Friday, November 22, 2013

A Night to Remember

Last night, the independent chair and members of the Standards Committee at TDC resigned, following bruising criticism of their report, which alleged a climate of secrecy and corruption at Thanet District Council.

Let me begin first though, with a small example of the personal impact of that report and subsequent media coverage. I had two calls this week. One from a business associate in Hastings who, making a joke of it, asked if I was one of the 'rogue councillors' he had heard about on BBC SE Today and another from a professor of criminology, asking if I could do a turn at a conference at University College Dublin next month. "Are you still with that dysfunctional Council I've heard about." he asked.

So in my own experience, the impact of what I regarded as an ill considered and badly researched report spread much further than the borders of Thanet and as I said in the Chamber last night: "Publish in haste, repent at leisure."

In the gallery, were a number of familiar faces from the local political interest scene, busily tweeting; among them Cllr Ian Driver, who clearly viewed the proceedings as a huge joke. At the very beginning, Robin Hills, the Chair of of the Committee, warned those watching that recording proceedings without approval was against the rules but I understand that Cllr Driver, who is equally bound by those same Council rules, ignored this and will publish the entire transcript. In principle, I've no problem with this but I do have a problem with any one councillor regarding himself above the rules and constitution of a democratically-elected Council, whether he agrees with it or not. This is nothing less than anarchy and anarchy and a collapsible soap-box have followed Cllr Driver through his political career, from one fringe party and local authority to another.

I had very much hoped that the evening's debate would prove objective and non-political but this was quickly dashed by Labour's Cllr Michelle Fenner, blaming the public's perception of the Council on government-imposed austerity, followed by Council Leader, Clive Hart, blaming it on the Conservatives and Cllr Poole, characteristically drifting-off and blaming it on the new bin collection scheme. For one, I don't recall any mention of bankers or Tory millionaires holding any responsibility, which was a small relief.

I won't go into a blow by blow account of what took place but Labour's Cllr Nicholson and Sandra Hart argued very lucidly as did the Conservatives Martin Wise and Julie Marson. Cllr Iris Johnston was reduced to tears.

My own small contribution lay in pointing out that social media lies very much outside our control and from looking at the Facebook and Twitter stream coming from the chamber and elsewhere, history had already been written and that what was taking place in the chamber, had become a vicarious form of entertainment, with many observers having with no real interest in the facts or the truth, whatever that might be. As an example: "Lies n cover ups. Truths exposed. All know what goes on..just cos not involved..letting it happen makes you just as guilty." What on earth does such a statement mean and where is the evidence that supports it outside a fertile imagination?

As I believe I said to the committee, "If you shout  fire in a crowded cinema, people are going to believe you" and this is basically what Cllr Driver and a few others are doing with almost monotonous regularity in an attempt to bring the democratic process at TDC to a halt; the same tactics used by Militant Tendency, AKA, The Revolutionary Socialist League, over thirty years ago in Councils across the country.

Once it became clear that the report, published without proper review, had indeed done considerable damage to the reputation of the Council and that it's methodology and conclusions were unsound at best and alarmist at worst. The position of independent members position then appeared untenable. Simply suggesting that councillors should undergo ethical training was hardly likely to deter Cllr Driver or indeed, Cllr Worrow, who had been previously instructed to do this by the Standards Committee and ignored it.

My own view at this point is that redoubles its efforts to produce good work with very little money available and that the main parties seek some consensus in working together on Thanet's real problems and not be hijacked by single issues or no real relevance to local government, such as gay marriage,  fracking, animal rights and more, which serve as an opportunistic platform for the two most vocal independents from which they can cause merry havoc.

Finally, councillors, like it or not, have to recognise that social media is a weapon that can be very effectively deployed against the democratic process in terms of opinion-forming. As Winston Churchill once remarked: 'A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.' It's time that councillors of all ages came to grips with the technologies, Twitter or TV which will reshape democracy in the second decade of the 21st century.

And now if the rain has finally stopped, I'm going for a walk with my dog.

48 comments:

Anonymous said...

Simon, can you clarify your "We've lost control of social media" comment that you made last night? Why would you want to control it anyway?

Simon Moores said...

It was clarified in the chamber for the benefit of those that tweeted what I did not say out of context!

Anonymous said...

I've never before seen such a shameful display as by the Labour Cabinet last night - they were in full denial!
It doesn't matter what they think - it is the public that matter and Labour should remember that - and the public agree with the report. The council has never been in such a mess and it is down to a few individuals keeping the wrong people in power. The Conservatives weren't great, but a lot better than this crew!

Barry James said...

From last night after sleeping on it my personal feelings are these.
Firstly The report is out into the media and as such the genie cannot be put back in the bottle however the whole thing could have been handled much better by a pre-meeting instead of a concerted effort by certain Councillors who browbeat the independents into submission.
Secondly I have been told on several occasions that certain episodes in Chamber were wrong, and out of order and the person spoken to yet after the recess and the resignations a certain Councillor, who has a habit of acting irrationally, stood up and started taking pictures of the public gallery inflaming an already tense situation. Because I and others attend Council meetings doesn't mean I am an anarchist far from it but being tarred with "the usual suspects" is designed to stifle debate not encourage debate.

Anonymous said...

so Thanet is following the universal rule that a red giant is followed by a white dwarf and then a BIG black hole!

Barry James said...

Simon if the TDC Councillors think the report unscientific then why not organise a poll of the people and ask them a simple question.
Do you think TDC is "Fit for Purpose?" Yes/No

Bemused of Birchington said...

I see councillor Hart has issued a statement which includes some disclaimers. Councillor Hart cannot be allowed to get away with these disclaimers that "none of my members" have done any wrong. Many of the "misdemeanours" he lists have been committed by those who support him with their vote in council and have even been given high office by him within the council.

I note that while there are sinners on both sides of the divide, in the Daily Telegraph expenses scandal revelation, only Labour MPs have gone to prison, and can somebody remind me which party the Rev. Paul Flowers has just been suspended from?

Simon Moores said...

Barry, if it's evidence based then TDC already enjoys a good satisfaction rating among the residents it serves, if I correctly recall the last survey of this type

Readit said...

There is no point in subverting the arguement to gay rights, fracking and animal rights. Two questions which many people in Ramsgate want true, clear and detailed answers to are:

How did the council get in such a mess over Pleasurama?

and

How was a £3.4million debt allowed to accrue to TEF without all councillors and/or the general public being told.

Answering these questions fully would do much to restore public confidence on this side of the isle.

Simon Moores said...

It occurs to me that both questions have been answered on multiple occasions and really very clearly but asking them against won't change the answers.

Bernie said...

just out of interest, when was the last survey then, only I don't remember being surveyed :)

Also, did TDC film the meeting and will they be issuing a recording if so on their website?

Completely agree about councils embracing social media as well - Cllrs should be capable of replying to emails at the very least. They should be engaging with the public as you do here and getting various opinions, whether they agree with them or not. It helps to appreciate alternate views that exist 'out there'! x

Simon Moores said...

Bernie

I can't recall when the last survey was, surveys appear from time to time and they involve a sample of opinion rather than asking everyone which would be cost prohibitive.

No the meeting was not filmed as this was a committee not full council.

Readit said...

Simon, if you think both the above questions have been answered then it illustrates how out of touch you are with public opinion.

Anonymous said...

Thanet District Council is in very real danger of becoming as irrelevant as Birchington Parish Council!

Simon Moores said...

But like it or not, you live in a representative democracy where the responsibility for making decisions is given to elected representatives, who in turn make decisions based on the information given to them by civil servants.

While public opinion is always a useful litmus test by which policy and actions can be measured, it equally has to be balanced against the necessity of making decisions without being constantly second-guessed by an active but highly vocal minority of any local population.

Bernie said...

Thank you for the info.

Seems that as this was a Cttee meeting to discuss this important report that had been widely publicised in the media, it might have been wiser to allow filming and have everything open precisely to try and prevent what is said to be happening, and which I have seen this morning, reading various accounts of what was said, with interpretation and summarising....I'm not saying anything that has been posted online by people who were there is incorrect, but if TDC is afraid of social media giving false information, or putting unfair twists on things, then allowing filming and making their own film and putting that up on their site, might have been a good way to prevent any such thing happening. It would be rather naive to think that the public wouldn't be interested in Cllrs' opinion of the report and want to hear what they had to say about it when given the chance!

Seems to me a good opportunity to show openness was missed here, as well as getting across any valid points that may have been made to counteract what was in the report! It's a shame. x


Anonymous said...

Are there any rules regarding cllrs photographing members of the public?

Anonymous said...

The Conservatives selecting a nutty Worrow as a candidate in the first place, a boy mayor on welfare, carpet mayor eating porridge, reckless Driver, etc. Public are very satisfied with Thanet.

Simon Moores said...

A photo is a photo irrespective of who takes it.

Let's consider for a moment that for this "important" meeting. There were no press in attendance and not more than 20 members of the public watching I would guess, most of whom I knew by name, twitter address, facebook page or blog.

Readit said...

This IMPORTANT meeting was to discuss a report which had not only been advertised in local electronic media but also extensively reported on BBC Look East. It should have been anticipated that considrable public interest would accrue about the outcome. Or do you see this as just a minority muck raking?

William Epps said...

Anon 2:26, in part you touch on the problem but miss the main point. Ian Driver got into office on the back of Labour in the same way that John Worrow used the blue rosette to further his aspirations. Having then dumped the parties through which they gained office they both knew they would have no chance of being re-elected as independents in normal circumstances.

What has followed has been the total disruption of normal circumstances, at which Driver in particular is well skilled, coupled with the use of scandal stories fed to the media about corruption, homophobia and incompetence at every opportunity. Add the histrionics and chamber outbursts and the impression is soon gained that the council as a whole is dysfunctional.

Now friend Driver is in with a chance, for having set himself up as the exposer of evil, he hopes to attract the votes of those now disillusioned with the traditional parties.

We just have to hope that a majority of the Thanet electorate are not so gullible and duly dump these performers and clowns come 2015. If not, things are set to get a whole lot worse.

Readit said...

Simon, you have the temerity to imply that any correspondent who does not agree with your point of view, is just part of a vocal minority and not representative of public opinion.

Would you like to explain for the benefit of your many readers what was the subversive aim of four independent members of the Standards Committee producing a report which they obviously believe to be true.

Simon Moores said...

Readit

The meeting was moved to the chamber because it was felt it might attract considerable public interest but instead it only attracted those who I might have reasonably anticipated would come along on a wild wet November evening.

Simon Moores said...

Simply believing something to be true doesn't make it fact.

What's required is considered evidence and defensible argument to support a proposition. The independent members failed to offer that last night.

Barry James said...

Simon you are most definitely aware that many more people read than type. Those that read then talk about what they have read it is called gossip and it all feeds into public perception. It is up to all at TDC to deal with that as it isn't all sweetness and light at TDC.
Further Pleasurama is still a fiasco and the likes of the labour group saying they are the "only game in town" when the original due diligence was so poorly done is ridiculous in the extreme. Someone needs to apologise for the past mistakes but all the time we get its in the past we cannot look back. "Why is sorry the hardest word"

Simon Moores said...

With the advantage of hindsight, it's very easy to concede that things should and could have been done better but simply apologising for past mistakes made with good intentions doesn't solve today's problems. In fact, I'm pretty sure that in a couple of years time we will probably be asked to apologise for decisions taken this year too.

All a Council can do is move on and try and deliver the best it can for local residents within its rather limited and shrinking resources. The same applies for councillors too

Barry James said...

Simon the journey of a 100 miles starts with the 1st step. In mediation that is the acceptance of the original mistake, the promise that mistakes have been learnt, and the apology for the mistake.
I caught add some other things that follow but it is pointless if the first 3 steps are not made. Again I say why is sorry the hardest word!!

William Epps said...

Barry, I think you will find that apologies have been made, but that invariably attracts cries of not enough from certain quarters. One person in particular wants answers, inquiries, investigations and naming and shaming.

Simon is right that decisions are often taken in good faith, within the strait jackets, financial and regulatory, under which councils work which, with hindsight, were not perhaps the best. It would indeed be nice if people could accept that and an apology, but somebody wants heads to roll every time and to milk every last drop of adverse publicity out of the situation.

Perhaps you should start looking elsewhere instead of just fingering the current or last administration for all the evils. There is a bad apple in the barrel very much bringing TDC into disrepute.

Barry James said...

firstly William there has never been an official apology from TDC over the mistakes made over the inept due diligence that allowed this fiasco in the first place.
Secondly anyone who buys a house in the last 20 years or has rented a house has to produce evidence to show who they are and where they are resident. That simple task has NEVER been performed on Shaun Patrick Keegan despite him being the sole point of contact for the developer since 2002.
TDC's own policy says clearly "Know your counterparty"
It is fundamental in business and further when you put in your bid to become a councilor you have to provide proof as well. I have worked in Financial services for over 20 years and had to document that simple thing else risk imprisonment or a fine.

Simon Moores said...

For a council to apologise I suspect implies some element of liability accepance and so I would not hold your breath waiting

Barry James said...

Simon sadly you are probably right

William Epps said...

So it would seem, Barry, since you ignored the main thrust of my last comment, that it is not really an apology that you want, but, like a certain other, you want chapter and verse with reasons for the decision. A council choosing a developer is rather different to recommending to a client where he should invest his hard won savings and, for a start, the choices of the former were considerable less than the mass of investment products available to the latter. The councillors are also reasonably entitled to assume that the officers will properly record all the relevant facts.

Anonymous said...

And you wonder why UKIP is on the rise !!!!! I know who I will be voting for and it won't be any of the imbeciles we have in office at the moment (with a few exceptions, they are all a disgrace). Grow up the lot of you. Hell, I think I might even join UKIP !

Barry James said...

William you said an apology had been made. Where?
An explanation from officers would be good but again not forthcoming.
I said my experience was in Financial services which not only includes investments but also house purchase where I have a separate qualification. I am experienced in debt counselling as well however what is apparent is the fact that the basics of due diligence weren't followed nor were these checked at each stage 2002,2006,2009 to ensure the previous officer had done a professional job. If as you say this was officers responsibility you may be right but it is also the job of councilors to ensure they do their jobs and ultimately it falls to the leader as in charge.
I would like to take you back to recent history where Prime Minister Cameron apologised for events during the Mau Mau uprising for which he had no responsibilities and also remind you about the apology made by the government concerning the forced transfer of children to Canada and Australia. In both cases the government of the day realised they had a responsibility to apologise for events by their forefathers in government. Personally I know people who made those decisions are no longer around however it is about a collective responsibility to address what is wrong and to acknowledge that fact so people can start to move on

Simon Moores said...

Err.. Ok 7.30 I apologise for the Mau Mau too if that helps?

Barry James said...

Anyone who votes UKIP because they think "none of the above" has seriously got to read the UKIP manifesto such as it is and think of the consequences of putting into force some of its aims. Imagine not having access to the NHS and schools until you have paid tax for 5 years.

Anonymous said...

The Tories seem to be coming well out of this! What a turn-up for he books...
Christine
Thanet Watch

Ramsgate Resident said...

Simon, 1.26 pm comment.

Like it - not.

TDC had a corrupt leader

TDC have wasted huge amounts of public money without reasonably explaining the circumstances and have not apologised.

Ramsgate has a huge derelict hole on its seafront for 20 years on council owned land.

I left south east london 9 years ago. 2 weeks ago I finally got the recycling bins I left behind.

TDC secretly dealt with infratil on night flights whilst publicly stating they had never seen anything in writing from them.

If you read the standards report from my perspective, it's hits the spot.

Simon Moores said...

It occurs to me that there is a least one sub-plot running through the debate, here and elsewhere.

The main plot surrounds the allegation of secrecy and corruption, but with the exception of former leader, Sandy Ezekiel's disgrace, there is an astonishing lack of evidence. You may recall that the blogs were full of "imminent arrests" of other Councillors following his conviction and yet nothing happened. In fact, it was the Council that called in the police when the Ezekiel property involvement was first reported.

The secrecy aspect appears to surround the Council's duty of "Commercial confidentiality" when dealing with third parties in regards to development, airport matters - that which Cllr Driver would cheerfully throw out of the window - But I'm sorry, like it or not, that can't be avoided just because "we" or rather "I" have a right or think I have a right to know.

And "Yes" or course the Council has made mistake, so have Councillors but they can only make decisions based on professional advice. Some of these Councillors voted into the very highest position in Thanet have had no education post 16 and been known to struggle to read and write in the past and perhaps in the present too but that's the beauty of democracy in that it frequently appoints those to the highest positions, like the Reverend Flowers perhaps, who really should not be there and who are not equipped to ask the very same questions the public expects of them.

Barry James said...

Simon your last point here is really very simple. When these so called professionals (because they can get it wrong) give their opinion it isn't rocket science to ask other professionals if they agree. Take the Lease with Rank there are plenty of professional Estate agents who could have explained the pros and cons of back to back leases.
IMHO sometimes commercial confidentiality gets mixed up with political confidentiality, certainly in the publics eyes hence only being able to use 20/20 hindsight to examine past decisions why not have lay people who have some expertise on scrutiny?

Simon Moores said...

Councillors are bound to follow the advice oft their professional officers. To ignore this may open them and the Council to liability issues.

Anonymous said...

A key issue seems to have been missed in the Standards debacle in TDC and that is under the new system, it is the Leader of the Council who has the power and authority to suspend or discipline anyone who fails to accept the findings of a Standards Board, but when you are reliant on the vote to stay in power, we can see the result.
The system is broke and needs strong Leadership!!

William Epps said...

Barry, your qualifications in the world of financial services are all very fine, but it does not mean your comments should be considered more expert as a result. I did the CII exams many years ago, was a Law Society approved IFA and mortgage advisor and managed an area over 40 branches of Cornerstone for Abbey National. If that later experience taught me anything at all, it is that few estate agents are experts on property law being mainly salesmen pure and simple. Estate agency has a long way to go to catch up with financial services on regulation. That said, on the Pleasurama issue surely there was an estate agent and former insurance salesmen very much involved in the early presentation to the council.

All of the above, however, is totally irrelevant in the discussion on councils and how they operate. Your view is the outside over simplified version clearly showing your lack of knowledge of the constraints and rules under which councillors have to work.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if this is classed a little inconsiderate at this time. I'm currently unemployed and looking for work.

Are those 4 positions on the standards commity paid positions, and what qualifications are required.

Thank you in advance.

Simon Moores said...

No I'm afraid not

Anonymous said...

hello Simon - very quiet on the laura Sandys story -any thoughts

Anonymous said...

I hear that scobie been asked to stand aside for a stronger candidate now it's winnable?

Anonymous said...

Where did you "hear" that 1:01, or was it just the voices in your head? Definitely not true.