It would indeed be a sad day if the Mayor of Ledbury were asked to step down before his term was out, but Jan Long should not be overly troubled at the present moment.
As far as can be established, there have been no calls for Bob’s resignation as a Ledbury Town Councillor, much less from his position as Mayor. A stalwart of the community and talented PR professional, Mrs Long appears to have become hopelessly muddled with the actualité.
The interesting question as ever, is who might have fed her such an inaccurate version of events.
Surely Ledbury’s small-town Machiavelli hasn't been up to his old tricks again?
Jan might well be on to something when she suggests there are dark political forces at work in Ledbury’s so-called ‘non-political’ council – but not perhaps from the direction she is hinting at.
Writing in the Ledbury Reporter, Mrs Long says:
‘I was … extremely dismayed and saddened to read the report relating to calls for our mayor, Bob Barnes, to step down. Why? Do those who have maligned Bob have an 'agenda' not known to members of the public? Surely such discord within the council can only bring it into disrepute. I have never before been aware of such petty and unnecessary conduct, and cannot help but wonder if there is a political issue with a touch of self-positioning for the local elections next year?'
Where Jan has become confused is believing the ill-informed tittle-tattle that Bob Barnes was asked to step down as chair of the Neighbourhood Plan at the June meeting of the working group. Since I was at the meeting, I can confirm that this is totally incorrect. Let me put the record straight.
When he became Mayor, Bob Barnes had said that he would not have time to devote fully to the Neighbourhood Plan and he would need to hand over the chairmanship to someone else. Given the problems with leadership and the pace of progress in and outside of meetings, it was very delicately raised by the vice chair, Nina Shields, whether the management of the Neighbourhood Plan might be looked at afresh, particularly in light of the Mayor’s intensely busy schedule and the changing planning context. Perhaps more people could be brought into the ambit of project management and strategy she suggested… Point blank, he said he didn’t think this would be necessary. Perhaps unwisely, I then gently pressed him by reminding him of his own promise to hand over the reins once installed as Mayor.
What happened next took everyone by surprise. Clearly discomposed, and before any further discussion, Bob precipitately announced that we have a vote of confidence in him. There was a chorus of: No Bob, that’s not what’s being said. Ward councillor, Terry Widdows stepped in and tried to calm things by saying all that was needed was a discussion about changing things in a positive way. Bob wouldn’t hear of it. At this point, the meeting descended into a shambles. The chair should have immediately adjourned proceedings to allow a cooling of emotions. That he did not was clearly an error of judgement.
So let’s be clear: it was Bob Barnes himself who suggested his position be put to the vote, not anybody else. Nobody called for his resignation. Those people who are saying otherwise, for their own political advantage, are not telling the truth.
As usual, Ledbury’s favourite game of Chinese whispers whipped up the episode into precisely the opposite of what happened: nobody wanted rid of Bob from the Neighbourhood Plan. All that was asked was for some alternative voices to be brought into the decision-making frame. Was that such a heinous proposal?
The context of Nina’s suggestion is that as Mayor, Bob Barnes and the Town Clerk are the only two individuals who are allowed - by their own diktat - to communicate with the Neighbourhood Planning consultant, Sally Tagg. Not only is this operationally unsatisfactory, particularly given their very busy diaries, but it is contrary to the principles of openness and accountability. The NP’s centrality to the future of Ledbury demands that a wider pool of knowledge, ideas and perspectives need to be fed into the process than the Mayor’s and Clerk’s, valuable though these are.
What we see here, as so often with Ledbury Town Council when there is a hint of dissent, is a return to default position: get things under wraps, have decisions made by a small, unaccountable inner circle, fall back on precedent and procedure, and shut out any opposing voices, even when they represent clear strands of reasonable opinion. Being blunt, the management of the Neighbourhood Plan had become undemocratic and unworkable. The issue was not particularly Bob Barnes, but questions about due process and policy.
The irony of this, is that since the infamous ‘Resign’ meeting, a revised set of arrangements have been amicably agreed, subject to ratification by full Town Council on 2 October. Bob will be joined by Terry Widdows as co-chair and Nina Shields will chair meetings, something she is very good at. Everybody, including Bob has said that they are comfortable and satisfied with the changes. What we have is exactly the outcome that Nina was quietly proposing in the first place.
Did we really have to go through all this pain to get there?