Fear of Democracy?
Dissident Voices But No Council Debate
On 6th May, 23,067 residents of Hastings voted in borough council elections, advised by each of the competing parties on the importance of their democratic exercise. On 19th May, 13 days later, all 32 councillors, 16 of them newly elected or re-elected, met at the council chambers in Muriel Matters House. The set agenda was to determine the appointment of a new mayor and deputy mayor, to hear the composition of the new cabinet, to “agree” appointments to committees, and to “consider” agreement of a programme proposed by the council Leader Cllr Kim Forward.
On assembly, they were addressed by the unelected Managing Director of the council, Jane Hartnell. She explained that the national legislation to allow virtual meetings of local councils had expired on 7th May, and that councillors were therefore required to meet in person. However, as the responsible officer for ensuring the safety and welfare of users of the building, her brief was to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 infection, and the most important mitigation was “to keep the meeting as short as possible to minimise the time that so many of us are in this room together”.
The councillors took this prescription to its logical limit. The meeting lasted 18 minutes, most of them spent in the formal arrangements for swearing in the new mayor and deputy mayor. Without making any address and with no alternative nominations, Cllr James Bacon was elected as mayor by a show of hands, 32 to nil; Cllr Ruby Cox was elected as his deputy in like fashion (though, curiously, with one abstention). Next were “reports” of Cllr Forward on the appointments of Deputy Leader and members of cabinet. She too eschewed any address but simply read out the names and respective portfolio allocations.
The meeting was then directed to “agree” the appointment of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and its terms of reference, then to appoint other council committees including chairs and vice-chairs. It did so, accepting the lists handed in by Cllr Forward, again with no address or debate.
The final item on the agenda should have been a motion on the council’s programme for the ensuing year “as proposed by the Leader”. But she didn’t propose anything. According to Cllr Andy Patmore, leader of the Conservative opposition on the council, Ms Hartnell had previously asked Cllr Forward and himself to agree to adjourn any consideration of a programme until the next meeting, nearly two months away on 14th July, on the grounds of “extreme Covid-compliant precautionary measures” – keeping the council safe by ensuring the shortest possible meeting. He described it as “a fait accompli in effect”.
Newly elected Green councillor Julia Hilton raised no objection. She pointed out subsequently that the members of East Sussex County Council, amongst whom she was also elected by the vote of 6th May, had been advised by the council’s Public Health department to keep meetings short and thereby reduce risks for both councillors and officers. It was recommended that all should take lateral flow tests five days before the meeting this week at County Hall in Lewes “to ensure no one attends with any risk”. She reckoned that “it is fair enough to respect the advice of Public Health”, and reserved her criticism for central government barring continuance of virtual meetings which, particularly at county level, had reduced a lot of car travel.
But if the councillors themselves see little wrong in their conduct, some dissident voices have been raised from within the ranks of Hastings & Rye Labour party. They not only lament the lack of transparency in the selection of the council committees, but raise particular concerns about the appointment of Cllr Andrew Battley, son of Cllr Judy Rogers, and Cllr Roark, daughter of Cllr Forward, as respective Chair and deputy Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny committee. Is it appropriate for either of them to have the responsibility of overseeing the actions or omissions of a cabinet member and portfolio holder who is their own parent? And why in particular has Cllr Roark been appointed to several committees despite her status as first time councillor?
Cllrs Rogers and Forward are also criticised for their conduct of the lacklustre Labour party election campaign. Candidates are reported to have been selected in a biased and in some cases irregular way. Although in theory each ward was supposed to undertake its own selection process, panels were set up by Cllr Rogers with, in many if not all cases, two votes out of five being controlled by Cllr Forward and constituency party vice-chair Jay Kramer. Favoured candidates, including Cllr Roark, were offered more winnable wards. Anime Abdallah had been a member of the party for less than a year, which should have barred her from standing in Ore. Some candidates were not union members, as required by the national Labour Party rule-book. The councillors who lost their seats were all full-time key workers; the new councillors are not.
It is also suggested that funds, materials and inputs offered by volunteers, including social media postings, were unequally allocated between wards, with greater efforts made for relatively safe seats such as Braybrooke, Castle and Tressell; less for others, including the marginal St Helens. Candidates had little or no editorial control over leaflets, and some – ordered at a cost of over £5,000 – arrived too late to be effective. There was also a failure in certain wards of councillors not up for re-election to support their colleagues. Cllrs Rogers, Forward, Mike Turner and Andy Batsford are each criticised in this respect.
Both the constituency Labour party and Cllrs Forward and Rogers were asked by HIP to comment on these allegations but have declined to do so. The party issued a formal statement on Monday that it is “not prepared to say anything at the current time”.
CORRECTION 10 June 2021
It was stated in the article above that Cllr Ali Roark was appointed deputy chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee of Hastings Borough Council following her election in May. This was incorrect. She was appointed as a member of the committee, but the appointed vice-chair is Cllr Andy Patmore.
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