Not a success:
A Review of Ledbury Town Council's Year 15-16.
After the rifts and bitterness of the previous year's Barnes’ mayoralty, Annette Crowe swept into the Mayor’s seat like a latter-day Brunhilde, pledged to bring people together, to sow happiness, and introduce a new era of openness and democratic transparency. At her Civic Service, Handel’s majestic coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest, rang out in a burst of hope and joy. While she and her friends were thrilled, not everyone was suitably impressed with this regal musical offering. Eyebrows were also raised when invitations went out for the ‘Mayor’s Glitz and Glamour’ Ball, a hefty £45 a head taking place at Alexander Park, half way to Hereford.
But despite these minor off-key gaffes, hopes were high that Annette’s reign could only bring better things to the Council. God knows, they surely couldn’t get any worse after her predecessor. Could they?
Yes they could.
The last twelve months has surely to rank as the most ineffectual and unimpressive term of mayoral office since… well, the year before, as it happens, during Bob Barnes’ inglorious turn with the plate chain. And that is saying a lot.
Reviewing positive achievements coming of Ledbury Town Council’s efforts is an undeniable challenge, particularly so this year.
There is one. In the teeth of seething opposition from the Old Guard, some council meetings have been relocated to disabled-accessible venues. Being charitable, it’s a step in the right direction. Mind you, for as many meetings that have taken place away the Market House, an equal number have remained there. How so?
Personally, that shabby upstairs room has never appealed: from the throne-like dais upon which the Mayor and her lackeys grandly comport themselves, the steep dark stairs, the amateurishly arranged pictures and wonky displays, to its dingy lighting and impossible acoustics, the place reeks of oppressive tradition, a throw-back to the 1850s when it was done out as a meeting room. It is not a comfortable space. Yes the Market House is an icon of Ledbury – but for all the wrong reasons.
Why is the Council still using a room that is completely off-limits to anyone who can’t manage stairs or struggles with their hearing, a room that is impervious to good quality sound and video recording? I think we know the answer to that question, but I asked this anyway at a Council meeting and was told condescendingly how very hard it is to find suitable meeting rooms in Ledbury. I wanted to argue the point, but despair overcame me.
There are two problems. Why hasn’t a venue roster for the next four years of the Council been drawn up? From the various church halls, the Community Hall, St Katherine’s, the Burgage Hall and school assembly halls, surely a range of vacant slots can be identified? If not immediately – let’s not get too excited - at least the town might expect that sometime in the yawning future all meetings will happen at ground level. Not yet it seems. No financial provision has been made for room bookings in the coming year. Also, no arrangements have been made to reserve a regular slot in accessible rooms as and when they become available.
The plain fact is that Ledbury Town Council has no interest in making itself accessible to the community. Annette Crowe’s early enthusiasm for this easiest of projects has all but petered out. No stars awarded.
As usual in the face of such pressing questions, Ledbury Town Council prefers to look inwards and spend a lot time fiddling with itself. The Neighbourhood Plan could have been the vehicle to identify locations for town centre assembly rooms catering to young and old together, bigger and better than we have now. There is public money to support such projects. Look at Bishops Frome’s splendid new village centre.
Alas, the volunteers sustaining Ledury’s Neighbourhood Plan, running with such revolutionary ideas, were given the sack in October 2015. At that embarrassing Council meeting, Cllr Rob Yeoman applied a dose of political ‘Agent’ Orange to the green shoots of community activism after the disconsolate years with dreary Bob Barnes at the helm of the project
The Ledbury Spring: it couldn’t last. In a right-wing coup that would have gladdened a junta of geriatric generals, the Council control freaks snatched it all back. It was an act of vindictive nihilism. What a stupid thing to do.
Cllr Yeoman bemoaned the slow progress and unruly behaviour of the Neighbourhood Plan team. We needed progress, and professionalism, he said, and fast. Consultants would manage the Plan henceforth and in the interests of efficiency, select the best people to work with.
Five months later and where are we? Nowhere. Not a thing of substance has been achieved since the coup. I lie, for the budget for the Plan has been raised from £20 thousand to an eye-watering £70 thousand, most of that going the way of consultants, the Foxley Tagg Partnership. The completion date has been pushed back to sometime around 2018 – long after the major housing developments for the town will have been set in stone. That will mean the project has been in progress for seven long years. Why, some of the original members may tragically have passed on by then.
There has been a ‘call for sites’ with advertisements taken out in the local press in which landowners have been asked to come forward and have their fields and meadows considered for building plots. Not wishing to be too hyperbolic, can I just say that this is an OUTRAGE. Ledbury’s Neighbourhood Plan has no need to consider additional housing on top of the already confirmed Viaduct site (600 homes), the Cricket Pitch (100 homes) and the likely redevelopment of the Football Ground (about 60 homes), the outstanding possibility of Gladman appeal being upheld (321 houses) and the 50+ homes which have already been built in the parish since the clock started ticking in 2011 on the town’s housing growth target of 800 homes by 2031.
Given that Ledbury has already more than fulfilled its housing quota up to 2030, why the hell is Mrs Sally Tagg, a development consultant with strong links to the housebuilding industry, being paid an additional £5,000 of public money to solicit further bids from landowners for even more housing? Are the people of Ledbury aware that we have a circle of consultants and town councillors who seem intent on building way more houses than even the development hungry Herefordshire Council has allocated for us? Possibly not: external communications with the community have been typically inadequate and ineffective.
In other news, the Town Council ruled out the running of the public toilets in Bye Street. It also refused, until a couple of weeks ago, to share grass-cutting duties with Herefordshire Council, long after every other parish and town in the County had felt it necessary to do so. It refused the opportunity for funding from Herefordshire Council to fill potholes locally. It rebuffed an approach from the police for a ground-breaking burglary deterrent project for the whole town. It has even had to hand back getting on for £8,000 of grant funding which was there to PAY the council to consult with local people. No progress has been made on taking on the running (and income from) any of the town centre car-parks, again, unlike other local market towns. Even the apparent ‘gift’ of a piece of public art is seeing the council surprised by the need for several thousand pounds of public money to be spent on its installation.
Out of control traffic continues to upset and endanger local residents. Nothing has been done to tackle this, despite firm proposals being put forward for a traffic management survey to be undertaken. A local resident is fuming that his offer to pay for a speed survey in New Street has been repeatedly rejected by the Town Clerk.
Democratic participation: no progress.
Ledbury’s miserable markets continue to occupy much time and energy in meetings and working groups, but with little success to show. It’s not difficult to get a good market off the ground. Towns and cities are doing it all over the world, have been for a few thousand years now. Once again, in this town, we continue to miss the mark.
Steady as she goes.
So, Ledbury Town Council’s annual budget of £320 thousand continues to be spent in the way that it always has. Forty per cent of it goes on running the town council itself (see analysis). It employs a large staff who are apparently rushed off their feet. But what are they doing most of the time? Seemingly running the Council… meetings, minutes, administration, lots of bureaucracy while maintaining a comfortable existence in their cosy, expensive-to-run offices in Church Street. Most of the rest is spent on looking after the Rec, some grounds maintenance in Dog Hill, and subsidising the cemetery – things it has been doing since it first began; plus ça change.
Financial regulations are left unreformed. There are still glaring holes in the way the Neighbourhood Plan is being managed. None of the recommendations made by last year’s official auditor have been enacted.
It’s not that we have high expectations, or begrudge the wages of Town Council staff, the frustration is that so little happens of consequence as a result of them. What are we getting for our money?
If Ledbury Town Council ceased to exist tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would there be an outcry? Would our quality of life be diminished? I don’t think so. Let’s face it, alternative, much cheaper arrangements not requiring the expensive apparatus of democracy, could be put in place to cut the grass and dig the graves.
When you come to look at Ledbury Town Council’s year, there is not a lot to look at, beyond the business-as-usual back-stabbing, the amateurish disregard for rules and due process, the steady drip-drip of poison emanating from shady political groupings, oh, and the deadening cloak of incompetence that seems to attend everything it ever does. How is it that a group of mainly clever, thoughtful, good-hearted people can turn themselves into such a shower?
All the grandiose trappings of our town council, are at best an irrelevance, sometimes a nuisance, but mostly a complete waste of time. Buck up people.
The trouble with rising town council tax demands is not so much the 11% percentage increase on the Council Tax bill (which in real terms represents just 65p every month), but the poor value that local people receive from their investment in local services. If we got more for our money and had a town council which worked successfully to bring investment, jobs and extra funding into the town, people like Mr John Worby (Letters, Ledbury Reporter, 25 March) wouldn’t feel quite so much like he was being taken for a mug.