Thursday 27th June 2019,
North Yorks Enquirer

“Lord of the Flies”

“Lord of the Flies”

  • an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, analysing the present state-of-play (time out) at the Puzzle Palace ahead of Thursday’s  Meeting (30th May 2019).

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Since the Declaration, on 3rd May 2019, of the results of the Scarborough Borough Council local elections, I have submitted only one article for publication – “SBC: What Next?” (6th May 2019) – in which I spelled out some of the immediate consequences, based on the composition of the new 46-strong Council in terms of relative numbers (Group Leaders shown in bold type), as elected:

Conservative Group [Con.] – 16 Councillors

Cllrs ABBOTT, BACKHOUSE, BASTIMAN, CHANCE, COULSON, GOODBERRY, GREEN, JEFFELS, LYNSKEY (Mayor), MALLORY, MORTIMER, PEARSON, PHILLIPS, SWIERS (Deputy Mayor), TRUMPER and WATSON.

Independent Group [Ind.] – 10 Councillors

Cllrs CASEY, CROSS, DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF, GRIEVE, JEFFERSON, KERSHAW, E. MURPHY, R. MURPHY, RILEY and SMITH.

Labour Group [Lab.] – 13 Councillors

BAILEY, BROADBENT, CAMPBELL, C. MAW, J.MAW, R. MAW, NORTON, RANDERSON,  SHARMA, SIDDONS, STONEHOUSE and TUCKER.

Cluster of Independent Members [CIM.] – 3 Councillors

             Cllrs CHATT, COCKERILL and POPPLE.

Green Group [Grn.] – 2 Councillors

             Cllrs FORBES and ROBINSON.

UKIP [UKIP] – 1 Councillor

             Cllr HERITAGE.

Unaffiliated [Unaf.] – 1 Councillor

             Cllr ATKINSON.

Thus, with the provisional support of the Independent Group and the Green Group, Labour Leader has been able to stack up support for his new position as Leader of the Council with, as a minimum, a majority of 2 (i.e. 13 + 10 + 2 = 25), possibly a majority of 4.

But it bears repetition that locally, nationally and continentally, electors across the political spectrum are looking beyond the two party, centrist politics of recent years. For better or for worse, there will be coalitions – some more durable than others.

I have refrained, until now, from further comment on the local election results in response to calls from members of the Labour/Independent coalition to allow the new incumbents time to digest the many complexities of their new roles. In fact, I had prepared a detailed report of the horse-trading before and after Councillor SIDDONS’ accession to the Leadership. I concluded, however, that it would serve no useful purpose to submit it for publication at the present time; I have it on file.

It was disappointing to learn that two of the four members of the new Cabinet have been enjoying a leave of absence pursuant to arrangements made prior to the elections. To me, this is a tacit admission that the Labour Group had no expectations of assuming a dominant role in the new Council. It bespeaks inadequate preparation for office; as one Conservative put it, “Labour have been caught with their pants down”. (I know. They would say that). Nevertheless, it is not an auspicious start. Councillor SIDDONS cannot have entirely discounted the possibility of assuming the Leadership – after all, he did submit a Nomination . . .

It is also disappointing that the decision has been made to defer meetings beyond the timescale set out in the Constitution, particularly as Councillor Mike COCKERILL pointed out this important, indeed fundamental fact in Full Council. When in Opposition, the Labour Group and the Independent Group worked together to address a number of abuses of process arising from inaccurate interpretations of statute within the SBC Constitution (e.g. the unconstitutional sidelining of calls for Extraordinary Meetings; the ‘special dispensations’ attendant upon the No Confidence vote; Mr DILLON’s unauthorised exclusion of Councillor DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF, etc, etc). I would not like to think that breaches of the Constitution, suddenly, are acceptable to both Groups now that they hold office.

Turning to the magnitude of the organisational task facing the new administration, this can best be evaluated by considering the scope of the Portfolios of the outgoing Cabinet of former Leader, Councillor Derek BASTIMAN [Con.]:

The Old Cabinet

Cllrs BASTIMAN, MALLORY, COCKERILL, CHATT, SMITH, PHILLIPS, TURNER and NOCK – (left to right)
[Councillors identified in SHOCKING PINK lettering were not re-elected]

Councillor Derek BASTIMAN [Con.] –  Leader, Chairman and Portfolio Holder for Regeneration

Councillor Helen MALLORY [Con.] – Portfolio Holder for Corporate Investment – (Dep. Ldr.)

Councillor Mike COCKERILL [Ind.Ind.] – Portfolio Holder for Major Projects

Councillor Bill CHATT [Ind.Ind.] – Portfolio Holder for Public Health & Housing

Councillor Martin SMITH [Con.] – Portfolio Holder for Tourism & Leisure

Councillor Heather PHILLIPS [Con.] – Portfolio Holder for Transformation

Councillor Sandra TURNER [Con.] – Portfolio Holder for Communities

Councillor John NOCK [Con.] – Portfolio Holder for Legal & Governance

These titles conceal a workload largely unconsidered by the wider public. Take, for example, the following list of generalised sub-headings subsumed within the then Public Health & Housing Portfolio of Councillor Bill CHATT [Ind.Ind.]:

Bearing in mind that all of the Council’s activities are predicated on the relevant statutory authorisation, there must be reams and reams of regulation behind those sub-headings. By any reckoning, the list above demands a vast knowledge-base in order to enable an informed and productive dialogue with a wide range of Officers. This is by no means a cushy part-time job for a measly eight grand a year. Would you do it? Could you? And that is only one of eight Portfolios. Imagine handling two Portfolios of that magnitude simultaneously.

The new Council includes 20 new members, for whom the learning curve must look like the north face of the Eiger.

From a pool of a maximum of 27 Councillors (because Councillor SIDDONS was never going to confer a Portfolio on any of the 16 Conservatives or any of the 3 ‘independent’ Independents – henceforth to be known as the Cluster of Independent Members [CIM.]),  and discounting all of the ‘newcomers’ (irrespective of party affiliation), it is not easy to identify plausible candidates for a seat on the old Cabinet, based on the Leader-&-7-Portfolios model. Perhaps this explains why the new Leader has committed himself and his colleagues to a half-size Cabinet comprising only himself and three Portfolio Holders, as follows:

The New CABINET

Councillors SIDDONS [Lab.], COLLING[Lab.], RANDERSON [Lab.] and JEFFERSON [Ind.] – (left to right)

Councillor Steve SIDDONS [Lab.] –  Leader, Chairman

Councillor Liz COLLING [Lab.] – Portfolio Holder for Corporate Finance – (Dep.Ldr.)

(overseeing Director of Finance & Business Services and s.151 Officer, Mr Nick EDWARDS and his staff)

Councillor Tony RANDERSON [Lab.] – Portfolio Holder for Legal & Governance

(overseeing Director of Legal & Democratic Services and Monitoring Officer, Mrs Lisa DIXON and her staff)

Councillor Janet JEFFERSON [Ind.] – Portfolio Holder for Commerce

(overseeing Director of Commerce and Litigation Counsel, Mr Richard BRADLEY and his staff)

Of these, only Councillor JEFFERSON has previous experience of Cabinet duties. Readers may wonder how these four will perform the functions of their eight predecessors. Certainly, for any one of them to assume all of the responsibilities set out on the Public Health & Housing Portfolio (shown above), whilst simultaneously commanding another equally demanding duty roster, is a very big ask. One consequence is that the senior Officers will become even more influential. As one experienced regional journalist observed, “The tail will be wagging the whole litter now”.

The Tail: Mr Mike GREENE, Mr Nick EDWARDS, Mrs Lisa DIXON and Mr Richard BRADLEY

In fairness, one should not include, in this ironical pop at the Directorate, the incoming Chief Executive Officer, Head of Paid Service (and, presumably, Returning Officer) Mr Mike GREENE, who will reportedly take up his position with a clean sheet on Wednesday 28th August 2019. Meanwhile, the three other members of the Directorate apparently “will ‘act-up’ and work together to undertake the duties of Chief Executive on a shared basis during that time”, according to Mrs DIXON (but not, presumably, out of the goodness of their hearts).

Incidentally, I am told that Mr GREENE has no plans to move to Scarborough; he will commute. This, too, is disappointing – not least for the landlord of the Leeds Arms. Meanwhile, Mr GREENE has been quoted as stating:

“I am absolutely delighted to be recommended as the next chief executive of Scarborough Borough Council. It is a fabulous area with a great reputation and some exciting developments planned for the borough.” 

“Great reputation”, eh? For being the ‘low pay’ capital of England? For demanding the highest Council Tax in the land? For losing both of its Blue Flags? For being a ‘county lines’ local drugs hub? For butt-sucking likely Tory donors? Clearly, Mr GREENE does not read the Private Eye magazine. Or the Enquirer.

The Mayoralty

Remembering that last year’s Mayor Making (the ratification of the new Mayor, Councillor Hazel LYNSKEY [Con.], and Deputy Mayor Councillor Roberta SWIERS [Con.] will be deferred this year until 5th June 2019) was boycotted by the entire Labour Group, it will be interesting to observe Councillor SIDDONS’ conduct this time around. His very valid remarks last year are no doubt fresh in his mind, as they are in mine:

“With Council revenues plummeting we keep being told the Cabinet is cutting its cloth to match.

But once again the whole Council of 50 members, senior officers and the town’s ‘great and good’ have been invited to a free Mayor making bash at the public’s expense. 

The last Labour Mayor, Eric Broadbent, didn’t have this extravagance but still had one of the most successful Mayoral years in the Borough’s history 

It gives the wrong message that we are choosing to cut basic amenities such as closing public toilets but sitting down to feast at the public’s expense. There were pop-up toilets on Royal Albert Drive for the Tour de Yorkshire finish this weekend but for the rest of the year, visitors now have to cross their legs. 

We fully support a leading council member acting as a figurehead for the Council but that does not need to involve unnecessary perks for councillors. 

If the Cabinet do want to spend money on the Mayoralty they could spend some money on training the new Mayor ready for the challenges of the year ahead.

After a year during which the public has been ejected from Council for the long-held custom of clapping. And instructed to stop, legally permitted, filming of council. 

A year also when councillors at several meetings have not been allowed their right to speak up for their residents the council’s credibility needs boosting by the new Mayor.”

I do not disagree with anything that Steve said. I hope he was sincere. But, frankly, I do not see how this year is any different to last – unless, of course, the world looks ‘other’ – once one gains ‘power’.

Still, the question has been asked; and answered . . .

Going Forward

To the surprise of many, new Leader Councillor Steve SIDDONS has publicly committed himself, in the Council Chamber and in the local media, to a number of radical policy reversals, the ramifications of which have yet to be fully digested. They include:

  1. Revisiting the Benchmark development contracts in the North Bay;
  2. Revisiting the Flamingo Land ‘preferred developer’ status for the Futurist site;
  3. Restricting his Cabinet to himself and three Portfolio Holders (Cllr COLLING, RANDERSON and JEFFERSON), ‘mirroring’ the Directorate, as compared to the previous arrangements (Leader, plus seven Portfolio Holders);
  4. Devolving a large part of the Cabinet’s responsibilities to various new ‘advisory’ Committees;
  5. Revisiting the closure of the public conveniences;
  6. Revoking the Council’s email interception policy.

To take these in reverse order:

6). Sources within the Town Hall have stated that the email interception will continue at least until the departure of outgoing-CEO Jim DILLON; apparently 14th June 2019 is likely to be his last day in office. I can confirm that I sent an email to Councillor SIDDONS on Thursday 23rd May 2019 at 11:26am (i.e. within the period which Councillor SIDDONS himself had indicated that he would be away from his desk). It has not elicited an Auto-Response, which suggests that it never reached the email client on Councillor SIDDONS’ computer (or i-Pad, mobile phone, etc), and that it has been intercepted. I had intended it to be a private communication; however, if Mrs DIXON’s prefers me to make it public . . .

5). At a time when the Council is called upon by central government to identify and implement another £5M savings over the coming 4-year Council term (£1.25M per annum), the reinstatement of the public conveniences, at an estimated cost of £150K per annum, could only be achieved at the expense of some other branch of service. It would be helpful to know what sacrifices the new Leader has in mind.

4). The creation of Cllr SIDDONS’ proposed ‘advisory’ Committees is said to be an administrative ‘tall order’ without the recruitment of at least three new suitably-qualified Officers (with appropriate salaries and pension, medical and National Insurance contributions). It will call upon members to make many more visits to the Town Hall (at 45p per mile) to attend training sessions and meetings. These negative cost impacts would, like the public conveniences, draw funding away from other services. Which?

3). Concerns are also being expressed that, without decision-making powers, these ‘advisory’ Committees would be no more than ‘talking shops’, since much of the decision-making will reside in the hands of just four people – one Independent Portfolio Holder (JJ), two Labour (LC and TR) and the Leader himself (whose casting vote, as Chair, trumps even a ‘rebel’ Labour Portfolio Holder – as if there ever could be such a thing!). Such decisions as fall to Full Council may not prove to be all plain sailing for Councillor SIDDONS, who is totally reliant on the support of the Independent Group. But the Leader knows that Independent Group Leader Councillor Sam CROSS wields no whip over his Group, Independent Councillor Michelle DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF having already hinted that, for her at least, proposals will attract her support only on merit.

Then, courtesy of Yorkshire Coast Radio, we learned that Councillor DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF and her fellow Hunmanby ward Independent Councillor, Tom RILEY, had announced their immediate departure from the Independent Group. Thus, Independent Group Leader Councillor Sam CROSS may not necessarily be in a position to offer the Leader carte blanche 100% support at all times, from all 10 members, even if he so wished. Suddenly, everyone was counting on their fingers again. How would this affect the balance of power? Would Councillor SIDDONS’ administration prove to be viable?

But Councillor DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF was swift to emphasise:

  • “This not part of any Machiavellian plan to remove the leader. Cllr Siddons has been elected by the council. He deserves the time to put forward his and I will not support any moves against him or votes of no confidence.”

A strange form of words, this; it reads as though there is a word missing after “this”, and another after “his”. And “not support” does not entirely rule out the option to abstain (i.e. to neither support nor oppose). With two possible abstentions and four ‘unknown variables’ (alphabetically, Councillors ATKINSON [Unaf.], FORBES [Grn.], HERITAGE [UKIP] and ROBINSON [Grn.]), the numbers game takes on a different cast that is difficult indeed to fathom . . . Lab. 13 + Ind. 8 = 21 versus Con. 16 + CIM. 3 = 19 . . . neither achieves a majority (24 needed). But then there are two possible abstentions, plus the 4 ‘unknown variables’. And the Conservative Mayor, remember, holds a casting vote . . .

2). It is unclear to many (myself included) what Councillor SIDDONS wished to convey when he referred to the ‘preferred developer’ status of Flamingo Land in relation to the Futurist site, aside from an appeal to populism. As far as I am aware, Flamingo Land is the ‘preferred developer’ for the simple reason that there is no other – unless Councillor SIDDONS is keeping someone up his sleeve.

The legalities surrounding the suggestion that the Council should negate the ‘preferred developer’ status of Flamingo Land and solicit fresh tenders are both complex and delicate. It is always important, in such cases, to refrain from any public statements that may later be construed as predetermination.

In my view, it would have been more prudent for Councillor SIDDONS to constrain his remarks to Council (in support of his Nomination to the Leadership) to something as brief as, “Councillors, I stand before you as the sole Nominee for the role of Leader of this Council. The electorate has returned us all to this Chamber with important work before us. In their service, I beg your support. I thank you.”  In going far, far beyond that, Councillor SIDDONS has scattered seeds of concern quite unnecessarily.

1). Very much the same applies in regard to Councillor SIDDONS’ reference to the Council’s contractual arrangements with Benchmark Leisure Ltd and its associated companies, going forward. It is difficult to imagine that Mr Roland DUCE will have applauded the Leader’s remarks – any more than Mr Gordon GIBB – but I suspect that he has made a careful note of them.

Mr Roland DUCE (Benchmark) [left] and Mr Gordon GIBB (Flamingo Land)

The next consideration is the allocation of seats (and Chairships and Vice-Chairships) on the various Committees and, of course, delegations to external bodies (of which there are many – all good for 45p per mile and the prospect of a free lunch).

The political composition of Committees (i.e. Group representation in terms of numbers of seats) is determined in direct proportion (rounded out to whole numbers) of each respective Group’s percentage of seats on the Council, thus:

Noteworthy is the fact that Councillor Derek BASTIMAN [Con.] does not appear on the Committee seat allocations list at all. And  Councillor Mike COCKERILL [CIM.] is also conspicuous by his absence. So, too, is Councillor Heather PHILLIPS [Con.].

In short, with the exception of a single Committee seat apiece – Councillors Helen MALLORY [Con.] (Audit) and Bill CHATT [CIM.] (Standards) – the remaining members of the old Cabinet have eschewed Committee service entirely. Working to rule? There had been speculation that the Conservative Group may boycott Committee service, but that seems to have been abandoned – and rightly so; one is elected to serve.

Interesting, too, is that the Labour Group has left two vacancies on its allocation (Planning and Licensing – where all the money spins around).

All things considered, it appears to me that a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the intentions and methodology of Councillor SIDDONS’ administration. I wish him luck. He walks a fine line. In a Borough where 62% of electors voted to Leave the EU, a Labour (i.e. Remain) administration may be seen as something of an anomaly – the more so given the landslide successes of the Brexit Party in our region.

We shall known more after Full Council (Thursday 30th May, 2:00pm) – following three weeks of paralysis.

Finally, it should (hopefully) become apparent that Councillor SIDDONS has received my email, however belatedly, and will respond accordingly on Thursday, in Full Council.

For me (and a lot of other people), that will be something of a litmus test.


Post Scriptum – A personal message to Jim:

I promise not to cover the CV-leak story until after 14th June 2019. Happy?



 

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