Wednesday 20th October 2021,
North Yorks Enquirer

ARGOS: Out For The Count?

ARGOS: Out For The Count?

  • – an “In My View”article by NIGEL WARD, reporting on events at the meeting of Scarborough Borough Council on Monday 6th September 2021, providing eye-witness testimony – followed by a brief analysis from Guest Author Andy STRANGEWAY, who was also present at the meeting. We hoped our presence might keep Mrs DIXON honest . . .

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Introduction

I attended the meeting, held in the Scarborough Spa (ostensibly for social-distancing purposes), in person. in company with Andy STRANGEWAY.

First allow me to comment that (i) the acoustics of the venue were totally ill-suited to the circumstances, (ii) the PA-system was wholly inadequate, with members complaining that they could not hear all speakers, particularly as many spoke either without the aid of the microphone or with the microphone held at too great a distance from their mouths, and (iii) Councillor RANDERSON [Lab.], Portfolio Holder for Neighbourhoods, complained (not for the first time) that the ‘loop’ feed (for members with hearing-aids) was not functioning correctly.

In short, only those in close proximity to speakers should be relied upon accurately to report what they heard. Andy and I were seated centrally for this very reason.

There was an extended debate on the motion proposed by Councillor Heather PHILLIPS [Con.] and seconded by Councillor David JEFFELS [Con.], which was set out as follows:

I will reserve comment on other aspects of this very fractious meeting for a later date.

Here follows my testimony as to the events surrounding the vote (4-minute video clip at the foot of this page) on Councillor PHILLIPS’ motion.

1) Councillor PHILLIPS requested a Recorded Vote.

2) It was pointed out by the Mayor that eight subscribers would be necessary for a Recorded Vote to take place. From my viewpoint, I could see more than enough members standing to confirm their support. Thus, the vote proceeded as a Recorded Vote, in accordance with Councillor PHILLIPS’ request.

3) The Councillors were then polled in alphabetical order, as is customary.

4) Mrs DIXON began by asking Councillor Alf ABBOTT whether he was ‘For’ or ‘Against’  the motion.

5) Councillor ABBOTT, who is elderly and suffers from impaired hearing, responded by mistakenly voting ‘Against’ the motion, which he immediately retracted and corrected to ‘For’, over a demeaning flurry of raucous laughter from the opposite – the Labour – end of the room, where Councillor Liz COLLING [Lab.] (Councillor SIDDONS’ so-called Deputy’) was heard to call out, in a jocular way, “We’ll take that!”.

6) It is conceivable, given the acoustic and PA problems, that Mrs DIXON was unable properly to discern Councillor ABBOTT’s immediately-corrected vote – ‘For’. Conceivable, but – in my view – highly unlikely. Several members have since chosen to use, with heavy irony, the expression “selective hearing”. Given the scope for doubt, why did Mrs DIXON not pause to allow the laughter to subside’, so that she – and all members – could take proper account of what wasCouncillor ABBOTT’s voting intention?

7) However, irrespective of whether or not Mrs DIXON could properly hear Councillor ABBOTT’s corrected vote, it was clearly heard by me, by Andy STRANGEWAY, by Mr StJohn HARRIS (Clerk to the meeting) and by Carl GAVAGHAN (Local Democracy Reporter), as well as most, if not all, members in close proximity at the Conservative end of the room. This would prove important.

9) When polling was completed (and I will here mention that there were some notable surprises – for example; out of Councillor Janet JEFFERSON’s Independent Group, both Councillor Andy BACKHOUSE [Ind.] (the people’s favourite to take over the Leadership of the Council) and Councillor John CASEY [Ind.] both voted ‘For’ the motion and Councillor Michelle DONOHUE-MONCRIEFF [Ind.] abstained, after having earlier ranted for what seemed like an age against the proposal. In 2019, she was against the proposal; when she was elevated to Cabinet, she was for it. Now she abstained. She seems to have run out of options).

Thus, three-sevenths of the Independent Group (on whom Leader Councillor Steve SIDDONS [Lab.] so heavily relies to maintain his so-called Lab./Ind. ‘alliance’),  jumped ship!

Moving on; Mrs DIXON then called a ‘Tie’ (i.e. equal votes both ‘For’ and ‘Against’). She did not specify the numbers. In such circumstances, the Mayor (on this occassion, Councillor Eric BROADBENT [Lab.]) holds a so-called ‘casting vote’, in accordance with the Council’s Constitution.

10) However,  a visibly unsettled Mrs DIXON elected first to confer with Clerk of the Meeting, Mr StJohn HARRIS – regrettably out-of-shot on the video.

This brief ‘confab’ took place off-microphone, some distance away from Mrs DIXON’s place on the rostrum, and may have been inaudible to most, if not all, members – or to me. But it was clear to me, from Mr HARRIS’s chastened demeanour, that he felt himself to have been over-ruled.

11) Bearing in mind that Mr HARRIS was positioned far closer to Councillor ABBOTT than Mrs DIXON, it was nothing short of bizarre to witness Mrs DIXON return to her position on the rostrum and repeat her earlier decision that it was a ‘Tie’, in spite of Mr HARRIS’ report.

12) At this point, the Mayor used his ‘casting vote’ ‘Against’ the motion and Mrs DIXON announced that the motion was thus defeated. Obviously, those ‘Against’ were happy as Larry.

Immediately thereafter, Andy and I left the meeting, thoroughly nauseated by the fact that Mrs DIXON appeared wilfully to have ignored the opinion of those better-placed (including the official Clerk) to confirm that Councillor ABBOTT had immediately corrected his erroneous call of ‘Against’, replacing it with a vote ‘For’. His true intention was clear to all.

Readers and Councillors have reminded me of an almost identical circumstance in which former Leader and Mayor of the Council – then-Councillor Tom FOX [Con.] – mistakenly voted ‘Against’ a crucial motion, then promptly corrected his vote to ‘For’. On that occasion, the correction was accepted by a smiling Mrs DIXON (those were the days!) without hesitation or demurral.

Thus, a precedent was set. But Mrs DIXON now appears to have forgotten this precedent – in an act, perhaps, of “selective memory”?

It should also be noted that Councillor Eileen MURPHY [Y.C.I.A.], was unwell at the meeting and forced to leave before the vote, supported by her daughter, the Deputy Mayor, Councillor Roxanne MURPHY [Y.C.I.A.], both of whom were known to be ‘For’ the motion. Thus, any fair accounting of members’ views can only confirm that a democratic majority was indeed in favour of the motion).

Shortly after our departure, we were informed by several elected members that Councillor BASTIMAN and Mr HARRIS had apprised Mrs DIXON of her error and were told that the minutes of the meeting would be duly amended to reflect her error. Thus, it was clearly understood that the tally would be corrected. It was not a ‘Tie’, as Mrs DIXON had informed Full Council; in fact, the motion had carried by 20 votes ‘For’ the motion versus 18 votes ‘Against’; the Mayor’s ‘casting vote’, therefore, having been superfluous and accepted in error by Mrs DIXON. By then, many members had left the scene, so Mrs DIXON undertook to inform all members by email the following morning.

That is how matters stood until the following morning at 11:42 am, Tuesday 7th September, when, as promised, Mrs DIXON sent the following email to all members though the content was not entirely as anticipated:

Councillors,

Further to yesterday’s Council meeting and subsequent discussions in respect of the motion pertaining to the project to redevelop the former Argos building, I have looked into the matter further and in particular the legalities of member voting. In terms of Local Government decision-making a councillor is only permitted to vote once on any matter and after the matter is closed there is little scope to re-open the decision. Therefore at yesterday’s meeting whilst a councillor appeared to change his mind after casting his vote, from a legal perspective this would not be permitted. Yesterday’s decision must therefore stand. However in view of the closeness of yesterday’s vote on this motion and the seriousness of the issues and concerns raised by members at the meeting, discussions have now taken place with both the Leader and the Leader of the Group proposing the motion and it has been agreed that the Executive will implement the motion as proposed. For clarity that motion was:

Motion in respect of the project to redevelop the former Argos building

The Conservative Group on Scarborough Borough Council today call for residents of the Borough’s financial interest in the project to be protected by a full review of the business case in light of cost pressures being experienced in the building industry at this current time.

Our major concern is that this project is no longer good value for money and the increased costs involved will mean the hoped for return to be reinvested in other regeneration projects will never be realised.

In view of the above I will also be arranging for this email to be attached to the formal minutes of yesterday’s meeting.

Lisa Dixon

Director

Scarborough Borough Council

Monitoring Officer

I have highlighted those two contradictory passages in red bold type, so that readers are mentally prepared for Andy STRANGEWAY’s analysis, which follows, below.

Meanwhile, allow me to conclude with some personal observations and opinions:

A) It should not be forgotten that the ARGOS ‘regeneration’ is the Leader’s FLAGSHIP project. Were it not for ill-health, it would have been roundly thrown back on its heels by a clear 22 to 18 of those members present. With three of the Independent Group defecting, as well as the two Greens, the writing is now emblazoned on the wall in block capitals. This vote, in essence, was a dry-run for the next Vote of No Confidence. It is especially noteworthy that the Portfolio Holder for Environment & Sustainability really has stabbed the Leader in the back this time – albeit, thank goodness, only metaphorically speaking. Make no mistake, SIDDONS’ floundering administration is on its last stumps – and not a moment too soon;

B) The personal vituperation levelled at the motion’s Proposer, Councillor Heather PHILLIPS [Con.], was utterly contemptible and it shames Mayor BROADBENT (who is a likeable chap and a fellow cat-lover) that he did not use his supposedly impartial gavel to bring the meeting to some semblance of order;

C) It astonishes me that nowhere in a debate over ‘value for money’ did anyone from the administration seek to explain away the likely 50% reduction in future rents for the ground-floor retail units, where the proposed profitability element of the venture supposedly resides;

D) In a debate centred on costings, what possible explanation can there be for the absence of the s.151 Finance Director, Mr Nick EDWARDS, who must surely be best-placed to advise members and surely had a duty to make himself available? And what of Commercial Director Mr Richard BRADLEY, who I am sure I saw hovering by the entrance to the room?

E) Given that we have been informed that, even in light of build costs having increased to the tune of 30%, the developer still considers the deal worthwhile, must it not be the case that, at 2019 prices, the developer must have effectively been granted a licence to print money? How does that represent ‘value for money’ to ratepayers?

F) How many more times will we witness members throwing good sense and good conscience to the wind as votes divide on party political lines and not on the merits of the proposal? How can that produce good decision-making?

G) My friends in Northallerton report that SBC is now widely viewed as being in terminal melt-down. All that remains is the matter of accountability. My guess is that the redoubtable Mr CORRIGAN is poised to deliver the coup de gràce. He will be worthy of our gratitude. I propose a statue.


Analysis

by ANDY STRANGEWAY

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Having witnessed the incompetence of Scarborough Borough Council for many years, I thought I had seen it all. But yesterday’s chaotic Council meeting, and the subsequent email to members today from Lisa Dixon, a solicitor, reached a depth to which I never thought even SBC would sink.

“Therefore at yesterday’s meeting whilst a councillor appeared to change his mind after casting his vote, from a legal perspective this would not be permitted.  Yesterday’s decision must therefore stand.”

When the law states MUST, that means MUST. Not should, or may. MUST.

So far so good.

“However in view of the closeness of yesterday’s vote on this motion and the seriousness of the issues and concerns raised by members at the meeting, discussions have now taken place with both the Leader and the Leader of the Group proposing the motion and it has been agreed that the Executive will implement the motion as proposed.” 

Excuse me, but who was involved in this these ‘discussions’, where it was agreed to act unlawfully? Since when did two Councillors have the right to overturn a resolution of Full Council?

Councillors, are you all mad, stupid or do you simply believe you are above the law? Or perhaps I am mistaken and senior Councillors can (as the Monitoring Officer maintains) lawfully countermand a decision made by Full Council the previous day?

Disability Legislation Ignored

At the meeting, I counted up to four members who had hearing impairments. I clearly heard Councillor Randerson state that he could hear “only one word in three”. At this point, the meeting was being conducted in direct contravention of disability legislation (i.e. unlawfully) and should have been suspended or abandoned until such time as the meeting was compliant with the relevant legislation.

Yet an hour or so later, Councillor Alf Abbott, who also has a hearing impairment, was materially disadvantage when he clearly failed to hear correctly and mistakenly voted against his own and his Group’s wishes.

On the one hand, as per the statement by Lisa Dixon, the vote MUST be adhered to.

On the other hand, disability legislation had already been breached and the fact brought to the attention of the Monitoring Officer, before the vote took place.

Legal Action Awaits

I would suggest that the patent incompetence of Lisa Dixon could result in three potential legal actions:

  1. North Yorkshire Police MUST take action against Lisa Dixon, the SBC Leader and SBC Leader of the Opposition for the actions confirmed in the email from Lisa Dixon;
  2. Councillor Alf Abbott is in a position to consider legal action against SBC for the distress and embarrassment caused to him by the breach of disability legislation;
  3. Judicial Review – grounds for a Judicial Review will be clear to many, including Mr Corrigan.

What an absolute shambles.

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