This week, some Ledbury councillors and their friends find themselves in that evil situation, desperately trying to work out an escape. Options range from appalling to catastrophically awful. Lots of money will be involved either way. Humiliation awaits, either now, or later. Delay will only magnify their eventual shame.
It might be tempting to pity them, but this would be a mistake. The vicious political farce in which they are ensnared is all of their own making.
It has been a story of lies and deceptions, a parliament of fools imagining themselves to be cleverer than they are, playing fast and loose with the rules of democracy and the norms of civilised behaviour.
Like all philanderers scattering their dubious favours, Ledbury’s D-list politicians sincerely thought they would never be brought to book. Now they are hunkered in the wardrobe sans culottes, as the jealous husband rampages about the bedroom smashing up the furniture. What to do? Probably best to stay put, and hope a getaway might be possible at some point. And yet, the man with the cudgel in his hand is sure to open the door at any moment. Yep, here he comes… Crash.
A seven hundred page legal deposition arrived at the Church Street offices of Ledbury Town Council on Tuesday this week. Just as some brazen town councillors have been goading her to do, Cllr Liz Harvey has applied for a judicial review into her, and fellow town councillor Andrew Harrison’s illegal banning by Ledbury Town Council. They were wrongly accused and convicted of bullying staff.
It hasn’t mattered that both Harvey and Harrison were inconveniently exonerated by a year-long independent investigation into their conduct by Herefordshire Council. Nor has the silly legal framework governing how alleged councillor misconduct should be handled, got in the way. In May 2017, they were once again banned from normal council responsibilities by Ledbury Town Council. No evidence was presented, no opportunity given the two accused to answer their critics, no reasons given. That calm summer evening, Kafka was smiling down on Ledbury nodding his head.
Knowing that the town council was answerable to no higher authority than itself (apart from the courts) on matters of its governance and conduct, councillors and staff have become increasingly audacious in their neglect of due process. Falsified minutes? Ignored complaints? Disallowed agenda items? Legal advice unheeded from Herefordshire’s Monitoring Officer? Non declaration of interests? Financial regulations flouted? Pah. Like shoplifting or dodging your taxes, it gets easier and easier the more you do it. Until you get caught.
Never in their worst nightmares did they think Liz Harvey would press the nuclear button. The financial charges are eye-watering. The judicial review will spiral up to about £140 thousand, costs most likely being awarded to the winning side.
So far the public purse is at least forty thousand pounds lighter as a result of the dispute, not including staff time. That’s £16 thousand for the Herefordshire Council investigation, £16 thousand legal fees incurred by Ledbury Town Council and about £8 thousand for contracted-in administration from Herefordshire Association of Local Councils. By the end of it, this means that the town council will have incurred getting on for £200 thousand; that’s fifty pounds donated by each Ledbury council tax payer to its ‘Get Harvey’ political fighting fund.
At this point, the five ringleader councillors Crowe, Francis, Fieldhouse, Barnes and Eager will be locked in conclave trying to decide whether to contest the judicial review, or concede. If they go for it, the legal fees will begin racking up expontentially. Twenty grand will go immediately on engaging a barrister and preparing a defence. This must be entered with the court within the next fourteen days. Then there will be a pause before the first court hearing in the autumn to determine if the judicial review will be allowed. More thousands. The following months will involve detailed legal preparation, evidence gathering and preparing for the main hearing in the spring. Conservatively, the action will cost each side £60 thousand.
The other option for the town council is to let go, unban the two innocent councillors, issue a public apology and settle out of court the legal costs incurred to date. This would be the sensible course, but who knows with this lot? Whether the Gang of Five will have the stomach to force down such a large slice of humble pie is an open question, especially given their dogged persistence in pursuing the vendetta this far (with public money).
So, here for handy reference is their choice: months of uncertainty and unrest culminating in eventual defeat in the courts (for the case against them is overwhelming), a legal precedent in public law forever known as the Ledbury Ruling, a legal bill of £140 thousand, and crushing public humiliation; or, an immediate admission that their banning of Harvey and Harrison was ultra vires, a public retraction to all the local groups among which they had been denounced, a settlement of costs and an undertaking that the Council both understands its legal responsibilities in relation to councillor conduct and undertakes to abide by them in future. Either way, the choice is less than ideal.
Obviously the least bad option rather depends on your situation: a shame-faced councillor contemplating political meltdown or a ripped-off council tax payer anticipating a sting in next year's town council precept.
The clock is ticking. The town council must decide its course in a matter of days, if not hours, in order to accommodate the legal timetable. An 'extraordinary council meeting' should be convened immediately to give time to sanction the legal expenditure if the Council is minded to fight on – or to lift the banning of the two councillors. By rights, the Full Council should decide this, not a shadowy clique trying to save their own skins. But who can say what crazy stuff Ledbury's Kim Dynasty will get up to next?
As we said, don’t feel sorry for the people who got the town into this mess (for it is public money that is being squandered). While it is appreciated that all of this might have come as a terrible shock to certain councillors who have had their ears swaddled in the finest of cloths these last two years, now it is time for them to confront their fate. Let’s regard it as a learning experience.
Just for the record, these are the town councillors who blithely swallowed the lies of Crowe, Francis, Fieldhouse, Barnes and Eager that what they were doing was legally defensible. Tony Bradford. Debbie Baker. Jayne Roberts. Matthew Eakin. Andy Manns. Jean Simpson. Noel Roberts (ex). Phil Bettington (ex), Rob Yeoman (ex).
Ladies and gentleman: your day of destiny has just arrived.