If you thought Handforth Council was bad, let me introduce you to Honiton. In the last three years, two successive town clerks and 17 councillors have resigned. Two council employees were more or less driven out of their jobs. £75,000 was wasted on staffing issues, and employment tribunals are pending. A barrage of complaints was sent to the Monitoring Officer, with a hearing due in March. £88,000 was spent on legal fees with no result, so a total of £163,000 of taxpayers’ money has gone down the drain.
Voters were so disgusted by this catalogue of failure that a non-political organisation, Honiton Forward, was formed to bring pressure to bear on the council. It gathered 600 signatures on a petition calling for all councillors to resign, so that an election could be held to form a new council.
The petition was presented in a volatile council meeting last March, attended by 60 members of the public. The vote on the motion was split 50:50 between the reformers on the council and those who had been largely responsible for its disastrous policies. The Mayor, chief instigator of the policies, cast his vote against the petition. All the reformers subsequently resigned, leaving a rump of just seven active members.
Honiton Forward launched a second petition calling on East Devon District Council (EDDC) to undertake a Governance Review of the council. This device is used for forming new councils or where ward boundaries have been changed, making it necessary to hold fresh elections. It has never (yet) been used to remove an existing council. Over 1400 signatures were obtained from the electorate – well over the 10 per cent required. The petition was presented to EDDC in December. We await its outcome.
However, change could come as soon as May, when by-elections will be held to fill the ten vacancies on the council caused by a spate of resignations last year. If Honiton Forward can field ten candidates and win all the seats, they will have a majority to bring about vital reform.
The history of the mess in Honiton goes back to 2012, when the council voted by 12 votes to 3 to build The Beehive, a new community and arts centre. This facility was something the town had desperately needed. The building opened in 2014, providing Honiton with a cinema, theatre, live music venue and a centre for many local organisations. With an annual footfall of 60,000, it has been a great success and was voted Devon Community Centre of The Year for 2017.
You would think the council would be pleased that this major project was going so well, and would do all it could to ensure continuing success, but you would be wrong.
There was a split on two big issues: first, an overspend on the build of almost £100,000 meant the council had to increase its mortgage on the building to plug the gap; and secondly, the council decided to operate The Beehive by leasing most of the building to a charity set up by the council for that purpose.
A faction on the council, led by the current mayor, strongly opposed leasing to a charity as the council would have no control, and this same faction also argued the overspend should be reclaimed from the architects of The Beehive who had overseen the build. Following resignations of six Beehive-supporting councillors, the ‘anti-Beehive’ faction became the dominant force and began disputes against the architects and against the charity, which led to legal action. Conflicts arose with council members and council staff, with accusations of bullying, resignations of councillors and the resignation of a Town Clerk.
So incensed were users of The Beehive that a council meeting attracted over 150 townspeople demanding that the council come to an agreement with the charity out of court.
Several issues with the way councils operate have become painfully apparent over the years of this sorry saga.
Because councils are sovereign bodies, there is no way to hold a council to account save through the election cycle. But if there is no election, what then? In the council elections in East Devon in May 2019, 67 wards out of 84 were uncontested, including the two Honiton Wards. No election meant no change.
Shockingly, there is zero redress for the ratepayers if the council wastes their money. Honiton council has blown £88,000 on two failed legal disputes, and wasted another £75,000 on issues caused by staff suffering work-related stress and having to take sick leave. No councillor has resigned, no councillor has apologised, and no one is held to account for this huge waste of money.
There is a growing recognition that councils do not reflect the diversity of the populations they serve. Six of the seven remaining active councillors in Honiton are retired, three first joined the council 12 years ago and one has been a member for over 30 years. Yet, nine of the ten members who resigned last year were in their 30s, 40s or 50s with full-time jobs, and took their relative youth, energy and ideas with them.
So what is to be done? There needs to be some means of holding a council to account, perhaps through a Council Ombudsman to whom the public can appeal if the council loses the confidence of the electorate. There should also be some external oversight of potential legal disputes to assess the risk to public money.
Most voters have little idea of who their councillors are or what they do. This makes an election where a voter has to choose, say, nine from a list of 16 candidates, simply a lottery; good candidates are not elected whilst poor ones are.
Candidates for council elections should be required to publish their manifestos on the council website, so the public have at least some idea who they are voting for. Once elected, councillors should also be required to report back to the public on a regular basis, say bi-monthly, on their council work, and to justify their decisions. Councillors should also be limited to two or three terms, and steps taken to help councils reflect the diversity of their communities. Honiton will have the added challenge of overcoming the damage done by this unhappy and very public spat.
Local councils have an important role in the local community, but their work is largely unknown and unappreciated. They can provide a stepping-stone into public decision-making for aspiring politicians, and an opportunity for retired people to bring their experience to bear. But they are also open to an abuse of power, and it is time to look at how they operate and find ways to improve transparency, scrutiny and accountability.