Democracy? Don’t make me laugh! One battle-scarred veteran councillor delivers a devastating insight into what really goes on in your Town Hall
By ROBIN PAGE (26 April 2013)
Exactly one year ago, after three recounts, I was swept back into power as a local district councillor by a massive two votes. Despite an astonishingly vitriolic campaign against me, I unseated a Liberal Democrat — and life as a district councillor began again.
I say again because I had already done 36 years during an earlier stint as an Independent on South Cambridgeshire District Council. I’d resigned in 2006 as a matter of principle, fed up with the pervasive culture of political correctness and the crazy rules on ‘standards of behaviour’ for councillors introduced under Labour by John Prescott.
That’s right: John Prescott, the man who romped with his mistress on the desk of his Whitehall office, issuing edicts on standards of behaviour. What a joke!
Anyway, I stood for election again last May as an Independent because I felt someone had to speak out against the environmental vandalism the council was wreaking in the name of ‘planning and development’. In conjunction with Cambridge City Council, South Cambs seemed determined to trash the once beautiful university city and parts of its surrounding Green Belt.
Now, as the country votes on Thursday in local elections, I feel duty-bound to offer an insight into what really goes on in our town halls.
Public service? Forget it. Councillors are more interested in feathering their own nests, wasting money on the trappings of office and imposing politically correct drivel on council taxpayers.
Public money is not only being thrown about like confetti on non-jobs and PC projects in my council: I know that it’s happening right across the country.
Democracy and independence? Cobblers! I believe the sheep on my farm have more individuality and freedom of thought than most councillors, who are merely party hacks obsequiously following the diktats of their political masters in Westminster.
Once, our council meetings started with a Christian prayer. Today, oh no, we can’t have that in 21st century Britain: Christianity can’t be seen as having a part in ‘diversity’. So NOW, the chairman begins each meeting with the fatuous sentence: ‘We’ll stand for a minute to remember the reasons why we are here and the people we serve.’ Presumably, this means that the Tories are thinking of Conservative Central Office and the Lib Dems are praying to the god of diversity for the soul of the liar Chris Huhne.
Councillors are endlessly told we must ‘embrace diversity’, even if by doing so we’re robbing needy people of help and wasting money. It’s a farce — and an undemocratic one at that.
I recently attended a diversity evening course that cost the council £1,900. It was held in the council chamber where £45,000 had just been spent on new furniture — to replace some that was barely eight years old. Public money is not only being thrown about like confetti on non-jobs and PC projects in my council: I know that it’s happening right across the country.
Only this week, we learned that Middlesbrough council had appointed a so-called ‘thrift tsar’ to save the council money — on a salary of £95,000.
And while local authorities are chucking good money after bad and bleating about the austerity drive, it also emerged that, in total, councils have failed to collect £2.4 billion owed in council tax.
The Elderly are ‘Old Order’
Amid all this waste, an elderly couple in my ward have been told that their twice-weekly check-up phone call from the council is to be stopped. They are in their 80s and have health problems (diabetes and osteoporosis). The calls were a replacement for the warden who used to visit them to make sure they were all right. But she was axed last July and now the council says it can’t afford even the two phone calls a week. As you might expect, the couple were distressed, but a sense of pride and dignity meant they refused my request to try to highlight their case in the local newspaper.
Instead, I raised their case during that diversity course meeting — asking my fellow councillors how struggling local people such as this couple fitted into the council’s vision of ‘diversity’. I was stunned when one of the Tories told me: ‘They represent old, entrenched views. Quite unsuitable for the 21st century.’ Perhaps I, too, am not suited to the 21st century!
Everything Has Changed
For me, life as a councillor started so differently. Back in 1970, as a 26-year-old, I decided to stand so I might be able to represent my village and to help to retain the good things about rural life.
I’d spent all my life in the village of Barton in Cambridgeshire. I still live in the house next door to where I was born, on the small farm where my father worked for 60 years. I had an idyllic childhood and the pace of life was as it had been for generations. Two carthorses stood side by side in the stable, and during summer, the dairy shorthorn cows walked to and from milking to the spiralling song of larks and yellowhammers. It was a life in which farming and nature were in harmony, and the whole village appreciated the land and the seasons of the year.
But then the roads were widened, cars started going faster, commuters moved in and cattle were no longer to be found in the fields, which were turned into prairies of wheat or used for new housing developments.
I felt I had to do something. Once elected onto the council, I fought for local issues: to get a speed limit in the village; and to secure the appointment of a ‘conservation officer’ to protect the historically important areas of our locality.
Called a Racist
I backed the idea of the Green Belt to check urban encroachment. I even orchestrated a successful battle to stop the rents of 134 council houses being increased in 1973. One of my most satisfying achievements was to get permission for an extended family of Romany gypsies to remain on a small field, in the Green Belt, which meant they were protected from living on the increasingly busy roads and from potential harassment.
Back then, it was possible to discuss contentious topics such as gypsy camps openly and honestly. Today, that is impossible.
Recently, I raised the issue that there was a problem with Irish travellers in our district, but I was shouted down for being ‘racist’.
Independence Gone, Greed Reigns
In the Seventies and Eighties, we were a fiercely independent council, dominated by no single political party. Of course, there were liaisons and deals, and — just as today — dubious planning decisions that suggested the brown envelope was more persuasive than the democratic vote. But open debates were held and for the most part it was democratic. We councillors — the local butcher, the baker, the teacher, the farmer and the housewife — were all doing our bit, and we got no payment at all.
I was working as a part-time postman and money was tight, but I regarded my council duties as a public service. Back then, there was no such thing as an ‘attendance allowance’.
But council life began to change for the worse during the years of New Labour in the late Nineties. First, there was the introduction of ‘allowances’ (as pay for councillors is euphemistically called). Almost uniquely among my colleagues, I have never claimed my expenses entitlement.
We’re talking sizeable money here. The chairman of South Cambridgeshire District Council, who, as a fruit farmer, I assume makes a perfectly good living, also gets more than £16,000 a year from the council. Seven other councillors rack up more than £10,000 a year, and our total bill for councillors’ allowances comes to more than £369,000.
I wonder how many old people’s warden wage packets that would pay for?
At the same time, councils have become depressingly politicised.
Gradually, the party machines have edged out Independent councillors. Today, there are only seven of us left out of 57. The Tories are in power and they vote as a block. They join the Lib Dems for ‘pre-meeting meetings’ to decide the agenda. The result is a shamocracy in which the public rarely hears the real issues. Free speech becomes stifled.
For example, I once dared to scold another councillor for risking accusations of impropriety by attending a ‘soirée’ hosted by a property developer. She reacted very badly and I found myself summoned before the Standards Board.
This quango was part of the £8 million-a-year town hall ‘thought police’ introduced by John Prescott to ‘monitor’ councillors and prevent them from championing local issues — it has fuelled thousands of petty and malicious complaints. I had to attend what was tantamount to a kangaroo court, with big-wig lawyers who argued over the meaning of the word ‘soirée’.
Eventually, after six or seven hours, they decided that the councillor had not been to a ‘soirée’, but had enjoyed tea and biscuits. The case must have cost the council at least £5,000, and I received a mild reprimand. What a waste of time and money.
Shocked by the whole experience, I realised that local democracy had become a charade.
Shortly afterwards, I resigned. I had already been upset by the decision to sell South Cambridgeshire Hall, where councillors met, to a developer — and to move the council offices to the artificially created village of Cambourne. The place where we now meet is utterly soulless and looks like a nuclear power station.
No one can ever convince me that this was not a deliberate decision to lend legitimacy to council decisions to concrete over the Cambridgeshire countryside. For this is what the construction of thousands of new homes in places such as Cambourne amounts to. There was a time when local councillors would have tried to block such proposals.
Toe the Party Line
But having served on the planning committee for 20 years, I witnessed the shift away from making decisions that were in the interests of local people towards a slavish toeing of the line of central government.
Or worse, the risk of councillors offering themselves for hire to property developers — trading on their inside knowledge of the planning system to receive fees of up to £20,000 for advice on how to get developments approved.
It should be remembered that as part of the Government’s drive for more homes, for every new house, local authorities receive a ‘New Homes Bonus’ of several thousand pounds as an outrageous financial inducement for councils to grant planning permission.
These are nothing less than legalised bribes.
The most outrageous scheme in my ward — though I am not saying that anything untoward has happened during the negotiations — is for a new stadium for Cambridge United Football Club, along with 420 houses, to be built on the Green Belt. If it happens — close to the poet Rupert Brooke’s famous village of Grantchester — it will be nothing less than an act of environmental vandalism.
Yet thanks to the ‘New Homes Bonus’ — or should that be ‘Bribe’? — South Cambridgeshire District Council could get a share of £3 million. This, despite the fact that local people are overwhelmingly against the development. Similar scandals are happening right across the country. Decisions are being made to shut much-valued local hospitals or make cuts to policing levels.
Wrecking the Countryside
As a long-standing countryside campaigner, it was this wrecking of the environment that inspired me to stand again for election as a councillor. I realised that my earlier resignation on a point of principle had achieved nothing. It had simply allowed a bad council to continue on its way with less criticism.
On my return to the council, I noticed that the bureaucracy of ‘officers’ had become ridiculously bloated. For instance, we have a ‘monitoring officer’ to dictate what we councillors can and cannot say. No, it’s not 1984 — it’s 21st century Britain.
Councillors risk being accused of ‘bias’ and banned from proceedings.
There is a monthly magazine, produced in council time by council staff. It’s nothing more than a propaganda sheet that peddles the myth that the council is operating wonderfully — when I know it is often inefficient and sometimes incompetent. These bureaucrats inundate us with reams of useless information. (I think they do it to make themselves indispensable). They seem determined to bump up costs.
Wasting Public Money
It’s not just my local council, either. A few weeks ago, I read that cash-strapped Durham county council had given its chairwoman, Linda Marshall, an annual clothing allowance of £8,850 a year.
After all, perks are all the rage in town halls today. When I was re-elected, almost the first thing I was asked was: ‘Of course, you’ll want a free council computer.’ I replied that I wouldn’t. I had my own computer and didn’t want to waste public funds on computers that cost £843 each, plus running costs of £129 per computer per year. Of course, my parsimony was not shared by my fellow councillors. I learned that out of 57 colleagues, 50 have gone for the ‘free’ computers.
Though, of course, they are not free. All told, they cost council taxpayers almost £50,000 a year.