Diary of a Sutton Councillor

Monday 15th December 7.17pm

anger111

Full Council – Tory tantrums and a ticking off

The main items of business were a motion from the Conservatives: ‘Voice for Business’; the SEN revised transport policy as requisitioned by the Opposition for consideration by full council; and the Communications Service Contract also dedelegated by the Opposition.

 

First item to be debated was the SEN Transport Policy as amended to exclude children on the Autistic Spectrum from the proposals for pick up points. As it now stood, after approval by the Executive, only those children attending Carew Manor school who had moderate learning disabilities and children attending the speech & language unit at Muschamp school would be considered for pick up points, and then only after an individual assessment taking into account their specific abilities and family circumstances. However the Tories wanted the whole idea of pick up points to be dropped from the policy. This was a complete about-face on the part of the Opposition as the suggestion for pick up points had originally stemmed from their members at a previous Scrutiny Overview Committee. Instead today they had their caring faces on, forgot about their usual ‘reduce spending’ line and leapt on the opportunity to portray us as the bad guys.

 

In our speeches both Kirsty Young Jerome and myself highlighted that currently transport assistance was only granted when the children had to travel more than a set distance to school, meaning that there were already a number of children who were managing to travel further than the proposed distance to a pick up point to get to school.

 

I spoke about how the council had considered the results of the consultation and significantly amended the policy to account for the concerns expressed. I also pointed out that the service was not being withdrawn but had been reviewed to see if it could be provided in a more efficient way, something that the parents I had spoken to appreciated was necessary, even if they didn’t agree with what was being proposed.

 

It was very kind of Cllr. Tony Brett Young, the executive member for Children & Young People to acknowledge in his speech the work I had done on behalf of parent/carers to get the exclusion for autistic children.

 

During the debate the Conservatives challenged the Lead Member for Children & Young People about his knowledge of children with learning disabilities and Cllr. Brett-Young responded by speaking of his experiences in Australia working closely with children with learning disabilities. I was very disappointed when Tory councillor Stuart Gordon-Bullock later made a derogative reference to this work as “wandering from one Billabong to another”.

 

The decision to approve the revised policy as it stood was passed with a majority vote.

 

The motion ‘Voice for Business’ was presented by the Conservatives and moved for an amendment to the Council Constitution to give a specific right to businesses to address council or committee meetings and to establish a business forum. I had to wonder where the Tories have been hiding these past three years as business representatives have the same opportunities as any residents to address committee meetings, and certainly at my local committee meetings they have been encouraged and enabled to have their say. There are  already three bodies specifically for the business community including the Sutton Business Forum.

 

A number of Lib Dem councillors made these points in their speeches, including Cllr. Dave Callaghan, the deputy mayor. Cllr. Callaghan spoke of the Local Committee of which he is chair, and of the work it had done with local businesses to make improvements to the Rose Hill shopping area. Cllr. Callaghan dared to criticise the Tories’ lack of policy on the economy and dismissed this motion – their response to the local crisis – as ‘tinkering with standing orders’ compared with our active Ten Point Plan which had been well received by the business community. As has now become the custom the Tory members booed, stamped and generally tried to shout down the deputy mayor for having the audacity to join in the debate from his seat on the podium. The debate steadily deteriorated into a slanging match with Cllr. Eric Howell telling the deputy mayor to “Engage his brain before opening his mouth” and Cllr. John Kennedy referring to Cllr. Callaghan’s political comments as “disgraceful outbursts” until the Leader of the Council Sean Brennan had to make a gentle plea for members to refrain from slinging insults and personal remarks.

 

Cllr Lyn Gleeson had submitted an amendment to the motion which agreed that businesses play an important role in the community but highlighted the steps that the council was already taking with its economic strategy and agreed to review the arrangements for businesses to participate in meetings. As this seemed to reach a happy compromise the amended motion was unanimously agreed. However Cllr. Gleeson could not help but remind the opposition who seemed so outraged by some of the previous debate that “We are in the business of Politics” after all. It seemed to me that the Conservatives believe that political criticism can only be one way.

 

Unfortunately the spirit of reconciliation was not to last. The final debated item was the Communication Service Contract. And for a second time the Lib Dems were openly critical of the way in which the Opposition, in the form of Councillor Shields, had requisitioned this decision for full council.

 

Councillor Graham Tope made a brilliant tongue-in-cheek speech about how we should feel sorry for a Conservative group with the worst electoral record in London and their uphill task undermining the work of an established council which continued to receive independent accolades for the work it was doing. He appreciated how, with little else to go on, the Opposition had by necessity to try to ‘shoot the messenger’ by attacking the easy & traditional target of communications with talk of ‘spin doctors’.

 

The Tories’ response to a blunt criticism was almost comical. Cllr. Shields was so angry he could barely get his words out. His voice got louder and louder as he wound himself up into a state of self-righteous indignation. Obviously the absence of press & public allowed the Tories to show their true colours as their members’ behaviour deteriorated yet further when Cllr. Callaghan the deputy mayor again stood up to speak. This resulted in more booing, shouting down and slow hand-clapping so that no one was able to hear whatever it was that Cllr. Callaghan was saying that was obviously so outrageous. I later gathered after listening to the recording of the meeting that it was the councillor’s reference to Mrs Thatcher that was like a red rag to a bull. I am still unsure whether this is because the Opposition want to obliterate any links with them to her name, or whether they hold her too sacred to be criticised in the mouths of others. I sat back and watched the amateur dramatics with some amusement. Cllr. Kennedy was marching up and down threatening a’ head on confrontation’, Cllr. Shields was banging his fist on the table and looked ready to leap over it and start a riot,  Cllr Scully’s mouth was opening and closing but I was unable to hear what was coming out whilst their backbenchers kept up the background noise. I couldn’t help reflecting that the Tories had never debated so hotly over any real policy issue, and it had only taken a basic criticism of their politics to fan them into this outraged storm.

 

Eventually Cllr. Graham Tope rose with some gravitas and rebuked the Opposition for what he described as the worst behaviour he had witnessed in 34 years in the chamber. He was particularly offended by the deliberate shouting down of the deputy mayor as he tried to speak and incredible rudeness of the slow handclapping led by Cllr. Shields, the deputy leader of the Conservatives. He contested the Tories’ claim that this is an ‘abuse of the chains of office’ highlighting that during his long service in Sutton the deputy mayor had always had the right to speak in chamber and that the Tories were conveniently forgetting those times when they had a Conservative deputy mayor, in chains and ermine, who frequently spoke from the dais offering their comments on the debate, political or otherwise.

 

Councillor Kennedy immediately responded petulantly that ‘he didn’t need lectures about protocols’ and bizarrely claimed that the deputy mayor was deliberately provoking personal attacks.

 

I left the chamber at the close of business feeling slightly uneasy. If this was the Tory reaction to a bit of criticism & political banter whilst in opposition, what would be their reaction to serious challenges if they ever assumed the mantle of power? Would they attempt to stifle debate in the same way, and silence any criticism by shouting down their challengers? If they slipped so quickly into boorish behaviour now, how much worse could that be if they held real power? How likely would they be to listen to anyone who did not agree with them? Suddenly their little performance no longer seems funny.

 

sound recording of this meeting is accessible through the council website.

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February 17, 2009 - Posted by | Committee Meeting

17 Comments »

  1. Jayne

    I’ll leave your comments on the way the meeting was run to others to judge. I’ll also assume that you meant Kirsty Jerome rather than her fellow Scot,newsreader Kirsty Young. The SEN debate has also had significant airing elsewhere.

    I’m afraid the LibDems missed the point of both the Voice for Business and Communications contract motions. They were never supposed to be full debates about the wider issues. Instead the communications contract was for you to make that decision as a full council.

    The Voice for Business was a simple request for a small but significant change. After two meetings of the snappily titled Community Leadership Advisory Group, your senior councillors have finally understood what we were getting at and have agreed in principle to the change subject to the correct wording and definitions being agreed. One key example that hit home at that meeting is that a Sutton business owner who does not live in the Borough can stand as a councillor but cannot ask a question as a member of the public. With regard to local committees, business representatives are welcome at all of them but are not able to become special representatives where appropriate. That was all, no need for hissy fits and protracted debate. Indeed this is why Cllr Crowley went out of his way to support Cllr Gleeson and the Economic Development team. However, your colleagues had already written their speeches to answer charges that were never brought.

    Comment by Cllr Paul Scully | February 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. Cllr. Scully
    Thank you for pointing out my interesting mistake with regard to Kirsty’s surname – I must have had the news on whilst I was typing. I have now amended this.

    The point of bringing an item to Full Council is to have a debate. I don’t understand why you are surprised to have got one.

    If as you say the Voice for Business item was just about a small change to the constitution then this was something that could have been dealt with informally and in a bipartisan manner outside of the chamber to be ratified by Full Council with agreement already achieved.

    Comment by jaynemccoy | February 18, 2009 | Reply

  3. What was the communications contract motion about? The minutes don’t seem to be on the website yet.

    The scenes you describe make me wish that council meetings were webcasted as they have been doing in Croydon until recently.

    Comment by Adrian Short | February 18, 2009 | Reply

  4. Hi Adrian

    I have added a link in my post to the sound recording of the meeting if you have a spare couple of hours to listen to it – it is worth it.

    You should be able to access the minutes now. The communications contract details are listed under 1071d

    Comment by jaynemccoy | February 18, 2009 | Reply

  5. Thank you, Jayne.

    Do you have a link to the minutes? I can’t find them.

    Comment by Adrian Short | February 18, 2009 | Reply

  6. Try this link: http://sutton.moderngov.co.uk/ieListDocuments.asp?CId=146&MId=2024&Ver=4

    Comment by jaynemccoy | February 18, 2009 | Reply

  7. Councillor McCoy, am I right in thinking that you do not support the Sutton Conservatives’ campaign for a 0% increase in Council Tax?

    I have been on there Freeze The Tax website after seeing their advertisement in the paper and I think it’s a bold and impressive step.

    Why wouldn’t you and your party be grown-up enough to put party politics aside and support the Tories on this vital issue?

    Comment by simon griffin | February 18, 2009 | Reply

    • Mr Griffin, if it was possible to freeze the council tax whilst continuing to provide the current standard of services to our residents and maintain our social support services at the same level for our increasing numbers of elderly, disabled or vulnerable residents then this Liberal Democrat council would have done so for every single year that it could. The Conservatives’ campaign on this issue is unworkable and they know it, but they are quite happy to mislead the public into thinking otherwise.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | February 18, 2009 | Reply

  8. Thanks for your reply, the Tories’ letter states that the current administration has over £11 million tucked away, is this true? And if so why isn’t such a fortune being given back to taxpayers in some kind of tax relief?

    I must say that I think it is indefensible to accumulate such large sums of our cash (allowing, of course, for immediate access to funds for emergencies) whilst the credit crunch is being more keenly felt than ever, and as we, as Sutton taxpayers, are receiving an above average increase?

    Comment by simon griffin | February 19, 2009 | Reply

    • Mr Griffin, I suspect that you are deliberately leading me astray from the content of my original posting, however I am feeling indulgent. Sutton council is following local government recommended practice by maintaining a modest reserve balance. £11m represents less than 3% of the council’s annual spend on public services. This is prudent financial management and practiced by large businesses and private corporations the world over. And as every successful businessman should know, you do not use your reserve balance to finance ongoing day to day operations. As Cllr. Drage states, “You can only use your reserves once.” The fact that the Tories are suggesting such a move shows how unfit they are to be let loose with taxpayers’ money.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | February 19, 2009 | Reply

  9. Jayne

    We don’t mind a debate, but it is usually more constructive if it is about the item noted for discussion.

    Adrian, the communication contract was about the awarding of a £1.8m contract that was due to be done under a council officer’s delegated powers. We believed that such a sum should be agreed in public to ensure transparent decision making. Eventually after a bit of kicking and screaming, and half an hour of my life which I’ll never have back, this was done.

    Comment by Cllr Paul Scully | February 19, 2009 | Reply

  10. Simon

    It looks as though about 13 councils around London (Labour and Conservative) agree with us that freezing the council tax is workable and are acheiving this in a variety of ways. Sutton will have one of the highest increases in London yet again, almost twice the London average.

    Comment by Cllr Paul Scully | February 19, 2009 | Reply

    • That ‘variety of ways’ would be making redundancies and cutting services.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | February 19, 2009 | Reply

  11. Thank you for your indulgence Councillor McCoy.

    But I am still sceptical about the council keeping that kind of money stached away whilst we, as taxpayers, are going to have to fork out yet more money to the council.

    I am also quite concerned that the council appears to be pushing ahead with the £8,000,000 project ‘The Life Centre’. What on earth is it supposed to be? Why is it so expensive? Who asked for this expensive pet project? And is now really the time to be spending so much money on something that seems so ‘indulgent’? Friends and family of mine, some of whom live in the borough, are worried about our jobs and paying the bills on time. I’m self-employed and I’ll get through the recession although it’ll be tight but others won’t.
    Why can’t you guys in Sutton Council give us a break by not hiking up the rates again?

    Councillor Scully has pointed out that other London Councils can do it, why can’t Sutton follow suit?

    It’s tough outside the Council, Councillor McCoy. Help us out please.

    Comment by simon griffin | February 19, 2009 | Reply

    • Mr Griffin, attacking the Life Centre is just more Tory propaganda. As a businessman you should know that you cannot use capital resources to fund day to day operations. This means that even if the Life Centre project were put on hold it would not release funds to reduce council tax. What the project does mean is employment for local people during the construction phase- surely a desirable outcome when so many people are finding work hard to come by? As to the purpose of the centre; one of the uses of the centre will be to provide opportunities for young people to learn how to keep themselves safe wherever they find themselves and to give them the confidence to make the right choices whether they are being offered drugs or pressurised into joining a gang. Not only is this an investment in our young people’s wellbeing, there will be tangible benefits in the form of reduced crime and improved life opportunities for youngsters who might otherwise become a burden on the state. We might be suffering a recession but it does not make sense to batten down the hatches and leave the future to take care of itself just to save a few pennies today.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | February 21, 2009 | Reply

  12. Jayne,

    The Sutton Life Centre is an interesting project. So interesting, in fact, that I have written to my ward councillor about it twice, and to the council’s head of communications, and submitted a Freedom of Information Act request (refused) and detailed appeal on legal grounds (ignored) looking for specific details of the project, namely:

    – The complete [planning] application regarding this project
    – Copies of all council decisions relating to it
    – Any agreed budgets where they can be released
    – Any agreed schedules for development of this project
    – Any other design documents that the council holds that are releasable.

    This request goes back to 11 October 2008 and I have not received a written response with _any_ of the requested information. The other emails were ignored entirely.

    Of course, much of the project concerns entirely conventional and worthwhile matters: community rooms, youth facilities, a library, etc.

    As for the “virtual world” for teaching “life skills”, perhaps you could explain:

    1. Exactly what will be taught and to whom (ie. specify the precise educational objectives for each target group, the number of students per group, the length of sessions, the number of sessions per student, the number of sessions per year, etc.)

    2. The research and evidential basis that has clearly led to the conclusion that a) current methods are inadequate and b) the use of virtual reality technology will deliver _significant_ improvements in learning outcomes that will be justified by the cost of this project.

    3. The alternative methods that the council considered for achieving the same objectives and the reasons why they were rejected in favour of the adopted plan.

    All I’ve heard to date is a lot of very vague stuff about gee-whiz technophilia and how “iconic” the place will be. “Iconic” is generally a word one should refrain from using about one’s own projects, just as it’s considered arrogant to call oneself a genius. We will no doubt judge for ourselves whether this project really is innovative and worthwhile rather than just a civic folly with no plausible basis for its existence. In the meantime perhaps you could address my questions above or encourage those responsible for this project to do so in specific, academic and empirical terms.

    You say that, “There will be tangible benefits in the form of reduced crime and improved life opportunities for youngsters who might otherwise become a burden on the state”. I’d like to know how you can be so sure. Someone must have done the research and used it to justify this project. It’s time for the council to publish it.

    I take it that you are also in favour of rigorous, ongoing evaluation of this project and can commit yourself to calling and voting for its closure if it doesn’t meet its objectives within, say, five years? After all, I’m sure you wouldn’t want to write a blank cheque of taxpayers’ money to perpetuating a project that was a demonstrable failure.

    Frankly, I’m baffled as to how anyone has ever learned to not take drugs, not join gangs, not get involved in antisocial behaviour without the benefit of an immersive simulation “experience”.

    Comment by Adrian Short | February 21, 2009 | Reply

    • Ooh you got me – I don’t have the evidential data to hand. Nor do I have the research data justifying expenditure on any of our existing or proposed “entirely conventional and worthwhile matters: community rooms, youth facilities, a library etc.” Despite the interest sparked by the ‘virtual reality’ aspect, this part of the project would fall under ‘youth facilities’ and so I am OK – it must be entirely worthwhile by your assessment.

      I suspect that you have been unable to obtain the details of the project you have requested as the various parts will be going out to competitive tender.

      Comment by jaynemccoy | February 23, 2009 | Reply


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