County councillors in Northumberland have been accused of “undesirable” behaviour by their peers and of not putting the best interests of residents first.
Some members of Labour-run Northumberland County Council also admit to having “no interest” in the authority and are “distracted by negativity,” a report by officers and members of other local authorities has found.
The report claims the behaviour of some members is “not providing a sufficiently grown up atmosphere” in which to operate and calls on them to behave in a more “statesman-like” fashion.
> Bloody hell ! Anyone who has ever heard what goes on at Westminster will be now wondering just how bad things must be here !
On the back of the findings, the council’s senior officer said it referred to a number of “misleading claims” which damaged the authority’s reputation such as that its planned new headquarters will cost £40m and that a £20,000 car bought for use by its chairman is a Limousine.
An opposition councillor at the authority accused leaders of issuing outrageous and demonstrably untrue statements and intemperate blog posts.
They hit back saying their critic appeared “hell bent” on proving the report’s findings right.
The conduct of members comes under fire in a Local Government Association ‘peer challenge’ of the authority, in which it is visited and assessed by the council by senior officers and councillors from other local authorities around the country.
“There are concerns that not all elected members from all political groups appear to put the best interests of Northumberland residents first, either in their interactions with other elected members, or how they engage with the council more broadly.
“Put bluntly, there are some undesirable member behaviours which are detrimental to the council operating effectively, having a negative effect on its external reputation and internal functioning.
“Increasing tensions and increased media opportunities are to a degree somewhat inevitable as politicians become focused on the 2015 general election, but councillors need to remember that they are the external face of Northumberland County Council and campaigns in the media can be detrimental to everyone and the council’s reputation.
“There are also some concerns about how members interact with officers and with each other.”
The report adds:
“Political negativity from some elected members is not providing a sufficiently grown up atmosphere conducive to trust and neither is it in the best interests of local residents.
“Some members openly declare that they have no interest in ‘the council’ although they are members of the council…
“The behaviours of some members need to improve, and a disproportionate amount of time seems to be spent in attacking the council, resulting in officers then having to deal with the fall-out, rather than developing or influencing policies for the greater good. “Opportunities to build relationships and build trust need to be explored, so that members and officers can focus on the big issues ahead, rather than being distracted by negativity, which is draining for everyone.”
The peer challenge recommends the authority “work harder to help all elected members to understand their roles in representing the council and being more statesman-like, irrespective of seniority or political persuasion.”
Responding to the findings, council lead executive director Steve Mason said:
“The comments made refer to misleading claims which damage the reputation and standing of the county council.
“For example current claims that the proposed new civic headquarters in Ashington will cost £40million (current estimates around £20million), publicity over a £20,000 car claimed to be a limousine which will save the council money and the level of debate, and on occasion the personal nature of such debate, surrounding the post 16 transport review.
“And while it is only natural there will sometimes be differences of opinion between members, this area of improvement highlighted by the team is already in our proposed action plan and the existing code of conduct and Nolan principles will be an early discussion topic for the next group leaders’ meeting.”
Conservative David Bawn said:
“Sometimes senior members of the administration need to be careful to be seen to act in a statesmanlike manner, this isn’t helped by some of the outrageous and demonstrably untrue statements that have emanated from the leader’s office to the local press on periodic occasions and some of the intemperate posts made on behalf on his blog.”
Leader Grant Davey hit back:
“It seems local Conservatives are hell bent on proving the findings of this independent report led by the leader of Conservative controlled Wiltshire County Council right.
“Their response to a report which highlighted how well the council was progressing and how staff were rising to the challenges of a very challenging cuts agenda was to attack the leader of the council and council staff.
“It’s neither constructive nor is it what residents expect from their elected members and I do hope they sit down and study the report properly and reflect on their ill advised comments especially the comments about ‘damaging political behaviour.’”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 26 Jan 2015
Councillors who have forced a debate on a decision to cut school transport have been told it could be “unlawful” to reverse the proposals.
The row over transport for post-16 students in Northumberland reached new heights, with Prime Minister David Cameron wading into the row and all three political parties in the county taking highly-charged potshots at each other.
The council’s Labour administration said a meeting on Friday to discuss the plans would cost £80,000 – a figure rubbished by their rivals – and blamed the coalition Government for forcing £130m of cuts on the authority.
It also emerged that councillors had been sent a letter from council’s lead executive director Steve Mason, in which he warns that a motion from the Conservative group to reverse the decision could leave the council open to a costly challenge in the courts.
Post-16 education transport charges were scrapped by the Liberal Democrats when they ran the council in 2008.
But Labour recently approved plans for a £600 travel charge for students attending their nearest educational establishments where public transport is not available.
Students who can travel on public transport would have to pay the full cost of their journeys. Exemptions would apply to young people already in post-16 education, those with special educational needs and those from low-income backgrounds who attend their nearest school or college.
Council bosses say they were forced to bring back charges as they have to remove £32m from the authority’s budget in 2014/15 and a further £100m over the next three years.
But parents, pupils and politicians from rural areas of the county have accused the council of discriminating against families in such areas, with over 1,200 joining a Facebook group and a protest staged outside an Alnwick school last month.
They had planned a similar protest at a full council meeting earlier this month, only for the authority to cancel it citing lack of business – a move they said would save £18,000.
The council’s Tory opposition demanded an extraordinary meeting, with more than the five councillors required to force such a course of action signing an official request.
The extraordinary meeting was scheduled for Friday, with Labour bosses claiming it would cost £45,000.
Party leaders have now claimed the council’s accountants have put the cost to the taxpayer of Friday’s meeting at £80,000.
Council leader Grant Davey said: “The cost of the extraordinary meeting has skyrocketed and we’ve had to audit the cost.
“It now stands at nearly £9k each for each of the signatories of the motion put forward by their leader Coun (Peter) Jackson. Northumberland Tories have very serious questions to answer – how can they justify calling a meeting that will cost taxpayers £80k while this council has to find £130m in cuts over the next four years? This is a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Coun Jackson hit back, saying: “It is absolute rubbish. The £45,000 was misleading and was a lie and how they can claim that it is even more than that is beyond me.”
His party had tabled a question to Friday’s meeting demanding a breakdown of the costs when they were put at £45,000.
Coun Jackson said he could not see how the meeting could cost more than £1,000 and added: “You have got to question the administration at County Hall, how they think it is going to cost them £80,000 to have a meeting with 67 people.”
The Journal has seen a confidential letter to members from the council’s lead executive director for corporate resources, Steve Mason, in which he warns of the risks of supporting the motion from the Tories, requesting the authority’s policy board reviews its decision to bring in charges.
In it, Mr Mason expresses “concern” about the passing or debating of the motion on the basis that decisions delegated to the policy board can only be taken by policy board and that it would be “unlawful” for full council to undermine that position.
His letter claims it would be “counterproductive” to discuss a matter the policy board has already determined as reopening the matter “increases the risk of challenge against that decision in the courts.”
Mr Mason says: “I would ask then that you bear this advice in mind when considering and voting on the motion.”
Coun Jackson responded: “It is just another example of bullyboy tactics from the county council.
“We are convinced our motion is entirely legal. We are asking the Labour-run policy board to reconsider its decision. There is nothing illegal about that at all.”
Meanwhile, rumours that the headteacher of the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick, Maurice Hall, has been put on gardening leave having distributed literature produced by opponents of the transport charges, have been dismissed.
The Journal reported how Mr Hall had apologised to parents for his actions, while rumours abounded that he he had been put on gardening leave as a result. But school governor Ian Walker said Mr Hall is currently off work for personal reasons and said it was an “unfortunate coincidence” that the literature issue had come at the same time.
Source – Newcastle Journal, 09 July 2014