With less than one week to go until the local elections candidates have been out about delivering leaflets and talking to residents. And there is certainly plenty of literature both online and off regarding the achievements of Sutton Coldfield Town Council during its first two years.
But have those people who stood in all weathers collecting the 10,000 signatures required to force a public vote, or those who voted yes in the subsequent poll, got what they wanted?
Some residents would say not, complaining that the Town Council has put party politics before the town since its creation in 2016.
It certainly got off to a rocky start with the mysterious resignation of the Interim Town Clerk within 6 months. Following an alleged complaint made against the Interim Clerk the majority Conservative group held their own vote of no confidence resulting in Interim Town Clerk John Furze’s resignation before any of this could be taken to and discussed at Full Council.
Commenting at the time Cllr Robert Pocock said:
“This matter should have been raised properly at the democratically-appointed Staffing Sub-group of the Town Council, which consists of a cross-party group of 5 of us including myself from Labour and Liz Parry of the Independents. I have argued consistently that we should be working through this kind of Power-Sharing Agreement involving all political groups.
Rumours have swirled around for some while including major divisions within the Conservative ranks on this. Now we have a public announcement to the media being given by a backbench Conservative – where is the leader David Pears? Who has got confidence in who? We need open-ness and democracy in Sutton Coldfield but instead it seems we have secrecy and underhand skulduggery within one political group that does not even comment a majority of the electors in Sutton Coldfield.
This sorry episode shows we need a fresh start and a renewed commitment to openness, cross-party collaboration and public accountability. The pressure is on the Conservative group to admit they have botched this up and lost public confidence as a result.”
While, again commenting at the time, Cllr Ewan Mackey said:
“John Furze has decided to move on from his position as interim Town Clerk with Royal Sutton Coldfield Town Council, John of course is the Medium and Larger Councils Expert Practitioner for the Local Government Resource Centre that has been so central to the setting up of our Royal Town Council and I wish him every success with the future projects that they undertake.
“John Furze took up the interim role whilst the Town Council was being established. His time has seen the council become a functioning organisation that has big plans for the future of the Royal Town.”
Cllr Paul Long, who is not standing for re-election, said:
“This certainly highlights the problems of predetermination when meetings are held in secret. What was the majority? Would it have been a different decision at full council? Other opinions could have been heard at full council that may have changed the minds of some. Of course it would have been with press and public excluded, but all elected representatives should have been involved in this. We don’t even know the nature of the complaint that has been made to LGRC.
This is why we always said independents would serve Sutton Coldfield better than party politicians. As always, I’d challenge town councillors to stand as independents in the future and leave national party interests behind them.”
Following the departure of the Interim Town Clerk the Council failed to appoint a new permanent clerk despite what one councillor described as a “…fully qualified and capable person in the second round.” Eventually, the Council promoted the Interim Deputy Town Clerk to Interim Town Clerk and then to Permanent Town Clerk despite limited previous experience in that role.
In August 2016, Cllr Louise Passey, who stood as an Independent at the May 2016 election joined the Conservative group. That was just three months after being returned as an Independent. Cllr Passey claimed at the time that the move was due to:
“…Independents for Sutton going through a period of great uncertainty and challenge. There is a clear lack of focus, structure, cohesiveness, strategy, leadership and lack of genuine independence.”
However, this appears to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the term Independent and doesn’t address why the councillor, if unhappy with the Independents for Sutton banner, could not simply declare herself as an Independent with no association with the IfS group. In May of this year Louise Passey is standing as a Conservative candidate for both Birmingham City Council and Sutton Coldfield Town Council.
During the first year of the Town Council, Conservative councillors were appointed to the positions of Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Council Leader. In the second year of the new council’s life the three roles were again given to Conservative members even though non-conservative members were nominated.
One of the major announcements made in year one was a Sutton Coldfield Bicycle scheme, something along the lines of the Boris Bike. The council identified £100k to buy 100 bikes and ports for the scheme which would allow Sutton Coldfield residents to use the bikes free of charge. In a report at the time by the Sutton Coldfield Observer Cllr Charlotte Hodivala is quoted as saying:
“…I am delighted that town councillors have given these ambitious plans the green light. We now need to ensure that we make these a reality through hard work and dedication.”
Unfortunately, there is little evidence in the public domain that the scheme has progressed much beyond promises.
One project that did materialise was the Concerts in the Park. The project cost the precept payer £92,000 without any formal consultation other than ‘chatting with residents’. There is no official record of how the precept payers felt about the idea. Of course post event consultations with those who attended were very positive, and why wouldn’t they? Sutton Park is a beautiful space and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is world renown. The question being asked should go beyond did those who attended have a nice time but is this really an appropriate use of such a large chunk of tax payers money? And why was there no formal consultation process. There are some great events in Sutton Coldfield including the Great Midlands Fun Run and the Sutton Games, neither of which are funded through public money. Indeed, this begs the question, shouldn’t a town council’s work be based upon building community spirit and cohesion at a granular level rather than making great, sweeping statements such as a £100k concert?
It would be unfair to say that the Council hasn’t achieved anything during its first two years. The Mayor’s challenge with local schools is exactly the kind of community engagement the Town Council should be doing. Similarly, the Britain in Bloom entry is again a move in the right direction in inspiring community cohesion and civic pride. But it continues to make questionable decisions. The Concerts in the Park is taking place again this year, albeit with a £53k rather £92k commitment, despite there still not having been any formal consultation. Plans and a commitment of £50,000 to provide the people of Boldmere with a new playground has been a succession of claims and counterclaims, from both councillors and residents, of incompetence and mismanagement. The council even went as far as commissioning a report from Birmingham City Council on the possible sites for the playground. No playground has yet been delivered.
The performance and behaviour of councillors at meetings has also been questioned by those that have attended them. The response of the majority party when any councillor other than a member of the Conservative group speaks is frequently inappropriate and disrespectful. There appears to be no real debate with accusations made from within the council that decisions are made and block voted on by the Conservative group. Indeed at a recent hustings Cllr Janet Cairns explained how she had stood up to the requests of the Conservative group not to attend Ward meetings and how she had felt uncomfortable with block voting, “…if I’m truthful I have block voted and sometimes I have felt very uncomfortable about it.” When asked if she would do it again Cllr Cairns said no.
And then there was the resignation of Claire Bennett, elected to represent Trinity Ward as an Independent and who felt:
“…uncomfortable with the constant waiving of financial regulations in regard to purchasing. I understand that it can be an absolute necessity occasionally. Recently, it seems to have become the default. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I see massive potential for future problems and cannot be apart of this any longer.”
Clair Bennet also asked the question:
“When is a vote not a vote? if one has to vote yes, then it is not a vote.”
No doubt the saving of Sutton Coldfield Library will be put forward as a major success by the Town Council, but in truth, the saving of the library was mostly down to the commitment and hard work of a number or residents, first in the guise of The Library Lobby and then FOLIO Sutton Coldfield.
The first two years of the Royal Sutton Coldfield Town Council has not been perfect by any means and although there is a claim to some successes it is clear that overall it has not delivered what many of the residents were expecting when they voted ‘yes’ in the consultative ballot. But that can be fixed. When voting on Thursday consider carefully which candidates (whether Independent, Red, Blue, Gold or Green) you truly believe will best serve you and your town and not just their party line. Be party colour-blind on Thursday 3rd May.