Thurrock Council lurched dangerously close to Westminster taking control at another disastrous meeting of the Planning Committee last night (Thursday).
In March 2009, the Audit Commission noted in their report, which placed Thurrock in the relegation zone of council, along with Doncaster and Haringey.
It pointed out that there was “a fundamental breakdown in the relationships between members (councillors) and officers (paid council employees)”.
Since that time millions of taxpayers money has been spent on attempting to improve the council.
In the week that the government took control of Doncaster Council, the Planning Committee almost signed the council’s own death warrant with a performance that lurched between high farce and black comedy but also had severe implications for democracy in the borough.
The evening began with Chairman Stuart St-Clair Haslam making a fifteen minute speech that made him look like Churchill the politician. He ended the evening nodding at everybody making him look like Churchill the dog.
The speech made it very clear that the three controversial planning items: Mardyke Farm, Orsett Hall and Manor House Farm, Bulphan would be, contrary to officer advice, be decided on the night.
He said: “Our fundamental and over-riding duty is to…. be the voice of the electorate…the power is ours…not by those not elected and do not even live here but are happy to spend ratepayers money as if it doesn’t matter.”
He slammed the officers for their delaying tactics and presumption to defer items before democracy had taken its course.
Cllr Gerard Rice pointed to reasons that the council may have its powers taken away from it.
He said: “No wonder the government gave planning powers away to the Development Corporation. They can build 350 homes on Green Belt because they say so. Here we are in a stalemate that makes me think that we are simply not capable of running ourselves and should go back to Essex County Council.
Corporate Director for Planning, Bill Newman immediately took control and amongst several carefully chosen points asked the members to be “very careful” about their decisions that could have “extreme concerns and risks”
Seeing his advice ignored, Mr Newman took the extraordinary step of (along with Head of Legal Services Tamsin Shawcatt) of walking out of the chamber.
The council resembled a Latin American junta with the forces of democracy in office but the generals wielding power in the corridor.
Mr Newman then returned and summoned Leader of the Opposition John Kent from the gallery as well as Aveley councillor Wendy Herd out to the lobby.
Twenty four minutes later, Mr Newman returned as the meeting progressed. However, even before they could get to the three controversial issues, the committee became bogged down on a decsion to reject an application in Aveley.
Working by the rules of a new constitution, it became clear that a number of the councillors had not read the new constitution and were starting to become very confused.
A visibly distracted Vice-Chair, Cllr Barry Palmer, who clearly had other matters on his mind said: “I wouldn’t have voted for it if I knew it was this complicated.”
The officers tried to take the members through the new rulings but the whole process took well over an hour.
The committeee adjourned but again, Mr Newman summoned Cllrs St-Clair-Haslam and Palmer for a private meeting.
The public looked shocked as only a short time ago, Cllr Haslam had defiantly told the officers that there would be no more secret meetings.
It was to get worse: Cllr Haslam, looking visibly chastened, over-awed and blinking into the light proposed to the committee that they should adjourn the three items for next thursday on the basis that it would give him time to meet the Interim Chief Executive.
What the Audit Commission will think of this is anyone’s guess. You can imagine if it was Ofsted who a year ago had witnesses a school with real discipline problems. Had given the school: “notice to improve” and then came back a year later and witnessed that it had got worse. They would have no option but to put the school in special measures.
The same could well apply to Thurrock Council. Some may say: What about all the improvements? They may amount to nothing as this committee is bringing local democracy and accountability into disrepute.
What appears to be the case is that the councillors cannot solve the problem. Infact the fact that they didn’t take time to read and understand the constitution but took the time to take the taxpayers money is a disgrace especially for those up for re-election in two weeks time.
It may well be that Bill Newman was in direct communication with Interim Chief Bob Coomber who will clearly have mapped out Plan A, B and C. That may well involve taking the view that the council may have to be protected from itself.
What implications does that have for the General and Local Elections of 2010. Only three hours previously, we had interviewed the Chair of the Conservative party in the Uk, Eric Pickles MP as he rallied the troops in Stanford-le-Hope.
We asked him” “Eric, David Cameron said that if you want to see what a Tory government will look like then observe any Tory-run council in England. Did he forget to add on, “Apart from that car crash of a council called Thurrock?”
Whatever is going on, those councillors are now way way over their heads and out of their depths. The time for firm leadership from Garry Hague and John Kent and Bob Coomber is within the next seven days.
Whether Labour or Conservative have control after May 6th, we very much doubt that any of these councillors will be on the planning committee as they find their political reputations in tatters along with that of the council.