(Warning: long read with some big words).
There is the ‘playground antics‘ one which says all the town’s councillors are childish idiots, silly egotists who seem to enjoy arguing with each other. Why don’t they grow up? Better still, why don’t they all resign?
Another story – the motherhood and apple pie tale - talks about ‘clashing personalities’. So consumed are they by their own inflated importance, that councillors have forgotten their purpose, which is to represent Ledbury’s best interests. Why oh why can’t they just stop sniping and pull together for the good of our community? They are all volunteers, and work hard for no material reward, so why can’t we all be nice to each other? Bless the do-gooders.
The ructions which have shredded the town council’s effectiveness and credibility these last months and years, are frequently demoted to ‘bickering’ in the annals of the Ledbury Reporter. While public lawyers and politicians around England and Wales are busy grappling with the constitutional implications of the ‘Ledbury Judgement’, local people are being served up big fatty slices of banality: It's time for a change, says Chris Wall, generously quoted from Facebook on the front page of the local paper. ‘Perhaps local councils have naturally run their course’, he adds profoundly. This is the ‘democracy doesn’t work’ trope: politicians everywhere will always go bad and voters are stupid, so let’s revert to something else; erm, not sure what though.
In these competing narratives (which each contain some truth but miss the central point), there is an obvious omission. The original argument that kicked it all off, as with the four years of increasingly bitter conflict and an eventual high court action, was about the conservation of power. We run this town. Not you.
Get Orf My Laand.
Like so many other self-important little county places which used to call their own shots, Ledbury Town Council has been emasculated in successive local government reorganisations, downgraded to a parish council, shorn of most of its responsibilities, left to amuse itself with the vestiges of former grandeur: the ‘mayor-making’ and her Chain of Office, the Civic Service in which the town’s great and good pay obeisance, the Mayor’s Charities (an often sordid affair), a raised throne at the head of the room, complete with gavel and a whole minuet of rituals and conventions befitting the ancient dignity of the title. No wonder the Masons are hand in glove with the town council. It has played its own quaint version of the emperor’s new clothes for several decades uninterrupted. Who needs actual cojones when you have all those shiny little bawbles to fiddle with in public?
Then along came Harvey. And her ‘acolytes’ as Michael Purton the new-to-Ledbury editor of the Ledbury Reporter recently referred to them. I am probably one of these.
The Harvey judicial review, Ledbury’s right to behave as it saw fit, was the Council’s Suez Crisis, a final, tragic attempt to assert its manhood, to stick a crooked little finger up at the hated Herefordshire Council who had long since been given parental responsibility for parish governance.
‘If they think we’ll be told what to do by Herefordshire Council,’ spat Bob-the-liar-Barnes with bargain basement eloquence, ‘they don’t know me, and they don’t know Ledbury.’
He was raging about the Monitoring Officer Clare Ward’s insistence, as per the Localism Act 2011, that she had sole responsibility for determining allegations of misconduct of elected councillors. She warned the Council that it was acting ultra vires in banning two councillors, and was risking judicial review. Her entreaties were met with insolent defiance.
When the inevitable came in Cardiff High Court, Ledbury Town Council was brutally reminded that its power was all gone. Much as the old nativist tendency, the born and bred brigade, bemoan the passing of the old days when Ledbury was such a lovely, peaceful little town until all these meddling incomers arrived, their friends who ran the town council had decided finally to cut out the ‘extremist’ pestilence that was eating away at the foundations of its time-honoured existence.
In a letter to the Reporter, which to their credit, the editor chose not to print in its original form, but gave it the front page in heavily edited form, Barnes said he believed that a ‘political extremist group’ was now in charge of the town council, specifically the chairman Nina Shields: the imagined faction of outsiders, communists, terrorist sympathizers, traitors, bullies and sundry Johnny-come-latelys led by Liz Harvey and friends was running a plot to overthrow the civilised order. They were to be stopped. And thus the bannings.
It was a coup d’etat involving a junta of mad generals. It didn’t matter that a barrister’s opinion said the Council’s defense of the judicial review was hopeless. Nor that Herefordshire’s chief legal officer had told them so. Nor that even their preferred second opinion, barrister Lisa Busch QC, said they were on shaky ground because of the clear unfairness with which they had treated Liz Harvey and Andrew Harrison. Despite these auguries, the quartet of Crowe, Barnes, Fieldhouse and Eager (de facto), thrust forward in the manner of samurai warriors, all hack and slash. Who cared anyhow? It wasn’t their money that was being pissed the length of Ledbury High Street.
It emerges that Mrs Mitchell was managing her own 'grievance process' throughout. An interested party, she really shouldn't have had any access to paperwork or be consulted on how Harvey and Harrison were treated. Nor should she have had any involvement in the judicial review being the person at its epicentre. Ledbury Town Council has never worried about such niceties.
Having reviewed the duplicate set of legal of correspondence between solicitors Winkworth Sherwood and the Council, I can confirm that Mitchell personally supervised and controlled much of the proceedings leading up the High Court. While ordinary town councillors were kept completely in the dark about the Council's defence, Mitchell knew everything and took part in decision-making at every stage.
No wonder that Karen Mitchell reportedly deleted the entire contents of her email inbox and purged large amounts of documentation before she left Ledbury for a new town clerk position in Bromyard.
Something is Missing.
It was at the height of Ledbury’s supermarket controversy that I first bumped up against her. We had presented a petition of over three thousand names to the Town Council at a Council meeting. Mayor Allen Conway, a supporter of the cause, received the thick bundle of papers for ‘safe-keeping’ over the weekend in the Council offices until they could be taken to the Planning Department of Herefordshire Council. When, on the Monday morning, I collected the petitions to take them to Hereford, the bundle was thinner, much thinner. Sheets containing about six hundred names and addresses were missing. I contacted Liz Harvey as a local town and county councillor to seek advice. She took up the theft with Karen Mitchell who vehemently denied any wrong-doing. They exchanged acrimonious emails but nothing came of the spat. The matter was to be reprised as part of Mitchell’s complaint all those years later in 2016 in which she alleged systematic and continual bullying, harassment and intimidation by Harvey and me, beginning with the supermarket petition.
That shocking little incident foretold precisely the wayward behaviour of Town Council staff and their impressionable councillor friends and bosses. I learned that someone at least was willing to steal legal documents; if not the Clerk or staff who had taken them, these public servants were responsible at least for ensuring security. Instead of being concerned at the allegations of theft, Mitchell was on the contrary affronted, disclaiming all responsibility, alleging that she was being attacked politically by Harvey. And so it all began. Could she ever be trusted? Did she realise she’d been rumbled? Was she always willing to cover up for her dishonest friends and allies like Barnes and Eager?
To the members of the dark place at the core of Ledbury political life, Mitchell was a pricelessly valuable asset. To her, they were her occupational anchorage and so long as they danced to each other's tune, they were safe.
Was it really just about holding on to power? Perhaps this narrative is also flawed. Perhaps there has been something much worse at play. What happens when a toxic personality hooks up with another one? Or several? A narcissist enlists a sociopath? And this group manoeuvres itself into a position of control? Is that what we’ve also seen, an unlucky conjunction?
Surveying the wreckage, it is clear that Ledbury has been in the grip of some very disturbing characters since the last election in 2015. The previous cohort might have been controlling, arrogant and self-serving, but it consisted mostly of ordinary people who had got above themselves, as lowly parish councillors tend to do. In the new administration, there was a change of climate. A new, febrile atmosphere had emerged. The town clerk was feeling threatened (and so as it turns out, well she might). New glories, some of them dangerous, were being sought, including ‘glitz and glamour’.
Majestic Annette Crowe had yolked her best buddy Elaine Fieldhouse into the fold. They quickly made common cause with brother masons Bob Barnes and Martin Eager. Much more lethal than alone, this sinister foursome rapidly coalesced into a nexus of bombastic viciousness and deceit. Amid all the patriotic bunting, the dark triad of toxic personality had found its luxury Herefordshire holiday home.
That systematic Machiavellian cynicism and self-serving manipulation has been the norm among this group is beyond question: just read back in this blog to the beginning of 2015 for the evidence. At council meetings, each of the four has repeatedly dissembled and swerved when confronted with the truth. ‘We have had legal advice that our case is cast iron’, said Elaine Fieldhouse, omitting that she and her confederates had also been told by another barrister (the first they had consulted) that their legal defence was unwinnable. ‘We are acting on advice from the National Association of Local Councils’ said Annette Crowe in justifying the in-house banning of two town councillors. Perhaps this is true, but the advice is nowhere to be found in the records, nor apparently has ever been seen by anyone outside the inner circle, not even the Deputy Mayor at the time, Keith Francis. ‘I trust people’, he said plaintively, ‘to tell the truth’. Wrong.
Just the other week Bob Barnes is on the front page of the Ledbury Reporter asserting that ‘there are no missing documents’ (even though the evidence is clear that screeds of paper pertaining to the judicial review and other sensitive matters have disappeared). Barnes added craftily: ‘all the minutes regarding the handling of the complaints process, and the subsequent introduction of protective measures, were presented to and approved by full council.’ Yes Bob, we know that: it’s the legal papers, the email correspondence including everything ever emailed by the clerk, Karen Mitchell, the grievance and appeal panel proceedings, the notorious Lynda Wilcox/NALC advice, about a hundred grand’s worth of work which the council bought, which are vanished into air. He’s not exactly telling lies on this occasion, but nor is he telling the truth. Yes he is telling lies. Phew. I’d hate to misrepresent him.
I have previously vowed not to dwell on the monstrous Martin Eager any longer than is necessary, save to say he has a long background in ‘not recalling’ this discussion, or that decision, or this thing happening if they are of an incriminating nature. Eager’s moral universe is different to most people’s, the gravity of right and wrong has broken down. Whether it’s gluing up parking meters, inviting children to touch his genitals, or citing committee discussions in council meetings which never happened, Eager’s utterances are to be avoided like smallpox. Thankfully he is finished.
In August 2017 when the town council voted to hand over the management of the legal action to the Standing Committee (of Crowe, Barnes, Fieldhouse and their hapless subordinates Bradford and Francis), the mayor Fieldhouse promised councillors that no decision would be taken without its coming back first to full council ‘to vote’ on everything. Young Cllr Matthew Eakin made a point of confirming this fact: ‘yes everything’ she said brazenly. His chagrin was palpable when it emerged two months later that nothing was being referred back to full council.
‘I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back. I was assured by the mayor that we would have the chance to vote on everything before any action was taken by the standing committee’ Eakin said angrily. You can read a full account of this in an earlier blog piece, An Issue of Trust.
So much for cynical distortion, shameless manipulation and bare-faced mendacity. The two other facets of dark triad personality also glinted in the wintry sunshine last year and before.
Narcissism, that over inflated sense of self importance and grandeur, is often to be seen in this company. Here is Crowe tossing her long blond locks haughtily while declaiming to the crowd in her venomous mayoral farewell speech. Read Barnes’ puffed up cod-legalese for a taste of the man’s egotism. Asked why he resigned from the Council, he said, ‘the Political extremist's were just wasting my time, hours spent discussing Town matters, just for it to be disrupted or deferred (sic)’. It’s so annoying when these foolish little rules of democracy get in the way of you getting your way, isn’t that right Bob?
She Said What?
Is Fieldhouse full of herself? I am remembering her with sidekick, the deputy clerk Maria Bradman, berating me in the town centre, later grasping my arm and saying smoothly that I have mental health issues, then visiting the police and making false allegations of harassment and public order offences against me. She did the same at a packed local government conference grandiosely denouncing Liz Harvey and me as bullies to an aghast Police and Crime Commissioner.
I think she might qualify as a narcissist; the lady has a mind-boggling sense of daring entitlement.
And so to the third face of malice. Sociopaths comprise about 4% of the population; they are not common but are ubiquitous in life as the bullies and terrorisers of humanity. They cluster in certain occupations and positions, being disproportionately in charge of organisations by virtue of their ruthlessness and cunning. They like power. Are often charming. They lack human feeling. Are callous and unconscionable.
At least three of the quartet lean towards this behaviour, albeit possibly at a sub-clinical level. That’s my opinion. I may be wrong, blinded by hatred and revenge. If they are innocent I am truly sorry. But the signs don’t look good.
So actually, to the Mrs Pauline Preedy on Voice of Ledbury who said she was sick of it all, and that the ‘personalities’ had been ruining it, maybe you are right.
Ideology and the ambition for power and control were the raw material, but it was the enriched fuel of disordered personalities which has led to such an unprecedented, extraordinary parish council scandal this year. Ledbury will go down in history as the basket case of town councils ne plus ultra. And that means forever. Are you satisfied ladies and gents?
Those four personalities together, Bob Barnes, Annette Crowe, Martin Eager and Elaine Fieldhouse, had formed a menacing black hole at the centre of the Council, shredding every vestige of truth that mattered. Even now, though the four are gone, well you can’t see them, their pull is still felt in the irritable outer fringes of Ledbury society. Of course, those who espouse them, and continue to give them succour, are also part of the problem in this town. For such a breathtaking financial gamble to take place, which was then lost, and there be people who genuinely think the Ledbury Judgement was a left wing stitch-up, and there are, shows the degree of subservience and contempt for democracy which is latent in our society. Over this, I weep.
People kid themselves that the populist, authoritarian hard right will never gain a foothold in mainstream British politics. Based on what has happened in Ledbury, I’m not so sure. Our duty now, in these times of Trump and Orban, Putin and Erdogan, Bannon and Farage is to defend our democracy wherever, however we can. For this, call me an extremist: No pasaran!
Note: the judicial review was heard at Cardiff High Court, not Bristol High Court. Corrected 22 August 2018