If Cllr Allen Conway’s inside information is to be trusted, a mystery quartet is planning to stand down at next May’s town election.
The revelation has triggered a major political rumpus, and has nearly threatened to derail the entire Neighbourhood Planning process.
What really set the cat among the pigeons was Cllr Liz Harvey’s email to fellow town councillors suggesting that those who were planning to stand aside in 2015 should not wait, but consider doing so right now, with the advent of the by-election caused by Cllr Melanie Roberts’ recent resignation. This is what she said:
“If we are to have another election in the town, let’s use this as an opportunity for any councillors who no longer feel able to meet the commitment of time and intellect now being demanded by this role, to step aside to enable those with an appetite for the challenge to come forward.”
Having been leaked the email and scenting a good story, Ledbury Reporter journalist Gary Bills-Geddes, asked whether this was a call for mass resignations. In his report (22 August), he says, Cllr Harvey has made ‘several calls in recent years’ to this effect. People are scratching their heads at this. I can recall just one instance centring on her decision to participate in the 2012 by-election to test her democratic mandate following the supermarket conflict. Journalistic license perhaps? Over to you Gary…
On the question of democratic legitimacy, it seems that many town councillors are extremely sensitive: only four of them have been elected by popular vote, while the remaining fourteen (80% of the council) were either elected unopposed or co-opted in 2011, there being insufficient candidates to fill all vacancies. (This is a pattern which is repeated in town and parish councils throughout the country.)
Kremlinologists who watch the ebb and flow of Town Council affairs, were hardly surprised therefore that Cllr Harvey’s admittedly feisty comments and Mr Bills-Geddes’ press report, would unleash a volcanic reaction. Weighing into the row, Mayor Bob Barnes reportedly said that the ‘commitment and ability of councillors should not be called into question’ adding, ‘is she still playing that tune?’
Putting aside the extraordinary idea that town councillors are above criticism, Cllr Barnes’ comments echo the widespread, but utterly mistaken interpretation of her remarks within Ledbury Town Council. The Old Guard gets touchy on this subject. Red rag to a bull, most councillors construed the email as calling for resignations en masse.
But was she? Cllr Harvey maintains that she was simply suggesting that the ‘retiring four’, if they weren’t up for the fight themselves, might make some space for other community members with energy and ideas to take their place while the town is being besieged by predatory development proposals. Personally, I don’t see where is the call for collective hari-kari, but others seemingly take a dimmer view.
The fallout from the incident was swift and savage. There have been howls of outrage, public personal attacks and counterblasts, even a threat to close down the Neighbourhood Plan Working Party completely, on the grounds that it is unworkable and poisonously unwelcoming.
According to the council gossip, this is one of the frankly preposterous reasons for the scant contribution of town councillors to the Neighbourhood Plan so far – only six have been consistently involved over the last eighteen months, not a very impressive track-record.
As a longstanding member who has attended almost every single Neigbourhood Plan meeting over that period, I simply don’t recognise the picture that has been painted. Tired, demotivated, frustrated, slightly aimless, yes, but poisonous and politically-charged? Not at all, at least not by the people who have been putting in the work.
The interesting question is who has been spreading this malicious story – and to what end. Attention is focussed on a particular town councillor who, while adding nothing of any value, has been covertly agitating to undermine the credibility of the community-led neighbourhood planning group for months. There has, it transpires, been a well organised scheme to take the Neighbourhood Plan under the direct control of the Town Council. So much for espousing the cause of democratic engagement.
What we’ve been witnessing is a power grab, motivated by a toxic brew of personal ambition, settling of old scores and naked political advantage. (See my blog You Might Very Well Say That…).
Small town politics heh? It’s to be hoped that once the dust settles and the routine of council business kicks back in after the summer recess, some semblance of reason will return to its ranks. Meantime amid the resignation brouhaha, the Neighbourhood Plan Group, has finally agreed an excellent package of revised management arrangements, designed to re-energise the process, for the forthcoming round of community planning consultations.
Now we must turn to weightier matters – the two planning applications for housing on the southern by-pass, on the cricket pitch, a superstore in Lawnside Road and the ongoing saga of the Herefordshire Council’s ill-fated Core Strategy Proposals: plenty to keep everyone busy.