Last week NHDC claimed at their meeting that they hadn't received any submissions in support of the town council, which is strange since was put together by a host of community groups in the summer.
this was it :
this was it :
Letchworth Garden City Council was created in 2005 and has not yet completed two terms. North Herts District Council suddenly decided (in February 2012) to conduct a Community Governance Review (CGR) into whether to abolish it. CGRs are controlled by the Local Government and Involvement in Public Health Act 2007 and by Ministerial guidance. Ministerial guidance says “the government expects to see the trend to be towards the creation as opposed to the abolition of town councils” and the Act itself states that in any review undertaken in response to public petition the outcome (in a town of more than 1000 inhabitants) must be to create a town council.
Since the guidance has been published, the government has given additional powers to local councils through the Localism Act and announced it intends to give yet further powers to communities. In its report on progress towards achieving aims contained in the “Open Service White Paper”, there are plans to make it easier for community forums to become parish councils. The government has also clarified its position in relation to neighbourhood planning and neighbourhood arrangements which is to strengthen the role of elected parish councils.
This CGR was not started by public petition or by NHDC acting of its own volition as part of a structured review. Rather, it commenced in response to a request from a group of councillors now running the town council. Although they form the majority, HELP represent only 53% of the electorate. 47% of the electorate supported continuation of a town council at the last election held in 2009. The guidance states
“Abolition of parishes should not be taken unless clearly justified. Any decision a principal council may make on whether to abolish a parish should not be taken lightly. Under the 1997 Act the Secretary of State considered carefully recommendations made by principal councils for abolishing a parish without replacement)given that a decision to abolish parish areas removes a tier of government. Between 1997 and 2008 the government rarely received proposals to abolish parish councils, it has received only 4 cases seeking abolition and only one was approved by the Secretary of State.
Exceptionally there may be cases where abolition may be the most appropriate way forward. Under the 2007 Act the principal council will need to consider local opinion including that of local councillors and the local electorate. It will need evidence that abolition was justified and that there was clear and sustained local support for such an action.
A factor taken into account by the government in deciding abolition cases was that local support for abolition needed to be demonstrated over at least a period equivalent to two terms of office of the parish councillors (i.e. 8 years) and that it was sufficiently informed. That means a properly constituted parish council should have had an opportunity to exercise its functions so that local people can judge its ability to contribute to local quality of life“
In 2004, people petitioned North Herts District Council, the principal authority, to create a council. NHDC held a referendum in 2004, which supported a town council. Elections followed in 2005, returning 24 independent town council supporters. All seats were contested.
NHDC set the initial precept of the council at around £14 per household per year (at Band D). NHDC was aware the average levy for town and parish councils in the
Herts area was in the order of £35 per year per household.
NHDC was unwilling or unable to provide premises or staff to its newly created council. NHDC knew the council would need extra resources in its initial phrase, for example to create appropriate financial reserves. When the town council set a more usual precept in 2007, senior members of NHDC publicly criticised the decision of the town council. Opponents of the first administration, including unsuccessful election candidates from 2005, organised themselves into an opposition group. This was called Help Eliminate Letchworth Parish or HELP.
HELP set up a bogus town council website. The site “letchworthgardencitycouncil.org” cloned the real town council site. It contained claims designed to mislead the public. For example, while pretending to be the real town council, it claimed that there were no plans to carry out any programme of community events. The bogus website recorded over 12,000 “hits”, in a town with 33,000 people. The bogus site came up first in internet searches for “Letchworth Garden City Council” or “Letchworth Parish Council”. It was obviously the work of a person with considerable IT skills.
The “official” website of the HELP organisation contained wrongful serious allegations of supposed personal misconduct against several members of the town council.
HELP asked for a parish poll. The poll was held at the time the precept was raised from the taxpaying public but obviously before the council could implement the programme of community support it determined to provide. The poll had a low turnout, but 75% of the 15% who voted indicated that the town council should be abolished.
NHDC held second elections to the town council in June 2009. These elections returned 22 councillors who wished to “eliminate” the council and two councillors who wished to serve their community in the normal way.
We make three very important points here. The first is base figures of the “first past the post” vote obscure the fact that overall voters voted 53% to eliminate and 47% to retain. (NHDC chose to create only five large wards despite government guidance to the contrary - although it determined the council should have 24 councillors). Each voter therefore has multiple votes and may elect between 4 and 6 councillors depending on ward. Two of the five wards were very finely balanced and elected both pro and anti councillors. Names were pulled out of a hat in one ward. Every seat was again contested. In at least three wards the surprisingly high number of spoilt ballot papers could easily have affected the outcome.
Secondly, in the period between the poll and the election the town council had managed to remove the fraudulent website and transfer relevant domain names to its control. (Although false allegations about councillors remained on the HELP website, also widely read.)
Thirdly, NHDC is fully is aware of both of these facts as it became embroiled in potential High Court action directly caused by the bogus website (see details later).
The majority elimination group has run the council on a “do nothing” basis for three years since 2009, declaring repeatedly that they are “in it to bin it” and they wish to be a “non spending” council. They closed council premises, removed support to community groups, divested themselves of most assets and dismissed all staff. An elected member of HELP performs the role of Clerk to the Council. Councillors who do not share the majority view receive no resource to enable them to fulfil their functions of a councillor. The Clerk declines to undertake any work for “pro” councillors.
Since the 2009 election, two of the Help Eliminate Letchworth Parish councillors have resigned. Three of the five wards are now represented by councillors who wish to serve the electorate. These “active” councillors are, at best, hindered in their wish to carry out a normal town councillor’s role in their community. They have certainly not been “facilitated, empowered or encouraged” to fulfil their role, either by the town council or NHDC.
As can be expected against a background of increasing powers, the public has requested intervention from the “in it to bin it” town council since 2009. Increased powers available to town councils could have been used to assist residents in their aspirations on a number of occasions. Some examples of local issues are as follows.
1 Decision by NHDC to sell a public house, the Pelican
NHDC has recently sold the lease of a public house in Letchworth to Green King, knowing the brewery will transfer the lease to Tesco. The local community, against the proposal, raised a 2000 signature petition. NHDC refused a community-based offer to purchase the lease even though it was £50,000 higher than the brewery offer. A town council could have used powers to acquire assets for the community.
2 Removal of trees
NHDC sanctioned removal of mature trees from the town centre despite a petition of almost 18,000 residents. A town council could have used its powers to make tree preservation and prevented their removal.
3 Hitchin Rail extension
Members of the public asked the council to intervene in this matter (see later). The town council declined to act and took no part in the subsequent public examination.
4 Brotherhood Hall Potential Closure
After an initial refusal to act, ‘people power’ forced the HELP administration to chair a public meeting, which saved the Brotherhood Hall from closure. (This is a town resource that has existed since the 1920’s)
NHDC took a sudden decision to conduct a governance review in February 2012. This was surprising. NHDC had no prior plans to conduct such a review, nor has it has received a petition from the public to undertake such review, as set out in the Local Government and Public Health Act 2007. Rather, NHDC’s decision stems solely from a request from those councillors who declare themselves to be members of HELP. Letchworth is one of the largest and newest town councils in
scale of the review means NHDC is preparing to take a decision that will affect
almost one third of its own total electorate.
Clearly, the first term of Letchworth town council was a major thorn in the side of NHDC. In early 2009 the town council successfully challenged an NHDC decision, which NHDC was forced to reverse after the town council commenced High Court action. The first term was also controversial. There were numerous unsuccessful legal challenges to the “active” town council as it supported the community empowerment agenda set out for parishes. One challenge was an unsuccessful judicial review of a decision by a Chairman of the first term who allowed debate on a local matter at a public meeting. The presiding judge refused the review saying “democratic debate is alive and well in Letchworth”.
We submit HELP’s application to NHDC for a CGR is in exactly the same vein. It seeks to pervert the democratic process by removing elections due to be held in May 2013. HELP have sought NHDC’s assistance to remove the council at an unprecedented early stage. They clearly want to avoid an election where they would have to defend their performance. More importantly, the request (and decision to carry out the review) run contrary to assurances previously given by HELP to the electorate and to the High Court.
The history of the request to hold a review is that in October 2009 the HELP-run council decided to adopt a “transition plan”. Under the Plan, HELP set out details of its proposals for the first time. The Plan was written by Mr George Ritchie (Chairman of the HELP-run council) and Mr Bruce Carr. They addressed themselves to a Community Governance Review (CGR) at that time. They stated
“Our understanding, which is based, inter alia, on discussions with representatives of the North Herts District Council ( the body that would undertake the relevant CGR) is that in the course of a CGR, when considering whether dissolution is appropriate, the approach will be in essence to assess whether the local electorate (i) has had an opportunity to see what an “active” council looks like, i.e. what it delivers for the community and whether that is considered to be good value for money (ii) has had an opportunity to see what it looks like without an “active” Council” and (iii) remains of the view after a period of “inactivity” that it does not wish for the council to continue.
The local electorate had four years of an active council then voted in ways that gave the HELP group a resounding majority across all wards in the town. However it is recognised that although the town previously functioned without a parish council, the electorate has not yet had the opportunity to review what an “inactive” council feels like in the light of four years experience with an “active” one and ii) that whilst the HELP electoral majority was very substantial there are still individuals in the town who currently believe that the council should continue.
Our view and belief is that once we ceased all council activities so that is in effect meeting legal obligations as described in more detail below but no more the majority of the electorate will when it has had a suitable period to assess the matter demonstrate their unchanged support for dissolution. At that stage a CGR could be sought.
Mr Ritchie and Mr Carr then went on to say
“Our approach in recommending the course of action set out herein does nothing irrevocable to jeopardise the electorate making their choice at the next election”.
A number of organisations were very speedily affected by their decision. The “in it to bin it” council withdrew support from disadvantaged groups, people with learning disabilities and ethnic minority organisations. Naturally, these organisations, in their distress at the rapid scale down, turned to opposition and former councillors to see whether they could assist.
An organisation called the Letchworth Democracy Association (LDA) was formed from former councillors and local residents. The LDA believed HELP’s real aim was to avoid the planned election in 2013. They believed Mr Ritchie’s statement in the Transition Plan would not be sustained. The LDA therefore asked for judicial review of the decision to accept the plan, submitting that they believed HELP had no intention of continuing until the next election and they were disposing of assets to facilitate an unlawful winding up of the council before the election in 2013 could take place. HELP responded by rapidly changing initial plans (for example overturning plans to hold a “fire sale” of assets) and by drawing the court’s attention to the plan which contained the above wording.
We presume that the learned judge carefully considered both ministerial guidance and submissions made by HELP. He appeared to be assured of the clear, unequivocal commitment to submit to a further election. In refusing the application he specified “there will remain certain functions, the most important of which is the holding of periodic elections, which it cannot cease to perform unless and until statutory procedures have been followed”. To repeat the quote set out by HELP “Our approach in recommending the course of action set out herein does nothing irrevocable to jeopardise the electorate making their choice at the next election”.
Mr Ritchie publicly claimed that anyone who believed HELP would seek a governance review before two terms had elapsed was “irrational”. Up to November 2011, Mr Ritchie claimed no-one could “rationally” believe his group would request a CGR because ministerial guidance was so firmly against it that no sensible person could contemplate it.
In November 2011 Mr Ritchie changed his position and recommended a review, justifying his remarks by telling his council that “the law on CGR’s had changed since 2009”.
Nothing has changed since 2009, a fact now acknowledged by Mr Ritchie, (after intervention by a town councillor who challenged the statement). The majority of his fellow town councillors nevertheless still decided to ask NHDC for a governance review- thus avoiding a public vote on their performance.
The truth is, of course, that in November 2011 the council lost an employment tribunal, which decided HELP had sacked staff unlawfully. The tribunal documented abusive behaviour by HELP supporters and referred to the bogus websites that facilitated HELP’s cause.
The employment judge declared the first councillors to be rational, careful and considered. The result of this misadventure is that the HELP administration had to pay legal fees, as well as compensation to staff (who repeatedly attempted to seek a less expensive compromise with a belligerent and unreasonable employer). The conduct of HELP and their supporters is publicly exposed. The true winners, as usual, are the lawyers. Thousands of pounds have been squandered on legal fees. It adds to the many thousands already wasted by NHDC on dealing with investigations into politically motivated complaints from HELP (see below). No wonder a second HELP councillor has resigned; and a third pro-council member has now been returned in her place.
If HELP is forced to continue to May 2013 it claims it may have to raise a precept in its final year to replace public money wasted on legal fees, immediately before submitting itself to an election. It wastes money in a way that is truly bizarre. Far from having only the four meetings a year it promised, its obscure structures seem designed to prevent the public from monitoring it. It rents rooms to hold numerous sub committees, panels, working groups and committees of the whole council - to do nothing. It actually has a larger number of such structures than the first councillors had. One member of HELP lives 300 miles away and has virtually disappeared. Another has persistently sent apologies since 2010, appearing only on one occasion when opposition members were not present to verify his attendance. It claimed to advertise its business on the NHDC notice board, a claim NHDC was forced to declare was wrong after NHDC received a Freedom of Information request.
There is no sustained support. Support for the council had increased steeply at the time of election in 2009 from that recorded in the previous year. As set out above, in the election held in June 2009 HELP obtained 53% of the vote with town council supporters achieving 47%. Voters rapidly rejected HELP when they were able to access true council information and were able to see what was done by the active council. Regrettably though, some residents would undoubtedly still been influenced by views formed after reading the bogus website.
Since 2009 two HELP councillors have resigned and three wards now have an “active” councillor”.
NHDC has sent letters to all households drawing attention to the case for abolition. The consultation specifically directs residents to opinion and statements made by the HELP councillors elected in 2009 (who NHDC know benefited from the bogus websites and claims) but does not direct voters to any alternative view expressed by those elected representatives who reflect the views of at least 47% of the electorate. NHDC took no steps to invite opposing views before issuing public consultation or give opposing views similar prominence in material produced by NHDC
It cannot therefore be said NHDC has provided the electorate with an informed choice. NHDC should have invited councillors and others who oppose the abolition to set out their case and drawn the attention of the electorate to both pro and anti views; or it should not have drawn voters attention to any view at all.
The consultation asks “Since the Town Council was established, do you feel more or less able to influence decisions that affect your local area?”
2. “To what extent, if at all, do you think that the Town Council has benefited the local community”?
People who support a town council clearly do not feel represented by a council that refuses to represent them. These questions confuse the electorate.
In the period between 2009 and 2012 (between election and current review) additional powers have been granted to town councils under the Localism Act, given Royal Assent in November 2011.
The Localism Act reinforces ministerial guidance as set out above. It also reflects the strong wish of Parliament to see the role of the neighbourhood councillor significantly increased and specifies the clear wish of Parliament to see the local council sector encouraged, facilitated and empowered. The National Policy Planning Framework and the Open Public Services White Paper both envisage a greater role for local councils. We do not plan to repeat the information in this submission. NHDC is instead directed to the Planning Portal of its own website and to the letter sent to Chief Executives in May from the Department for Communities and Local Government giving further information.
As set out above, in 2008 there was a website, “Letchworthgardencitycouncil.org”. The website was created by an organisation calling itself the “Letchworth Garden City Trust”. No such organisation was listed with the Charity Commission. No trace of it could be found elsewhere. The website pretended to be the official council website and misled people in the town. It wrongfully claimed no events or actions were planned by the council. It disrupted the work of the council, misdirecting and preventing communications reaching the council.
A town councillor, who had concerns over the conduct of HELP, publicly queried whether the website was connected to HELP. A Mr Laurie, the HELP member responsible for publicity complained to NHDC that she brought the town council into disrepute by asking the question. He wanted her removed from office.
NHDC Standards Committee decided to investigate Mr Laurie’s complaint, ignoring ministerial guidance (that political motivation of complainants should be considered in such cases.) Their decision also ran contrary to the policy followed in other cases.
NHDC ignored letters and evidence from the councillor concerned and so, on advice from counsel, the town council was forced to request the High Court to review the decision. The councillor showed the High Court that the bogus website was registered at 18a
Street, Biggleswade. This was the address of
Wormald Burroughs Associates. Wormald Burroughs denied any knowledge of the
bogus website. The town council accepted that. However, the Wormald Burroughs
website showed that the IT manager at the firm was a Matthew Heaton. Mr Heaton
was openly seeking election to the council. He was listed on the HELP website
as responsible for both publicity and website.
The HELP website stated that a council member was under investigation, untruthfully claiming that the complaint came from a “non-HELP” resident. There were other references to supposed ongoing “misconduct” investigations into other councillors. These allegations 8.
were also made by HELP members. (These other complaints had in fact been rejected 8 months earlier, and the complainants specifically notified of that by the Standards Board for
Pleadings were therefore set out to the High Court that the election in May 2009 would be compromised by this state of affairs. On receipt of papers from the High Court, the NHDC Monitoring Officer intervened. She instructed the committee to re-consider its decision. The committee did so and halted the investigation so the request for review was withdrawn by agreement. Had the evidence been scrutinised by a judge, it is likely that NHDC may have been ordered to retake the decision and perhaps directed further to consider whether the actions of HELP were designed to subvert the electoral process.
Potential interference with the proper course of elections is serious. It renders the decision by NHDC to start a CGR solely on the basis of a request by these councillors very strange, in the light of information known to NHDC. NHDC should also carefully note that the High Court actually removed an MP from office after finding that misleading claims were made on his behalf.
The NHDC consultation refers to views expressed by HELP by describing them only as “the majority of town councillors”. Undoubtedly therefore voters will look at the current “official” town council website to help form their opinion during the CGR. In the light of its previous experience, NHDC should therefore have satisfied itself that a website created by politicians did nothing to mislead the public or invalidate an expensive consultation.
On taking office HELP dismissed all staff. Councillors representing HELP now personally compile the official website, including Mr Heaton, a fact known to NHDC. We submit that the official website has continued in the vein set out by the bogus website. Misleading statements are made, which a High Court judge may consider are sufficient to invalidate the consultation. Examples are numerous, but three will suffice for these purposes.
First, during the period of consultation there was significant press and public interest in the rail link extension in Letchworth. The front page of the Comet newspaper in April 2012 carried the story. Questions were asked at the Town Meeting held in April 2012 about why the town council did not act for the public in this matter.
The facts are that in April 2009 Network Rail held a consultation in Hitchin, prior to making an application for an Order to create the link. It was very widely advertised with literature placed in council offices, libraries and other places. Letchworth residents attended the exhibition and asked for a meeting to be held in Letchworth. Network Rail promised to do so. The town council elections were held on 5 June 2009. The new town council immediately resolved to scrap its planning committee and advised NHDC it did not wish to see or consider planning applications. The promised meeting between residents and Network rail was held on 22 July 2009 at the Letchworth Area Committee. Residents did not consider that adequate. They attended the town council meeting in September 2009 to ask the council to represent them in negotiations with Network Rail. Mr George Ritchie, Chairman of the council refused, setting out the town council position which was that the council would not speak for residents.
The draft Order was placed before NHDC’s Planning Committee on 3 November 2009. The Secretary of State “called in” the application. The Planning Inspector held a public hearing between 11 May 2010 and 25 May 2010. NHDC used Wormald Burroughs to make representations to the public hearing on its behalf.
In April 2012 the town meeting asked why the town council had not spoken for the public about the rail link. HELP’s response is that “the previous clerk had not responded to a letter” in April 2009 (notwithstanding the town council had displayed Network Rail’s publicity for the Hitchin exhibition prominently in the window of its town centre premises). There is no mention of HELP’s specific refusal to assist the public in September 2009 or the HELP-run council’s failure to make any representation to the public hearing in May 2010.
Mr Ian Mantle, an elected HELP councillor was Clerk to the town council and drew up the minutes. Mr Mantle was standing as a candidate in the elections to NHDC of May 2012. He did not stand as a candidate for HELP but on a normal basis, promising to act for and represent the public. Further Mr Matthew Heaton, who runs the council website, continues to be linked to Wormald Burroughs in a senior capacity. Mr Heaton could hardly fail to be aware in some depth of the facts. Mr Heaton also appears to be in a position of conflict of interest -as a representative of an organisation pledged not to represent Letchworth while financially connected to an organisation paid to do so. We can find no reference to declaration of his interest in discussion at the town meeting and or the council.
We consider the exchange and these minutes to be relevant to the CGR consultation. NHDC specifically choose to ask the following question in the consultation. “When there was a town council did you consider yourself to be more or less represented”. Naturally, the public will seek information to determine their responses and look to the town council website for that The inference of the exchange, recorded prominently (twice) on the official town council website is that the previous administration would not have represented Letchworth. The first term’s aims and objectives, corporate plan and newsletters have been deleted from the town council website. Those documents recorded the role of the active council in detail and recorded its commitment to represent people properly when requested to do so.
A second example is that of the Chairman’s remarks of April 2011, recorded in the minutes. The Chairman of the Council at that time, Mrs Valerie Mantle, publicly made a series of claims about expenditure incurred by the previous administration, setting out that neither she nor the Clerk, her husband Mr Ian Mantle, could identify authorisation for expenditure incurred. The sensational nature of the claim and the prominent way it was set out led to it being recorded on the front page of the Comet newspaper.
A front page story is very significant in influencing local opinion. To put it in context, the Pelican public house issue was carried in national newspapers but published only on the inside page of the Comet.
After publication, the Comet contacted a previous Chairman of the Council. He pointed out that not only was the financial authorisation recorded on the town council website, it was also recorded on the HELP website. Most public bodies would have considered striking the offending remarks from the minutes before approval and would have ensured that any apology was placed prominently on the front page of the website. That is doubly true when that body has appointed a politician as Clerk and when the Code of Conduct specifically warns against a close personal relationship between a Clerk and the Chairman. (It is difficult to imagine a closer relationship than marriage). The original minutes remain unaltered, still contain the claim and still form part of the public record. The correction in the Comet was placed on an inside page.
At roughly the same time, Mr Ritchie publicly claimed, in council minutes that witness statements had been “struck out” of employment proceedings and he would seek costs from staff as a consequence. The council decided to pursue its course on the basis of his report. A vigilant member of the council demanded that the actual Order be circulated to all members. The Order was duly circulated and showed there was no such ruling. The first HELP member resigned. The local newspaper nevertheless carried a report based on information given by Mr Ritchie. The minutes remain uncorrected.
Mr Mantle resigned as Clerk following his successful election to NHDC in May 2012, acknowledging a conflict of interest. He has been replaced (almost inevitably) by his wife. We submit he should have resigned from the post when he decided to become a candidate.
Councillors serving in the first term gained “Quality Town Council Status”. As required by that designation, they published regular newsletters informing the electorate of activities. These have all been deleted from the website, as have all annual reports of the active council. Documents have been tampered with. There is no guidance on the website as to what the public has a right to see, contrary to requirements. The public therefore cannot easily access these reports and they are not even informed of their existence.
When wrongful and misleading claims are made on a “dot.gov” website run by a public body it is a serious matter. People are entitled to be able to place reliance on the truth of information put out by a public body, especially when that body is aware that claims may influence whether that body should be disposed of or not. We submit the scale, nature and tone of claims made by the HELP organisation on the official town council website are unheard of from a public body. They are made to mislead the public and colour public views. They are duly recorded prominently by the press. They invalidate any true consultation. Please note that we fully accept that HELP may of course publish what they wish on their own website. A website run by a public body is a different matter. HELP and the council are not one and the same.
It is clear that the 2009 election showed a significant increase in support for retention of the town council. In the period between the poll and the election, the town council received the resource requested from NHDC and commenced its community programme. As envisaged in the Ministerial Guidance, support for continuation of the council rapidly climbed, increasing during a very short period by almost 30%.
The second term of the council expires in May 2013. Elections should be held at that time. The increased powers given to local councils since 2009 will undoubtedly attract more neighbourhood representatives wishing to serve on a council.
This community governance review is therefore premature and has the effect of removing the council before the end of its second term. The Council has not even been in existence for two terms nor has it had sufficient time to demonstrate its value to local life. It certainly cannot be said that opposition to a working council has been sustained over two terms. Nor can the opposition be said to be “informed”. If anything it has been misinformed. Abolition is an extremely rare conclusion.
In 2009 no political parties stood for election. That will not be the case in 2013. New powers have been granted to town councils, renewing interest from parties as well as community activists. Councillors from major political parties on NHDC who represent Letchworth have already expressed their misgivings at the decision to hold a review at this time.
Most of the objections centre on cost of a council. NHDC have not however made clear whether it will revert to raising “Letchworth Special Expenses” after abolition, as it did before the town council was created.
Nevertheless we are convinced that NHDC will attempt to abolish the council - ahead of elections -because there is no realistic prospect of a HELP-run administration being returned for a second term. NHDC should allow elections to go ahead and should attempt to work creatively with other bodies in the town so that Letchworth benefits. HELP should fight that election on its record. If they win again, then so be it. We remain concerned that NHDC decided to undertake this review at a time, when it declared it did not have the resources available to create an urgently needed economic development officer post to assist local businesses. We recognise that backbench members of NHDC have already said that they feel excluded from decision making and have publicly set out their concerns about communications within NHDC. We call on them to rise above petty disputes, to act properly and to ensure that the one body capable of holding NHDC to account is not removed from the democratic process and to ensure that elections are held in May 2013.
It is extremely regrettable that an important debate about governance in Letchworth has been coloured and trivialised by personal antagonism. We recognise that HELP disagree with local people over a number of local issues. We regret they cannot accept that other people may disagree with them but still be “rational”.
We recognize that Letchworth has moved on. The Heritage Foundation has changed its Chief Executive and shows real commitment to working with the town council and others for the good of Letchworth. There is an opportunity for a renewed political structure in Letchworth capable of transforming the Garden City and restoring it to its former glory.
HELP is attempting to set the Heritage Foundation against the town council, but the Foundation is modernising itself into a responsive organisation committed to improvement. The Foundation itself bears no antagonism towards a town council now.
HELP, on the other hand, is a group whose time has passed. If the Letchworth public do vote to scrap their council, NHDC must recognise it is against the background of the performance of these latest incumbents. Instead of proper debate about how Letchworth should be governed in the future, the HELP group have concentrated on trying repeatedly (for the past 3 years) to bring former town councillors and the town council into disrepute for political purposes, using public money to do so. They have failed. Despite promises to the High Court to do nothing to prevent elections in May 2013, we believe they sought this review so that they can avoid giving the public the opportunity to comment on their performance. They seek to deny the electorate important opportunities now available to other towns arising from new legislation.
We fully recognise that elections in May 2013 may very well return a group of councillors who do not represent our (varied) points of view or that of HELP. That is democracy. It is not right to attempt to scrap a council because you do not like a particular group of people.
HELP have misled the public time and time again and their own supporters criticise them. They have cheapened democratic debate by personal antagonism. Their behaviour brings local government into disrepute and should not be rewarded. NHDC should support and encourage its newest parish council.
Finally, we return to the submission that the government has set out clearly that it is extremely unusual, to say the least, to scrap a council and has provided legislation that guarantees that any town with over 1000 people will be able to reinstate local democratically elected control after a two year period. This provision shows it is only to be expected that there will be temporary dips in popularity experienced by all democratically elected structures. That is why, presumably, they expect an informed opposition to be sustained over a longer period and demonstrated over at least two elections. They have decided, rightly, that this is so important (to quote the guidance “it is nothing less than removal of a tier of government”) that in future it should be the High Court and not Ministers who review a district council decision to abolish. The burden therefore falls on NHDC to demonstrate that it has conducted itself properly. Abolition of Letchworth town council should not be an option at this very early stage in its life. NHDC should attempt to improve engagement with local communities by genuinely empowering them and listening to their concerns and should try to work with other structures on an equal basis. It should certainly not give in to any temptation to abuse its dominant position. It is time for a change of approach in NHDC.