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Wiltshire Council leader explains why democracy is a bad idea

June 27, 2022 9:27 PM
By Trevor Carbin

"It's expensive and inconvenient. Us important people know what we're doing so there's no need for you little people to worry your heads about anything."

There's a kerfuffle at WC following the Conservative leader's decision to cancel the council meeting scheduled for July 19.

Full Wiltshire Council meetings don't happen very often, but when they do they give back-bench councillors of all parties an opportunity to initiate debates and to ask questions of the Administration.

Members of the Public also have the opportunity to speak and raise questions at Council meetings.

The cancellation is allegedly due to a lack of business. However as the deadlines for questions (July 12) and motions (July 4) are still some way off they wouldn't have known how much business might have been brought forward.

The Lib Dems had been hoping to initiate debates on how the cost of living crisis was affecting Wiltshire residents, and how reducing tax-dodging might help. They'd also have been looking for updates on the deterioration in council services and the strikes by key workers.

Lib Dem councillor Ruth Hopkinson wrote to the Chair of the Council saying: "I am flabbergasted & somewhat appalled by this decision. Can you really consider at a time when staff are taking strike action/ the County is facing a cost of living crisis/ there are increasing complaints about the delivery of Council services, to say nothing about the pressure being put upon the Council staff by the need to provide for the influx of Ukrainian refugees, there is nothing for this Council to discuss?

I have no wish to sit through tedious meetings for no good reason, but there is a matter of principle at stake here. That principle is that all Councillors are elected to oversee the work of the Council & represent our residents. This decision reduces our ability to do that."

Chair Stuart Wheeler didn't respond. The reply came from Leader of Council Richard Clewer. It's paraphrased above. In the interests of fairness it's reproduced in full below:

We had two items that full council needed to make a decision over, a governance report around parish boundaries that will not come into effect until 2025 assuming we approve it so can easily be considered in October and a very minor change around the constitution which can also be covered in October. There was going to be a more substantive item on Standards and the new LGA code of conduct but that is still going through Standards Committee and the Constitution Focus Group and is not ready to come to full council yet from what I am told.

On that basis I don't personally see that it is sensible to ask 98 members to (mostly) drive to county hall for a meeting that is not making any decisions that are urgent. Instead I think it makes sense to save the travel and carbon emissions not to mention officer time.

The Cost of Living Crisis has been receiving a large amount of attention Nationally and Locally. I brought a report to Cabinet last week (Public Pack)Supplement 1 Agenda Supplement for Cabinet, 21/06/2022 10:00 (wiltshire.gov.uk) which details the over £220 million of support going to our residents, primarily from national government and the other areas where we as an authority, both the Administration and officers, are taking action. This was debated last week and Cllr Grant had a useful suggestion around collective fuel oil purchasing (although we both agreed that there was a limited role for the local authority there). There were no other suggested areas for further action. If any member has suggestions about how we can do more to support Wiltshire's residents (and I would add that I think government has provided very good support this year particularly to the most vulnerable around heating) I would hope they would have already raised it rather than waiting for a motion at full council 4 months after inflation started to seriously spiral. There are some areas where we are aware more action is needed, for example to caravan parks where residents pay a service charge to the management rather than heating bills directly. We have raised this and other issues directly with Government both through our MP's and the LGA.

We have provided regular updates to the public and members over the Ukrainian refugee situation and I would not say that there is a significant strain on our resources. Officers have been extremely effective in resolving issues as they arise and I am not sure what more full council could do there other than congratulate them, something I know that I and other members have already done personally.

The issue around industrial action is one for the Chief Executive to address as the head of paid service and I don't think is something that is suitable for full council who would not be able to take any action on that issue.

Moving onto the matter of motions more broadly. I find that many of the motions that are brought to full council are based on national templates and call on Wiltshire to urge central government to take action. They are politically motivated and of no benefit to Wiltshire Council or its residents. There have been a few exceptions to that and those motions have been discussed in advance, worked on to make sure they are implementable and been put through on a cross party basis. No one has raised any such motions with me over the last few weeks. I would also note that no motions were brought to the last full council.