Friday, 4 December 2009

Just where is the compromise?

Keith Barwell’s recent challenge to Northampton Borough Council to allow him to use retail development to fund ground improvements at Franklins Gardens is understandably reminiscent of the Cobblers similar shelved plans of the past. As a director of the Cobblers I can empathise wholeheartedly with him and with what he is trying to do, as do the whole board at NTFC. But with my Borough Council Hat on, can I view the problem from the other side of the fence?

To a degree yes. No one wants success for our professional sports clubs to be at the expense of harming the future of the Town Centre, but many in our town, like me will be asking just where is the balance? Where is the good Counsel? What are our Leading Councillors doing to find a resolution to these dilemmas?

My directorship of NTFC prevents me from speaking up about Sixfields in the Council chamber as over pompous officialdom makes it more and more difficult for local Councillors to do their jobs without fear of being reported to the Standards Board for not declaring this interest or that. But why shouldn’t I and other Councillors like the new Leader Brian Hoare (a shareholder at the Saints) have an interest? Surely it makes us better placed to understand the problems that both clubs face and for us to use that knowledge to inform and guide our colleagues on the Authority?

Local Government has over a period of years become far too sterile, far too safe, Northampton Borough Council has excelled itself in becoming the leading Council in the UK for not taking decisions. Instead it hides behind its planners, government policies and national developers in forever giving us reasons why nothing is ever “that simple” Well I don’t believe any of it. Did Milton Keynes Council falter in their decision making when using the cash from IKEA and Asda to build Stadium MK for the towns sports fans putting them firmly on the sporting map? Were Swansea, Doncaster, Hull, or Coventry Councils negligent or reckless with the future of their City Centre when planning and building similar Stadia?

Our town, and our Council needs a "Can Do " attitude, whereby we lead by our action and make national policy work in the towns favour not against its combined interests.

I was on Northampton Borough Council when Sixfields was originally built in 1994 and I can say hand on heart that it would never of happened without Councillors being prepared to stand up to those who told us it couldn’t never be done, or because it was against this or that policy or local government rule. John Dickie’s as Council Leader at the time would answer any doubt by firmly, and at times robustly reminding officers that the role of Councillors was to make decisions and the role of officers was to find ways of implementing them. It seems times have changed? Successive administrations since, of all political hues have found solace in excuses and in indecision. And by making no positive decisions they escape the blame for any responsibility, but they were all elected to serve our town and make decisions based on finding common sense solutions to the competing demands of different sections of the community.

Compromise is there to be found if the politicians are willing to court it. For instance is ALL out of town retail bad for the future of the Town Centre? If the Council or for that matter even the Saints or the Cobblers take up no compromise positions then the town itself will be the loser in one way or another. Surely is is now the time for common sense solutions, and round the table talks with all involved to be held. These talks, followed up by firm direct actions are a must if we are to move the projects forward in the best interests of the whole town.
My direct interest bars my involvement on Council in any such talks, but the continued inaction by my fellow councillors to date on all these issues leaves me currently embarrassed to be amongst their number.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Lucky Dip Liberals and Democracy from a Top Hat

Some of you will be aware that the Independent Group on the Council are currently in dispute with the administration at NBC over the Council’s allocation of committee places following the formation of the new group. We agreed with our overall allocation of 6 places on the Councils Committees, (this is worked out proportionately) but we disagreed with the Council then allocating these places themselves without any consultation with us, resulting in Independent Cllrs not having a place on important Scrutiny Committees with the other three main parties and with us being placed on other minor committees such as the Tree Panel and the Appointments Panel.

So we are in dispute, but our dispute has been orderly and measured, we refused to take up our places on the committees until there had been proper consultation and agreement, and we have been increasing our opposition in other areas to make up for our non participation on committees. This has included the group speaking on every item at the last two Cabinet meetings and submitting 104 questions to the Leader and Portfolio Holders (who get paid extra for dealing with their briefs) at next Monday's Full Council. meeting The questions (all approved by the Borough Solicitor) are wide ranging and cover all of the Councils operations, examples include questions on concerns over attacks on Council Staff to the removal of Asbestos within Council Homes.

The above is called opposition, the administration do not like it, but that’s tough ,it comes with the job and is an effective way of holding the Council to account and making your voice heard despite the moves made to silence you.

So have our protests been dealt with in a Liberal or Democratic fashion? Has the new Leader (Cllr Brian Hoare) learnt from the mistakes of his departed predecessor? No such luck. First of all he arbitrarily introduced new rules at Cabinet to limit the number of Councillors who could speak at Cabinet on certain items, not just affecting the Independent group but also cutting off other Councillors from other parties who had attended the Cabinet to represent the views of their electorate.

On the question of Committee places the Council has now decided that as we won’t agree with their allocation or give names for committees they have placed us on that they will now impose these places on us and draw our names out of a hat to determine which of us will sit on which committee.

And on the matter of those 104 questions? Well the leader doesn’t think it is fair that his portfolio holders should be made to work for their extra responsibility allowance and so he has declared, again it seems without any reference to anyone else that they won’t answer them? They will refuse to answer all of the 104 but (and here comes that hat again) they will draw three questions from each of the three Independent members out of a hat for answer unless we inform them of the 95 questions that we should withdraw!

This is not democracy, what do we say back to members of the public who gave us questions they wanted us to put to the council? “Sorry the Council refused to answer?” Or “unfortunately your concerns and problems were not drawn out of the hat”

An excuse given to me by the leader of the Council is that “officers are working too hard on the budget to provide answers” but as the council's Chief Executive told me himself “Questions to portfolio holders are for portfolio holders to answer, not the officers” I also understand that officers are working so hard on the budget that today, the Chief Executive, the Borough solicitor and the Director of Housing all took time out of their busy schedules to oversee and conduct the Leaders prize draw to determine our questions!

This has to be an all time low for a so called Liberal Democrat group to use underhand tactics such as this to deny the properly elected voices of the town the chance to question their record or scrutinise properly their actions.

We will turn up next Monday and expect all of our questions to be tabled and made available to the press and public, and we shall expect answers to all of them as well, and whilst accepting that the 30 minutes allocated to “Questions” on the Council agenda will not be sufficient to answer them all, we will expect that written answers are forthcoming to all 104 submitted.

We will not be bullied into sitting on Committees at the whim of the Council and have our membership selected by being drawn out of a hat, and we will not sit by passively as the Liberal Democrat group bring further shame onto our council and continue to bend and reconfigure the Councils constitution into whatever shape or form suits them.

Amongst their number of Portfolio Holders I am hoping that there is at least one who will have the decency and courage to act and speak for themselves and provide the answers to the questions we have raised with them. If so I will thank them for their courtesy and attention. If not, I and I am sure many others, will be asking just what do they do exactly to earn the extra thousands they receive from the Council coffers for the extra responsibility of their office?

And the next time the Council contact you to tell you that you are late with your Council Tax payment or rent, or that they want you to pay more for parking or Leisure fees, tell them “I will consider your request and pull a number of options out of a hat to decide on whether I follow your rules or not” after all what’s good for the Goose?



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