Wednesday 19th June 2024,
North Yorks Enquirer

WTC Councillors’ Secret Training?

August 13, 2023 Whitby Town

WTC Councillors’ Secret Training?

  • – an “In My View” article by NIGEL WARD, exposing the lengths our paid public servants will go to conceal widespread ignorance, ineptitude and incompetence.

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Readers may recall reading a recent article of mine – “WTC: Mayoral Mix-Up” (pub. 13/05/23) – in which I offered some constructive citicism regarding the apparent departure from legal requirements in the process of electing the new Mayor, Councillor Bob DALRYMPLE, and in the process for the appointment of Councillors to the various Committees and/or Sub-Committees.

There have been some interesting developments, some of which fall under the category ‘Good News’.

Before setting them forth here, I would like to draw readers’ attention to the following short paragraph by celebrated Australian investigative journalist William Roland PINWILL, as quoted by John PILGER in his seminal book “A Secret Country”, who said:

“The bulk of better reporting consists of information that does not meet the courtroom standards of proof. Journalism is not a court of law; it is a process of weaving together, often from necessarily anonymous sources, the strands of history. If legal standards were applied to news reporting, the public would have learned nothing of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon would not have resigned in disgrace”.

Whilst agreeing, in broad terms, with Mr PINWILL, I have always made it my business to ensure that my “In My View” articles do “meet the courtoom standards of proof”.

That is not to say that I do not appreciate the input of reliable information from “necessarily anonymous sources” – including elected members who seek to avoid hostility or retribution; I most certainly do appreciate their help.

In an article published on 10th May 2023, I mentioned that:

“It is also understood that the Town Clerk has apparently conceded that there may have been further departures from the regulatory requirements in the way that Councillors were elected to positions on various Committees of the Council – a procedure that was arguably carried out too hastily as the 3 hour limit to the duration of the meeting was approached.”

It would now appear that these “departures from the regulatory requirements” are to be addressed at an Extraordinary Meeting of Full Council to be held on Tuesday 15th August 2023.

Members have expressed great concern that the membership of the Planning & Development Committee comprises some who have no worthwhile grasp of Planning law and much the same may be said of the membership of the Human Resources Committee – two of the most legally complex areas of Council business and responsibility. In a tiny rural parish, this would scarcely matter. But in the most over-developed town on the North Yorkshire coast, the Planning & Development Committee provides one of the Council’s few worthwhile opportunities to offer a word of influence.

In response to my Freedom of Information request (via WhatDoTheyKnow.com) seeking information as to what training (if any) members of the relevant Committees may have received in order to be competent to fulfil these roles, Town Clerk/RFO Michael KING (referred to by some – though not to his face – as ‘The Uncivil Servant’) provided me with the following invoices for training provided by the Yorkshire Local Councils Associations (only two of which are even dated – the other two, on differently styled letter-heads, may even refer to historical training sessions):

Quite why the identities of the members who received this minimal level of instruction have been redacted only the Clerk/RFO may know. In virtue of their role as Councillors, members’ names are already well-established in the public domain. To my perspective, the very idea of Councillors hiding behind anonymity is absurd. The fact that public money has been expended on their (very) basic training can surely not be a state secret and one would have thought that Councillors who have taken the trouble to learn at least something about their responsibilities, however basic, would hardly wish to conceal from the public eye their enthusiasm to learn something about their duties.

As can be seen (if readers can make out the extremely poor quality copies provided by the Clerk/RFO):

  • the first (and most recent) of these invoices relates to a ‘Government Planning Reforms’ webinar (cost £25);
  • the second relates to the ‘Role of the Clerk/RFO’ (cost £25) – a topic I shall return to in a future article, commenting (for the moment) only on the fact that a review of the Clerk/RFO’s Job Description could have elicited the same information;
  • the third, to an ‘Intro to Planning’ webinar (cost £15); and
  • the fourth, to ‘A Basic Understanding of the Planning System’ webinar (cost £22.50).

Thus, for a grand total investment of £87.50, our Councillors (I almost typed “elected members”, but that would be stretching a point, since they were all either elected ‘Unopposed’ – i.e. without a single vote being cast – or co-opted, having first been pressed to provide a CV – something that is not required for genuine candidates for election) now have at least a rudimentary grasp of Planning such as one might absorb from a brief perusal of Youtube (or Viz comic).

Training on Human Resources law appears to have been non-existent.

According to WTC’s 2022/23 Annual Accounts, a grand total of £169.94 was expended during the previous financial year on the ‘training’ of members (on average, £8.94 apiece). For a Council with a Precept of £283,560.00 (£57.31 per Band D household), this seems to me to be a pitiful investment in members’ competence to form an opinion on Planning matters. On Human Resources issues (such as whether or not the Clerk/RFO or his Deputy are fulfilling the requirements of their respective Job Descriptions), members have apparently been left entirely to their own devices.

Set against this, I now learn that the Council is contemplating spending £29,175.66 on i-Pads for members, plus an annual charge of £6,950.60 for an associated service contract.

Toys for the boys!

But I can now confirm that an equivalent service provision has been offered to the Council by a local provider for a total of £4,560.00 (inc. VAT), or as little as £3,610.oo (inc. VAT) for a limited-period ‘special offer’ price.

Meanwhile, staffing costs have risen by 13.89% to £246,000 for the 2023/24 financial year. Anything goes when the public is footing the bill.

Small wonder, then, that the vitally important task of creating a Neighbourhood Plan for Whitby has been delegated to an external firm of consultants (Consultant ‘A’), at a cost which is set to dwarf the costs of members’ education by a factor of over 187:1 – presumably because neither members nor staff have the first idea how to set about that onerous but invaluable task for which some knowledge of Planning is a sine qua non:

And small wonder that the Clerk/RFO, Mr Michael KING, has chosen to redact the names of the Councillors who have benefitted (?) from this minimalist approach to fulfilling their roles. As to the legitimacy of redacting (i.e. keeping secret) the names of public servants spending public money . . .

On the topic of Human Resources training, not one penny would appear to have been invested – or squandered (as the case may be).

For one to conjecture that the future of Whitby now resides in the hands of absolute beginners would be unkind indeed – but not necessarily mistaken.

The Good News

The good news, referred to above, is that Councillors Chris RIDDOLLS and Alf ABBOTT have proposed a series of Motions the specific purpose of which is to replace the present crony-led Committees appointment process with a more equitable system.

It is regrettable that the Clerk/RFO has scheduled the forthcoming Extraordinary Meeting at which these Motions will be considered (and voted upon) for 2:00pm on the afternoon of Tuesday 15th August 2023.

Note the scheduled start-time of the meeting – i.e. when working members of the public, as well as several members of the Council, are unlikely to be able to attend. (Meetings of Full Council are invariably held at the more accessible time of 6:00pm).

This unusually early start-time, of course, is likely to have the effect of minimising the prospects of success for the promising raft of improvements tabled by Councillors RIDDOLLS and ABBOTT.

Indeed, four members have already headed for the hills (not necessarily fearing a recorded vote or the necessity of declaring an interest):

I can confirm that Councillors HARSTON (Deputy Chair), JONES, SMITH and Mrs WILSON will not be the only absentees.

Nevertheleess, I feel confident that positive moves (which I fully support) are at last afoot to bring Whitby Town Council into the 21st Century.

I commend readers to the Agenda of the Extraordinary Meeting of 15th August 2023, reproduced below, in the hope that it presages a much-needed wind of change:

Download the PDF file WTC Extraordinary Meeting 150823.

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