I would be the first person to admit that I have trouble doing what the late Ronnie Barker called, getting your worms out. I missed pretty much all of my primary school education and writing things down that make sense doesn’t come easy to me. I thought that this applied only to doing writing things down until yesterday, when I spent an hour and a half in front of a video camera, being interviewed about the Pleasurama debacle, but frankly it wasn’t very long before I could hear myself emitting a rather muddled drone and yet there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about this.
My views wouldn’t matter that much, I am not in a position of power so if I can’t get my worms out properly, well it wouldn’t really matter that much in the ordinary way, but for this blog. Readership has increased considerably recently, the counter has just past the 150,000 mark and so I feel that in a sense what I say represents the people who read it and so I make increasing efforts with my worms.
Recently council officers have become particularly careful of what they say to me, when I have made clear in my correspondence that what they say is for publication and during the last couple of weeks this has reached a sort of hiatus where they haven’t responded properly at all.
The rules say that the council must respond to a member of the public within ten working days and ten working days ago I asked a series of questions about the way the council are handling a public consultation.
As this consultation had only fifteen working days to run I asked them to reply promptly, I also added during the resulting correspondence that if they couldn’t answer a particular question I would be happy if they just answered the ones they could, to save time.
From the email that I have received from blog readers it would seem that the officer running the consultation has replied to everyone else promptly and has even managed to engage in a dialogue with some of them about this issue.
With me however he passed the buck, something I can only put down to me publishing the information on this blog, as far as I can tell from the different web statistics about 400 people a day read this blog or about 1,000 different people a week, so there is a sense that he wouldn’t be replying to one individual.
Now the council are in a bit of a difficult position over this, I am neither an anonymous blogger who can just be ignored, nor am I a news reporter for the press who would have to follow particular rules.
There really aren’t any rules, that I am aware of, which the council have got for this situation, I try to deal with the problem by acting responsibly, moderating what goes on here and what I publish, checking my information and so on.
Anyway the officer concerned passed this on the council’s chief executive who also couldn’t or wouldn’t answer my questions, to be fair I don’t think either of them have any legal training and an error in the way this serious matter is conducted by the council, could effect the council’s constitution.
By this I mean that if the council isn’t properly constituted then it may not legally be able to act as a council, make decisions, collect money and so on.
So the chief executive passed my questions on to the council’s head of legal services, who as far as I know is the only senior council executive with legal qualifications.
Well the ten days have elapsed and he hasn’t responded, that leaves me in a rather difficult position.
Normally as this issue relates to the way the leader of the council is elected or selected I would take this matter up with the leader of the council, but the chap we have at the moment doesn’t respond to my emails and as far as I can see doesn’t respond to any emails from members of the public.
I don’t mean by this that he should spend his life writing to individual electors, what I do mean though is that emails sent to his office should be responded to by his staff.
One of the things that I wrote to the leader about recently was his rather unusual comments relating to consulting the public, here is the email.
Sent: 29/11/2010 11:03:01 GMT Standard Time
Subj: Instability and enlargement of the language? Sic Samuel Johnson 1755.
“I received one of the labour group’s press releases for publication yesterday, in it quotes you as saying the following:
At the Thanet Joint Transportation Board meeting last Thursday (25th November), the committee where TDC liaise with KCC on Highways issues across the island, Cllr Bob Bayford Conservative leader of TDC, in response to a presentation by a KCC officer and their report on Margate Seafront said,
“Please don’t keep referring to congestion in your reports as residents in Thanet do not know the meaning of congestion, they do not know they are born”.
Cllr Bayford then went on to say,
“This new government has promised to cut down on public consultation, decisions should be left to elected members because that is what we have been elected for, there is far too much of this consultation going on”.
It is my intention to publish these comments on my main blog later today, before doing so I would like to check with you that the quotes are both accurate and not made out of context.
If you anything to say on the subject please let me know before midday today, when I intend to write the post.”
I know that in a way this is raking up an old story but the council’s attitude to public consultation is what this is about and if the council can be said to have a voice then I suppose it must be that of the council leader.
Anyway the leader didn’t reply to me, so that brings me to the problem of who in the council to write to about issues, certainly in this case my ward councillors don’t seem appropriate as they are part of the Labour group that issued the press release that I was checking on.
Back to the main issue now which is the leadership consultation, I have to take the measure of effectiveness of the way this consultation has been conducted so far on how many of the approximately 100,000 local voters have responded to it.
After it was supposed to have been running for 10 weeks only 6 voters had responded.
Now the council has been asked not to waste unnecessary money on this on the one hand but on the other they are obliged by various acts of parliament to reach as many of the local voters as they can. They also have obligations to reach disabled voters and voters from minority groups as well and I believe the only way to do this would be contact various local groups and include it in council publications, but most of all put something in plain English about it prominently on their website. This is very important as it means that these people can use the normal equipment they use to access information from the web, translation programs read aloud programs and so on.
I have had quite a few off the record and indirect responses from within the council about what is going on here, these vary from the oh my god we haven’t have we type of thing, to efforts to bend the meaning of the English language in such a way to suggest that the council have acted properly. None of them however has suggested that this isn’t a very important issue.
In the last few days the council has published a bit more information about the leadership consultation in terms of explanation, it is mostly copied from the advice for councillors that I published parts of yesterday, it is hard to tell when it first appeared, google picked it up on Thursday and cached then. Which seems about right, I think this should have appeared eleven weeks ago.
Interestingly google only picked up the consultation on the 4th of December, which begs the question, how was the twelve week statutory consultation being conducted before it appeared on the council’s website?
Now of course all that I have been saying could be due to some dreadful misunderstanding on my part, but without the council engaging in some sort of dialogue it is very difficult to sort out.
Sorry I digress back to people getting their worms out, in this case council officers and the sectary of state, some of what the council has put on the internet by way of explanation doesn’t make any sense to me, it just isn’t in written English that I can comprehend.
“the Council must selected its preferred political governance arrangements”
“Government’s commitments to allow councils to return to the committee system, should they wish to, and on elected mayors.”
Both of these quotes are not from the original consultation, but from the “Explanatory Note from the Head of Legal and Democratic Services” that appeared belatedly last Thursday according to google.
Now in all of this business people keep confusing what I am saying, with my personal choice of leadership, they seem to think that what I am getting at here is that I want an elected leader. I have reservations about both types of leadership, I haven’t completed the consultation yet as I am yet to receive the advice about it that I asked for.
My gripe here is about how the council is going about the business of asking the Thanet voters which type of leader they want.
Most people seem to assume that all of the 56 councillors would vote for it being the 56 councillors who choose the leader and all of the 100,000 voters would vote for it being the 100,000 voters that chose the leader.
I suppose in any democracy the question do you want to have more or less part in the democratic process, or in other words, would you vote to vote? Has a pretty obvious answer.
Sorry I forgot there is a third group here, the council officers and they have come up with their preferred option, this presumably expresses what they would prefer and that is that they would prefer not to have an elected leader.
There is a question here, surfacing in the back on my mind like, what is the square root of minus one? And that is why someone working for any of the public services, in a democracy, wouldn’t want to carry out the wishes of the electorate?
Some time ago I had quite a long chat about this with a senior council officer about this and I think that their biggest fear is having a leader that they can’t work with. Back at this point in time I was exploring the practical implications of having an elected leader and was considering various people who would make good council leaders, I won’t name names here but the only person, I mentioned, who the senior council officer liked the sound of had already held high office in the council.
What happens with the present system is that someone decides to become a councillor, for the most part I think that they have generally very good intentions of righting the wrongs in Thanet.
What happens next is rather difficult, because to get anywhere in the council they have to belong to one of the main national political parties, something that may be all well and good for governing the country, but in terms of the local problems is not very helpful and is often counterproductive.
By this I mean it is sometimes beneficial to criticise both the national government and the county administration, in terms both their general policy towards district councils and their approach towards this particular district.
Over a period of time the new councillor becomes part of a political group, he becomes trained in the way that the council has always done things and in many cases I believe becomes reliant on the financial allowances.
Now this may be beneficial to the political parties, it may also be beneficial to the officers in the council, but I am not so sure that it is beneficial in terms of solving many of the local problems. A very big factor here is that he or she has had to form alliances with and allegiances to the very people who have been responsible for many of the major local problems.
It is this lack of allegiances that attracts me to an elected leader, starting with a clean slate with no project, no matter how long the errors have gone on for or how much of the councils funding has gone into them exempt, an elected leader could have some chance of sorting them out.
I am thinking here of the ones that I know the details of like Pleasurama where basic public safety comes way behind the rules and regulations being adhered to, so that although the environment agency can strongly recommend safety precautions they can be ignored because of the date the recommendations were made, rather than the seriousness of those recommendations. The maritime museum, where a series of interdepartmental wrangles meant that it remained closed, unused through two summer seasons, I won’t go on as it achieves nothing.
Conversely staying closest to the present system, as recommended by the officers is probably the safest way forward, their greatest concern seems to not on getting a good leader, but how to rid us of a bad one.
What happens if we get an unscrupulous mayor is a bit of a worry, we have a bit of a history of dubious and incompetent councillors. One was convicted of printing money, one built some houses on common land, we even had one leader of the council who dressed up as a fake sheik to try to get some local investment. One councillor decided to promote tourism with a milk bottle advertising campaign, which could have worked if all of the milk bottles weren’t delivered in Thanet. Two councillors were found to be receiving housing benefit that they weren’t entitled to. I got this information directly from a Thanet councillor so you can take it as you find it.
What a pity the consultation isn’t a little broader, the council could instead of asking us if we want to vote for the just the leader of the council ask us if we wanted to vote for councillors in general.
They could suggest various other methods of selecting councillors other than voting for them, prior to democracy this was mostly based on wealth and the main land owner in Kent was the church so the local government, farming of the poor and suchlike was administered by the clergy, the livings were bought.
Archbishop Wake kept a private notebook about them written in Latin, I have mentioned this before but for anyone who missed this, here are a few descriptions of the Kent clergy ant the end of the 1600s:
Patten of Whitstable kept a mistress and did not pay his debts; Bourn of Ash was "allied to the sons of Eli" ; Roberts of Queenborough, ale-house sot and debtor, "so impudent as nothing is like him"; Bate of Chilham, "proudest and stiffest man" in the diocese, allowing corpses to lie unburied for want of fees; Burroughs of Kingston, "most horribly covetous" ; Ansell of Stowting and Cade of Sellindge, Jacobites and taven-brawlers; Edward Dering of Charing who fought his own sister at the Swan Inn and threw her "head-cloaths" into the fire; Hobbs of Dover, who amassed pluralities; Isles of New Romney a notorious sot and Jacobite; Nicholls of Fordwich who preached that George was a Foreigner, a Lutheran, and a Beggar-"a wicked, swearing. Lying, Drunken man".
Well it’s something for a local leader to live up to I suppose.
I will ramble on about this as the day continues.