meaningful way if they wish to retain the ruling group’s (for which read the various constituency offices) support for their candidacy.

In blog #74 and others preceding it I have consistently made the point that alternatives to Shropshire Council’s preferred site for Highley do exist, and moreover exist in abundance, and that their challenging insistence that they have chosen the site DESPITE the alternatives available merely means that those alternative sites remain available for future consideration. That’s a point worth registering.

According to Shropshire Council’s calculation that 250 more houses in an already over-stretched Highley might be in the immediate pipeline, but as many again remain available for the future. That was the planning officer’s response to me when I called in the (prerred site) Yew Tree Grove application to the planning committee meeting.

#75: WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN ….. ALLEGEDLY

In an earlier blog, I cited the ‘Rural Toolkit’ which is set out in Shropshire Council’s Core Strategy (para 4.66)…

4.66 Shropshire Council is adopting a “bottom up” approach, whereby it works with communities at the parish and village level in together undertaking an intelligent analysis of the nature of their local community and how their village functions, and how it can be improved. This is done through an interactive toolkit that starts with the Parish Plan or Village or Town Design Statement where available; secondly adds statistics compiled by Shropshire Council, such as Census data, to provide a quantitative basis for discussion; and thirdly engages with the local community in a Community Testing Event to arrive at an agreed view of how the community regards its current sustainability. This methodology will provide quality evidence to help the planning authority make robust decisions on the designation of Community Hubs and Community Clusters. Undertaking the assessment does not commit a community to seek Community Hub or Community Cluster status. The approach is detailed further in the SAMDev DPD.

[https://www.shropshire.gov.uk/media/8534/core-strategy.pdf]

In that earlier blog I cited it in the context of “consultation”, or rather Shropshire Council planning department’s unique take on the meaning of that word, but here I’m referring to the bit that says:

…adds statistics compiled by Shropshire Council, such as Census data, to provide a quantitative basis for discussion;

It’s that ‘quantitative’ claim that’s in question here, “quantitative” having suffered the same conceptual corruption (!) as “consultation”, judging by the perverse way in which Shropshire Council planning department treats statistics like those in its chosen version of the national population census (see below), but then there’s always the old saying: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’.

For some years it’s bugged me that whilst I refer to Highley’s population being “3,600 plus”, according to Shropshire Council planning department it’s substantially below the figure I’m quoting, and quoting mind you, from published population figures taken from the 2011 population census, not scribbled on the back of a bloody envelope.

According to Shropshire Council planning department it’s 3,200, and yet, apparently, I hadn’t actually been wrong.

But hang on, you can’t have it both ways.

Errr, apparently you can and that’s where it starts to get both interesting and confusing.

My argument is that Highley’s infrastructure has long exceeded the point of saturation, its highways network crumbling, damaged by construction traffic and the consequential increase in commuter movements, its commercial centre clogged by the increase of vehicles associated with growing families compounded by the children of those families having reached the age where they qualified for a driving licence and acquired their own car.

All that on top of those parts of the village relating to its coal-mining past having no off-road parking, meaning on-road parking between Victorian terraced houses had reduced streets to a single carriageway.

And yet it seemed that the planners simply couldn’t get their heads around a situation I was emphatic wasn’t a case of me over-dramatising, they simply quoted that population figure of 3,200 back at me as if to say: “Councillor Tremellen, you’re wrong, you’ve got at least another 400 to go before you reach the population figure you’re saying is the problem”.

Now, it’s worth noting that my 3,600 figure was the one given by the 2011 census and which, incidentally, appears in many council documents, since when Highley has had another 122 houses built since 2013, which MAY go some way to explaining why, despite their insistence on that 3,200 figure, in the email below they’re saying:

The most recent estimates for local authorities are for […] mid-2017. The 2017 mid-year figures estimate there are 3,716 people resident in Highley ward (and Highley parish as they share a boundary.) [See below]

Apparently unaware of the significance of what they’re saying they go on to state:

These estimates are useful for service planning…

AAAARRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!

But I’m jumping ahead a bit. To get back to where I was, so confused was I by the planning department’s ability to vanish 400 people that I wrote asking for the methodology they were working to, and in answer got…


Sent: 20 August 2019 14:39
To: Dave Tremellen <Dave.Tremellen@shropshire.gov.uk>
Cc: Adrian Cooper; Dan Corden; Steve Taylor; Ian Kilby
Subject: RE: Population

Dear Cllr Tremellen,

Adrian Cooper has asked me to respond to your query.

I’m sorry that it is confusing. The difference in the population estimates stems from the geographic area that has been used to estimate the population, the availability and the time frame of the source data.

2011 Census

I have attached a map illustrating the Highley Parish boundary (with 3,605 population, covering 638 hectares), Highley electoral ward boundary (with 3,605 population, covering 638 hectares) and Highley 2011 Census Built-up-area (BUA) (with 3,133 population, covering 87 hectares). As you have highlighted this data is from the 2011 Census. Also included in the map is Highley development plan boundary. As this has been created for planning purposes, population data is not available for this area from the 2011 Census.

So far, so good.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the population estimates from the 2011 Census on the ONS Nomis web-pages – https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/census/2011. The information collected at household level from the 2011 Census questionnaire is held securely by ONS and will be published after a century has past. ONS take measures in releasing the data to prevent the disclosure of personal information and this can sometimes lead to slight variations (+/- 1-3) in the tables they publish.

The following link opens a 2011 Census Profile for Highley Parish – https://www.shropshire.gov.uk/media/12070/highley.pdf and similarly to enable comparison with the other market towns and key centres, the Highley Key Centre Profile utilises the parish boundary population – https://shropshire.gov.uk/media/9685/highley.pdf.

Hierarchy of Settlements Assessment

The second estimate you mention for 3,195, I believe is from the Hierarchy of Settlements Assessment on page 27 (https://www.shropshire.gov.uk/media/7631/hierarchy-of-settlements-assessment.pdf). This population estimate uses the Highley Local Plan Development Boundary (https://shropshire.gov.uk/media/7619/s9-highley.pdf). This population estimate has been produced using the population figure from the 2011 Census for Highley BUA (3,133) and an estimation of population growth generated from planning completions data from April 1st 2011 to March 31st 2016. The Highley BUA boundary was judged to be the best fit to the development plan boundary.

Judged to be the best fit?

Exactly my point. Statistics are (to most of us anyway) by definition objective, so what is so objective about someone’s judgement set against someone else’s judgement?

The email goes on to say…

Other sources of population estimates

You may also see mid-year population estimates published by ONS available at local authority level, electoral wards, output areas (statistical geography created by ONS), nationally and regionally. These estimates are produced by aging on the population each year since the 2011 Census using births, deaths and migration data. The most recent estimates for local authorities are for mid-2018 and for smaller geographies mid-2017. The 2017 mid-year figures estimate there are 3,716 people resident in Highley ward (and Highley parish as they share a boundary.) For further information please follow this link – https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/populationestimatesforukenglandandwalesscotlandandnorthernireland. These estimates are useful for service planning, as they are available by gender / single years of age and can be aggregated to fit other geographic areas. These have been used to estimate the population of the smaller villages and hamlets in Shropshire where no Census data is available.

Summary

The benefit of the 3,195 estimate is that it is more up-to-date than the Census and is informed by actual dwelling completions.

Have they not read the paragraph that precedes this?

I hope this is of help. Please let me know if you require further information.

Kind regards

Helen

Planning and Demographic Specialist Performance, Policy and Intelligence Team, Workforce and Transformation Directorate, Shropshire Council, Shirehall, Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, SY2 6ND

It was lovely of her to take so much time and effort to explain, even if it did miss the whole point of my asking how the planning department’s take on Highley’s population could be justified, given that what THEY were treating as Highley’s hinterland (the land around a settlement which relies on the services provided by that settlement) is wholly dependent on and identifies with Highley, in other words their place of residence and lifestyle activities identifying themselves as inhabitants of Highley, a perception confirmed by their appearance on the Electoral Register for Highley, their appearance establishing a presence only a planner with their own agenda would even attempt to deny.

A look at the maps that accompanied that reply will explain.

Highley is Highley, it is what it says on the tin. I am the elected Member for the Highley Electoral Division of Shropshire Council, I am responsible for the area bounded by the blue border of ‘Highley Electoral Ward’, it’s a distinction peculiar to Highley. Highley Parish is the area bordered by that blue Parish boundary, Highley Parish Council (of which I’m also a member) is responsible for the area within the ‘Highley Parish’ boundary.

So what is Shropshire Council planning department’s problem?

Planning applications are sent for review by me as the Local Member and by Highley Parish Council as the administrative authority of the Highley civil parish.

So again, what is Shropshire Council planning department’s problem?

Working to Shropshire Council planning department’s master plan, between the Census Built-Up-Area Boundary – adopted as the basis for their population figure – and the Highley Parish Boundary, live 400 people who travel to shop, school, work and leisure, in fact – according to Shropshire Council planning department – to anywhere except within the Census Built-Up-Area Boundary, they therefore, allegedly, have no impact on the area within that Census Built-Up-Area Boundary.

Really?

To all intents and purposes, they are 400 people who don’t exist and have absolutely no impact – however slight – on the area that Shropshire Council considers to be the only area worthy of consideration, on which basis it is therefore wrong of me to assume that they have any physical or economic impact within the confines of the Built-Up-Area Boundary.

Still with me? Just?

Now you know how I feel when I look at the potential that Shropshire Council planning department’s interpretation of census figures will have on Highley. The following map shows that potential in the form of sites that have a very realistic chance of being adopted by Shropshire Council as potential areas of development to meet its future housing obligations.

For the benefit of anyone who doubts the devastating impact such a scenario presents for the future of the village, I have included the potential housing density (as computed by Shropshire Council) of each site as given in the site descriptions that follow this map.

HNN010 Land to the south of Redstone Drive, Highley 81

HNN013 Land at Woodhill Farm, Highley 16

HNN014 East of Bridgnorth Road, Highley 22

HNN015 West of Woodhill Road, Highley 28

HNN016 Land South of Oak Street, Highley 120

(Originally comprising: 70 dwellings and 50 extra-care apartments)

(Which we now know will have the above plus the recently

approved planning application for 20 affordable houses) 20

HNN017 Land North East of Hazelwells Road, Highley 28

HNN019 The Stables Bridgnorth Road, Highley 66

TOTAL: 381

Oh, and before I go, just to note that despite everything the local community has said…

I rest my case.

As they say in Yorkshire: ‘Think on’.

#74: BOLT THAT STABLE DOOR, QUICK.

 

Shropshire Council planners have at last started the process of reviewing the authority’s Statement of Community Involvement (SCI), the document that sets out how the council’s planning department engages with local communities in a spirit of “community engagement” that is supposed to lay the foundations of what they persist in calling a ‘plan led system’.

It is in fact anything but! Well, it sort of is, but it’s THEIR plan.

If any proof were needed, the fact that Shropshire Council planning department have announced the START of consultation at the END of the extended Local Plan Review shows what our planners think of the SCI.

What they should have done was review the SCI through consultation and then restarted the consultation on the Local Plan Review. It’s not as if they didn’t know the SCI review was way overdue because enough of us were constantly reminding them!

Sent: 26 June 2019 12:25
To: Ian Kilby
Subject: SCI review

Good day Ian,

Are there any plans to review SC’s Statement of Community Involvement, the one adopted in 2011, seven years ago?

Amendment of regulation 10A

4. After regulation 10 (local plans and supplementary planning documents: additional matters to which regard is to be had) insert—

Review of local development documents

10A.—(1) A local planning authority must review a local development document within the following time periods—

(a)in respect of a local plan, the review must be completed every five years, starting from the date of adoption of the local plan, in accordance with section 23 of the Act (adoption of local development documents);

(b) in respect of a statement of community involvement, the review must be completed every five years, starting from the date of adoption of the statement of community involvement, in accordance with section 23 of the Act.”.

By way of answer I got…

From: Ian Kilby
Sent: 26 June 2019 13:18
To: Dave Tremellen
Cc: Adrian Cooper
Subject: RE: SCI review

Dave,

I think this is something we need to look at thank you for bringing it to my attention – I will review with Adrian on his return from leave.

Ian

Ian Kilby

Planning Services Manager

And I wasn’t alone in my concerns because someone else subsequently took up the matter of the SCI review with another principal planner (the same ‘Adrian’ referred to above), though in relation to a different matter

Sent: 22 July 2019 11:36
To: Adrian Cooper
Subject: Re: Local Plan Review

I attended the scrutiny committee last Thursday and [s]omeone at that meeting pointed out to me that the Council’s Statement of Community Involvement, under a 2017 amendment to the T&CPA, is required to be reviewed every 5 years and hasn’t been. Is this right please?

Which got…

With regard to the SCI, you are correct that the Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2017 now require that a review of the SCI must be completed every five years, starting from the date of its adoption. In Shropshire’s case, the SCI was adopted in 2011 but was refreshed with minor amendments in 2014 (not taken to members for endorsement).

There is no question that the SCI is therefore due a review and work on this has already started, although progress to date has been frustrated by the demands of other work. I will let you know when we have an agreed timetable for the review process.

Kind Regards

Adrian Cooper MA (Hons) MSc MSc MRTPI

Planning Policy & Strategy Manager, Economic Growth

Shropshire Council, Shirehall, Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury SY2 6ND

Which obviously reminded Ian Kilby that I had still to be replied to because…

From: Ian Kilby
Sent: 30 July 2019 16:51
To: Dave Tremellen
Cc: Adrian Cooper
Subject: RE: SCI review

Dave,

We are looking at it now

Ian

Well, it was an answer of sorts, even if it did beg the question as to why it’s taken them so long to get on with the review of a document that had, by the time of those exchanges, started to curl at its edges.

Best not to ask, I suppose. But some of us have been dying to ask the question about why the senior planning officers of Shropshire Council – and especially the portfolio holder who has responsibility for oversight of that department – don’t seem to take any notice of stuff they’ve produced at great expense, both in terms of money and time, “stuff” like “The Big Conversation”, just one of a long list of council initiatives that have subsequently sunk into obscurity.

There’s a whole shopping list of stuff just left sitting on shelves in a cupboard somewhere that Shropshire Council planning officers appear to be ignorant of, amongst others that rarely get a mention, the ‘Engagement Toolkit’ (2016) is worth a read:


https://shropshire.gov.uk/media/4857/community-engagement-toolkit.pdf


Likewise the ‘Rural Toolkit’, which is set out in the Core Strategy (para 4.66)…

4.66 Shropshire Council is adopting a “bottom up” approach, whereby it works with communities at the parish and village level in together undertaking an intelligent analysis of the nature of their local community and how their village functions, and how it can be improved. This is done through an interactive toolkit that starts with the Parish Plan or Village or Town Design Statement where available; secondly adds statistics compiled by Shropshire Council, such as Census data, to provide a quantitative basis for discussion; and thirdly engages with the local community in a Community Testing Event to arrive at an agreed view of how the community regards its current sustainability. This methodology will provide quality evidence to help the planning authority make robust decisions on the designation of Community Hubs and Community Clusters. Undertaking the assessment does not commit a community to seek Community Hub or Community Cluster status. The approach is detailed further in the SAMDev DPD.

Hmmm. And that was for public consumption? No wonder it got quietly dropped.

Like much else it just paid lip-service to ‘bottom up engagement’.

And if you’re really up for it (might as well while you’re at it) a document that informs the wider argument for community engagement:

Engagement and the equality duty: A guide for public authorities England (and non-devolved public authorities in Scotland and Wales)’

https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/ehrc_psed_engagement_web.pdf

OK, enough for now. Hopefully you’ll have started to get the point, which is simply that with so much ‘guidance’ out there, the generally accepted understanding of what’s meant by the word “consultation” should be clearly understood by even the dimmest of planning officers.

But of course, planning officers aren’t dim. By any measure they are clever enough to play semantic games with anyone, the rules of the game having been passed down through the ranks as part of their professional development.

Any one of those documents you will find cited by Shropshire Council to give legitimacy to their claim to be a local authority responsive to the concerns of its communities. Reading those documents and seeing how they are reflected in reality, however, in reality they do anything but!

Were it otherwise I’d be the happiest bunny around, but as it is the major issue is Shropshire Council planning department’s refusal to accept that the word “consultation” means what it says on the tin. Their choosing to maintain a permanent state of denial about engagement meaning an exchange of possibly opposing views until a negotiated agreement satisfying the needs of both sides is achieved, doesn’t redefine the word even when it’s accompanied by the planner’s death stare, finely honed in the course of their professional training and especially when dealing with those opposing their plans.

When it came out, much was made of The Big Conversation’, its title said it all; as a statement of intent it takes some beating and opens by saying…

Shropshire Council recognises the need for customers, stakeholders and businesses to have greater opportunities and involvement in the democratic process and to provide an environment that supports and encourages social responsibility and action. Overall, we plan to develop a ‘together we can’ attitude, supporting collective social action, with our Councillors as active facilitators and enablers, best placed to listen to and advocate on behalf of those harder to reach in their communities. Engagement is broader and deeper than traditional consultation [my emphasis]. It’s about how we communicate with, involve, listen to, respond to and understand local people and stakeholders. How we help people by developing ongoing relationships with them to become active citizens who can discuss and influence the things that matter most to them.

You know, I get fed up with criticising Shropshire Council and at one time thought I’d sorted out my differences with its planning department, but changes in both personnel and attitudes have combined with changes in national legislation to systematically destroy whatever kindly thoughts had started to creep through since I passed a note to Ian Kilby that said: “I’ll try to be kinder”.

Ian was getting a fair bit of criticism from one of the committees I was a member of, and not from me I’ll point out, which in itself is a significant point worth noting because it shows I’m not alone, just the most vocal. It was about the slowness of the planning department to get back with answers to queries from councillors and Ian Kilby was explaining how difficult it was to recruit new planners, so many experienced ones having taken the opportunity to get out when the chance of voluntary redundancy was offered by a cash-strapped council. He had a point and that’s when I passed him the note – so heartfelt was his pleading.

And I have been patient or was until about five years ago when certain events made me realise that assurances I’d taken on trust later proved to be not just empty but deliberately misleading to shut me up until it was too late to do anything.

I suppose that reversion to character by the planners started in earnest when serious concerns about routing construction traffic through Victorian terraced housing, cars parked both sides of the narrow street, could have been overcome by agreeing a different route for the access to that new estate, a suggestion which was deferred by the principal planning officer “until such reserved matters can be considered”. Except that the application as it stood was subsequently waved through on the nod. No appeal because according to that principal planning officer a ‘consultation’ of sorts had happened. (You can read what you like into the fact that the planned estate was being developed by the council-owned housing company, Shropshire Towns & Rural Housing.)

To add insult to the injury of legitimate concerns being ignored, during that planning process my positive response – in the spirit of engaging in the process – to two requests for site meetings from one of the planning officers involved were completely ignored, no meetings took place despite my chasing them up. The formal complaint about that officer’s behaviour was subsequently dismissed as unreasonable on the grounds that she was overwhelmed with work.

There are increasing examples of the failure in community engagement in the consultation process coming to light as a result of the increasing reliance on electronic communication. It is a major weakness (although arguably an unintended consequence) that adds strength to Shropshire Council’s determination to remove a bothersome public from its affairs.

Put simply, if someone doesn’t have the technology they don’t have the information they need to make a judgement on whatever is out for “consultation”, which is why public meetings are important, and is why the current reliance on virtual ‘meetings’ simply doesn’t acknowledge the opportunity such a remote medium offers to a council already adept at dodging effective scrutiny.


The draft SCI at para 3.8 (Communicating Effectively) touches on this by mentioning lack of ‘Access, Skills, and Motivation’ but the only other method they mention has a touch of the disingenuous about it, printed material.

OK, except that in practice, since becoming a “paperless electronic local authority”, printed copies of reports can only be had by asking for them and establishing ‘need’, but not everyone knows to ask, let alone who to ask.

Final question. Is there such a thing as a virtuous vicious circle?

 

#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 2021 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 Dean Carrol 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.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

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

 

BUT THE UNCHALLENGEABLES HAVE WON.

The headstone on Representative Democracy’s grave will consist of pieces of cement scattered around Shropshire following…

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/local-hubs/shrewsbury/2020/10/13/bid-to-protect-shirehall-set-to-be-rejected/

 

#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.

…………………………………………..

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