24 Sep 2009

I walked out of Council

Indeed all six Green Party District councillors walked out of the District Council Extraordinary Meeting yesterday evening. We walked out at the end of the debate on the investigations into the Housing Revenue Account overspend which had exposed weaknesses in financial control and series of other serious deficiencies - I've never done it before and had no intention of doing it before the meeting - indeed I don't recall anyone walking out in the 3 and a half years I've been a councillor.....so what happened?

Cllr. Martin Whiteside put forward a motion for councilors to apologise to Council tenants and taxpayers for the poor management and oversight of the Housing Service that led to the overspend and very serious other weaknesses. Indeed I have to say I am shocked by the extent of failures. Yet only two other councilors joined the Greens to make an apology - it was a spur of the moment decision to walk out - all six of us felt the same deep disappointment. Below are some of the comments Martin Whiteside made at the meeting and afterwards.

I fail to see why other councilors could not join in the apology - we are ultimately responsible to taxpayers and tenants - other councilors have said we are not to blame because we were not given access to info that would have allowed us to point to the overspend - others blame the lack of management over the loss of so many senior staff at one time - another blamed the complicated structure of housing. All play there part - indeed I raised concerns re the loss of senior staff at the time and was told not to worry - we were also given info about how well Stroud was performing in housing - it is true some targets were good but the weaknesses are very considerable - we heard almost nothing of those and weren't given the info to challenge.

So lessons learnt but how can we change politics and restore faith in politicians if we are denying our role??? An apology is owed.

Having said all that I am delighted that the Improvement Plan is in place and also welcome that the evening did not resort to 'heads must roll' approach - Cllr Francis Roden, tipped as a future Tory leader, is the Housing Cabinet member responsible for the department - as she said she was not aware of the overspend until late Feb - 'lessons have been learnt' - and at the moment I have faith that Francis will start to turn around the housing department with the many dedicated officers at Ebley Mill. Many other measures are being put in place and already fact finding missions have been made to other Councils to learn.

Over the last months there have also been many meetings on housing and we look set to have more to scrutinise the changes that are being made. However there are still some unanswered questions about why it occurred - allegations were made at the meeting that need investigating.

Anyway it is v late now and been a very busy day at work then running a Woodcraft group (22 6 to 9 year olds) then onto the Peace is Possible talk with Bruce Kent (more on that v soon) - hope this looks coherent in the morning - am happy to talk more on this if anyone wants info - but for now I'll leave you with some of Martin's comments:

Cllr Martin Whiteside said: "We bear collective responsibility for letting our tenants and council tax payers down. We should say sorry. We have discussed at length the reports about the housing service: some of which are pretty damning. There are still questions to be answered about some of the causes of the problems. It appears councillors in some cases may not have been given all the facts. Yes, we welcome and support the Improvement Plan which is already underway and the other measures being put in place. Nevertheless it is right for us to collectively apologise for the poor service tenants and taxpayers have received, so that we can move forward."

Martin Whiteside added: "I am shocked by those councillors who voted against this motion. Councillors need to understand that we are elected to make things work properly - the buck stops with us. It is not good enough to try and wriggle out of responsibility - that way we will never make things better. One of those who refused to apologise blamed problems on the complex structure of the housing service - yet councillors have a role to ensure structures are simple and effective."

Martin Whiteside stressed "This does not undermine the fact that we have some brilliant, dedicated officers who are striving to improve our services. However what this HRA saga makes clear is that we as members have a responsibility to our electorate to re-assert our role in governance. I am disappointed that many other councillors do not see it the same way."

1 comment:

Dorothea said...

Well done for taking a principled stand. Unfortunately such problems seem not to be mere isolated issues but very deeply entrenched, institutionalised if you will, in nearly all councils, as many have found, for example;

Rotten Borough was set up in 2003 by Ian Johnston, 38, a self-employed gardener from Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire who became disenchanted with local politics after serving as an independent borough councillor. He said, ‘I had hoped to represent the interests of the people who elected me; instead I became an insignificant part of a bloated system designed to serve the personal interest of its employees and their cronies.’ Completely cynical about the possibility of reform, he says ‘I expect this extortion will continue until civil disobedience persuades those complacent politicians to do something about it. Disobedience might as well start here.’”

“If this sounds like a single embittered man, it is a bitterness widely repeated, as his site is replete with named examples of council misconduct posted by ‘victims of the establishment.’”