What was that about Ledbury Town Council’s tendency for wasting people’s talents and time? Could this be their most epically stupid ever decision?
In a historic vote last Thursday evening (29 October), the Council resolved to ‘dissolve the Neighbourhood Plan Working Party … with immediate effect and [that] the completion of the town’s Neighbourhood Plan is to be controlled and managed by the town’s contracted consultants (Foxley Tagg) who can then freely draw on the people they consider best suited to the remaining tasks.’
Ten councillors voted in favour, six against, and one other abstained.
What is astonishing is that so many town councillors voted so recklessly for a proposal without having any of the relevant information to make that decision or understand its consequences. A far-reaching and centrally important decision for our town was made on the flimsy grounds that somehow things could be worked out.
It was pointed out by several speakers that the motion proposed a drastic course of action without any of the necessary financial, procedural and governmental arrangements being in place. Some of them by now will be desperately crossing their fingers, trusting that hope, finally, will triumph over experience.
How long will this consultant-led programme now take to deliver? How much will it cost? What mechanism within the town council can be established to oversee the consultants’ work? On what basis will consultants decide who is deemed ‘suitable’ to participate in the process? More generally, in what sense can Ledbury’s NP be described as community-led, the guiding principle of the legislative framework for neighbourhood planning itself? Nor do FTP have the local knowledge or contacts to deliver the work on their own: they must rely on a group of committed community volunteers to guide and support them: who? These are the questions that ten councillors, plus one who abstained, blithely ignored when they cast their vote.
Some councillors, unaware of the intensely political background to this intervention, will have been swept along by the simplistic rhetoric that the neighbourhood plan needs to be completed in Ledbury’s best interests as soon as possible, and if that means upsetting, or being rid of a few prickly personalities, so be it. What they didn’t appreciate – but should have - is that far from expediting the plan, Rob Yeoman’s proposition would delay it immeasurably, and possibly deal it a fatal blow in the final reckoning. Others, including Mr Yeoman himself, had different motives, old scores to settle, and personal enmities to deal with, personal advantage, even party political calculations to consider, a toxic mixture. It would do them very well to be shut of a troublesome group of council outsiders who kept asking awkward questions about seemingly dodgy finances and murky factional interests.
They will all be well satisfied with the result. For now.
The argument went that the Neighbourhood Plan Working Party was disfunctional, ineffective and amaterish, incapable of making progress due to infighting and ‘bad behaviour’. The unfortunate truth was that the NPWP had been eroded by poor leadership (the previous chair Bob Barnes), starved of project support by the Town Clerk, Karen Mitchell, and nobbled by procedural obstacles designed to bring the project to a shuddering halt.
Since their demotion in the 2015 election, the ringleaders of this coup (Yeoman, Barnes and Eager) have also been busy dripping poison in people’s ears. Reports circulate that newly elected councillors were ‘warned off’ joining the Neighbourhood Plan because of the personalities involved. One thing the Town Council does well is to spread malicious stories about people they don’t like.
Members of the NP group wrote to the Mayor Annette Crowe on 19 October pleading with her to prevail on the Clerk to meet the Neighbourhood Plan chair, Ian James to unblock the process and inject some positive energy. The letter said: ‘The NPWP is currently paralysed by a lack of clarity as to roles, responsibilities, working procedures, sign-off permissions and financial authorisations. Members of the NP team are feeling very frustrated and demoralised. This lack of clarity is resulting in the NP making such slow progress.’
A long-scheduled meeting the previous week between the Town Clerk, councillors, the Mayor and the Neighbourhood Plan chair to talk about these key issues was suddenly cancelled just hours before it was to take place. The Clerk said she was unavailable. The Mayor sat on her hands and did nothing. Was she in collusion with the Clerk?
Following on from this, it surprised nobody to see Rob Yeoman’s proposal to ‘dissolve’ the group, and to observe the Mayor voting for it. Many of the NP volunteers believe there has been a concerted behind the scenes strategy to emasculate, obstruct and finally destroy the community-led process.
Though constructive suggestions by some wiser councillors were put forward to rekindle a ‘peace process’, these were ignored.
Having the final word, the Mayor gave a very clear signal that she had lost trust with the NPWP and would be voting for its dissolution. It would not have been lost on anyone in the room that Annette Crowe has been a friend, ally and supporter of the core members of the NPWP group, both during her time in the council, and long before. If even she was turning her back on them, there must be something horribly wrong… It was a fatal blow which may have swayed a few undecided councillors.
The Mayor’s intervention was ill-judged in several ways. As chairman, it would be normal protocol for her in this situation to remain outside the debate, even though she might vote. Annette also received a number of very well-expressed representations from members of the public, the existence, if not the substance of which should at the very least have been disclosed to councillors. Actually as these were official correspondence, they should have been circulated. She also appeared to make her decision on a very partial account of the situation, and did nothing to acknowledge the documented instances of administrative and procedural error, coupled with outright obstruction from Town Council staff, which had lately paralysed the NP process. Finally, she threw her weight behind a proposition which would plunge Ledbury Town Council into a grave procedural and political predicament.
It now falls to her as the Mayor alone to unravel this situation. She, with her colleagues has ‘dissolved’ the very group of individuals who have the knowledge, experience and skills to enable the project to go forward in timely fashion; so much commitment and valuable expertise has been thrown away, a tragic waste. Everything now has to be rebuilt largely from the beginning.
Significantly, all but two of the ten councillors who voted for the dissolution, had either never attended a single NP meeting or had contributed nothing to the vast corpus of work by the volunteers of the former working party. Their decision was based entirely on hearsay, prejudice and ignorance. As for the other two, their track record of mismanagement, vindictiveness and equivocation ran true to form in their contributions to the debate, proffering many distortions, laced with a fair few blatant untruths. Infuriatingly, rules of debate precluded any challenge to these, however, as the session was film-recorded, their words may be subject to further scrutiny.
Sadly for the Mayor, she is now left to put back together a shattered process but she must take full responsibility for her actions. The town meantime, is assailed on every side by predatory development which could likely lead to a piecemeal and ill-thought out building spree. The developers will be rubbing their hands with glee at this welcome news. It remains to be seen whether the expanded contract to Foxley Tagg will prove quite so happy for them as the complications of their situation emerge.
All that we can do now, is watch and wait, hopeful that in the not so far off future, it will be realised that the Neighbourhood Plan must be a process leading to a statement of consensus, on the things which the Town agrees. To that end, however long it takes from now, Ledbury Town Council will have to adopt an inclusive approach, which, though deeply unpalatable for some of its elements, must involve the erstwhile membership of the NP Working Party (2013-2015). I don’t think any of us are minded to be ‘dissolved’ into the autumn mists.
Footnote: When they were appointed, Foxley Tagg Partnership had never worked on a neighbourhood plan: so much for being 'very experienced'. Their basic contract was £24 thousand. Last December they were paid an extra £7 thousand for handling a small consultation exercise in 2014 (this apparently fell outside of their contract). Now they are being engaged to handle every aspect of the town's NP: community consultation, project management, running meetings, drafting all the words (options, policies and plans) and liaising with Herefordshire Council (things that have been done up to now by the NP volunteers).
The FTP bill stands at c£30k which is regarded already as being at the very high end of scale for this kind of work, according to the Royal Town Planning Institute with whom we have been in contact. The point is how high are we, as a community, prepared to go? Anyone concerned should write to the Mayor, Ledbury Town Council, Church Lane, Ledbury or email firstname.lastname@example.org