Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Town Council - "Cut-price Swampy" Jibe In E-mail Exchange

Houghton Regis Town Council is now so divided that the task of getting work done would appear to be, at best, very difficult. At least, from a spectator viewpoint, the meetings are stimulating, writes Alan Winter, the editor at Houghton Regis News Desk.

Last night's meeting was well attended by members of the public, some even from Dunstable, no doubt equally curious as to why the local Labour group leader, Cllr Kennedy (Parkside), had encouraged them to come along. As the same councillor had been barred from a local "Occurring" Facebook group a few days earlier, no doubt this helped to fuel their curiosity.

Tithe Farm, was under-represented at the meeting, being two down. It must be noted that apologies were given for one Labour councillor, but not for the other absent Labour councillor.  The numbers were crucial, for they could have made a big difference to the motions that followed, were debated, and voted upon.

Under public question time, it was queried what 'Former Community Services Arrangement', under the section marked 'Exclusion of Press & Public', was all about? A flurry of guarded answers provided by The Town Clerk, the Town Mayor (Cllr Joanna Hillyard, Community Ind, Parkside), and other councillors, told the meeting as much as they felt they could; it was a sensitive confidential, legal, matter to do with a former contractor and the council.

Even before the proper business of the meeting could begin, Cllr David Abbott (Ind, Tithe Farm) interrupted the flow by proposing two motions. The first one was requesting under the Council's Standing Orders, a written report from the Clerk asking why last week's Town Council meeting had to be abandoned even before it had started. Cllr Dixon-Wilkinson (Lab, Parkside) countered the motion saying he was consulted verbally about the abandonment. Voting on the motion was split in Cllr Abbott's favour, leaving the Clerk with the onerous task of now having to make a written report.

Cllr Abbott then announced another motion calling for Cllr Kennedy to be removed from the meeting for disorderly conduct. An unfortunate choice of words had arisen in an email from Cllr Kennedy to Cllr Hillyard, copied to other councillors, in which Cllr Kennedy had used the words, "It's about time you start acting like the chair of the town council and not a cut-price Swampy." All Councillors are bound by quite rigid Standing Orders and a Code of Conduct (both available at the Town Council's website). Debate hinged around where the comments were made. The  Clerk pointed out that the comments were not made in a meeting. Cllr Abbott insisted on his motion, at which point Cllr Kennedy made an unreserved apology towards Cllr Hillyard, the motion was withdrawn, and no vote took place.

The Proper business of the meeting then began in earnest, with the new Mayor, in office since the end of May, reeling off a long list of events she had attended in an official capacity. These had been:

  • Tithe Farm's Got Talent at Tithe Farm school
  • Army Benevolent Fund garden party
  • Cheering Volunteering at the Grove Theatre
  • Houghton Regis Primary School Summer Fair
  • The official opening of Dunstable's new Go-Kart centre
  • Big Lunch Community Picnic
  • Mayor of Harpenden Civic Service
  • Right Track Video launch
  • Kids In Action Key to the Door
  • Chiltern School visit to the council offices
  • Hospice At Home lunch
  • Houghton Regis Brownies visit to the council offices
Information was released that at the last count, £400 had been raised for her charities in addition to a lot of donations being made to helping homeless people through one of her chosen charities, Streetlife. And there was news that a Teddy Bear's Picnic was to be arranged for August 19th. (A public round of applause followed.)

Around the table, various councillors reported on their outside representative activities. Among them, Cllr Mrs McMahon (Community Independent, Tithe Farm) reported in depth in her capacity as outside representative on the Houghton Hall Park works. Cllr Wattingham (Lib Dem, Houghton Hall) reported on his time with the Memorial Hall, noting the sad passing away of Chris Kavanagh who had worked for many years to keep the Memorial Hall running. Her funeral would be this Thursday and Town Council would be laying a wreath. Cllr Sue Thorn (Lib Dem, Houghton Hall) reported on Citizen's Advice. Cllr Hines (Lib Dem, Houghton Hall) reported on Dial-A-Ride.

After a flurry of the council's usual business reports, and thanking the staff for all their hard work, the topic of office refurbishment came up.

A report had gone to the Council suggesting expenditure of some £20,000 on rectifying concerns with the state of the fabric of the building, but the report was limited by accessibility and some parts of the structure were overlaid. Suggested repairs might give the building an extended life of 10 to 20 years, although much more might be needed once work started. Cllr Abbott moved on 4 resolutions, with slight adjustments to those published in the Agenda. He argued that the growing town would need a larger office to accommodate staff, and more space would be required for meetings including any future new councillors. Dunstable operated with 40 staff, he said, and Leighton Linslade with 39. Houghton Regis could end up being bigger than both, and it currently operated with just 14 staff, he argued. He was in favour of not spending money on the current building, renting some office space, selling the freehold asset of the current site, creating a fund for a replacement building, and actively seeking a permanent location.

Cllr Slough (Lab, Houghton Hall) had other ideas. He argued that the Town Council offices were an appreciating asset, and there was no rent to pay. "£20,000 is not that much to pay, and we spent more than that on a tree!" said Cllr Slough in reference to the cedar tree at Houghton Hall Park. He suggested that under Cllr Abbott's plan the offices would need to relocate, and then relocate again with lots of disruption. The present large meeting room, he said, was not used 90% of the time, and staff could be put in here if needs be, while Council meetings were held elsewhere. "Why should we pay now for something that's going to happen in 15 years time?" Cllr Slough demanded to know, "[Houghton Regis] was already paying more in Council Tax than neighbouring towns. It was CBC that was forcing all the northern growth on the town, and it was they who should put their hands in their pockets."

Cllr Sue Thorn (Lib Dem, Houghton Hall) agreed with many things said by Cllr Slough. She wanted to know if other premises were available, and what would the cost be? She wanted to spend the £20,000 now and to start saving for a new building. Cllr Ellaway (Ind., Houghton Hall) had concerns about staffing matters such as toilets, staffing levels, and staff parking.

Cllr Carroll (Community Ind., Parkside) said he had big concerns about the current building, it had been taken over in 1988 as a temporary building, it had a steel structure and asbestos, and they needed a Town Council mechanism to start talking about this. He wanted more reports on the current building, the 'Condition Report' before the meeting had too many ifs and maybes.

The Clerk, Mrs Evans, was unsupportive of  Cllr Abbott. She said that there were no plans to increase staff, the number of councillors was a reactive process to the town's growth, and there was more value in looking at existing space (at this point there were some appreciative public hand-claps). Several motions were then voted upon to do with the building and wanting structural reports, with the voting split on each occasion.

The meeting then voted (again split), to go into private session to discuss matters to do with a 'Former Community Services Arrangement', whereupon press and public were asked to leave.

*LibDem members voted against their leader (not just abstaining) on almost every vote leaving him on his own.