Gavin Maclure's Musings

My take on politics locally, nationally and internationally


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Ipswich Borough Full Council Meeting: 29th January 2014

Last Wednesday’s Full Council may well be the last I attend for quite sometime as I am moving out of the area so I thought I’d make an effort to witness the political shenanigans one last time.

I won’t give a verbatim report, as now you can watch and listen to the entire meeting of the councillors who bothered to turn up (the Mayor’s apology list was nearly as long as the attendance list!) courtesy of the Ipswich Spy parish (scroll down for video).

Even with the apologies from all parties, Labour still rule the roost in Ipswich with three long rows occupied by the socialists with the Liberal Democrats (all two of them!) and the Conservative Group shuffled off to the far side of the room. It will only get worse come the May local elections when, as I have predicted before, there will be another bloodbath of the blues. Thankfully, it will be the high water mark for Labour but the Tories will be out of power for up to 20 years (and that’s no exaggeration).

Council Questions covered a broad range of subjects and were kicked off by local Tory blogger, Kevin Algar, who asked questions on tourism and facilitating social media reporting. It was somewhat amusing to hear Mr Algar ask what the council were doing to facilitate filming of public meetings, whilst Ipswich Spy‘s Ben Redsell was filming to his right hand side. A case of being a bit late to the party!

Mr Algar also encouraged the ruling Labour group to have Ipswich Borough Council meetings in Suffolk County Council’s head office because it is set up for webcasting. Rightly, Labour leader Cllr Ellesmere slapped him down and pointed out Ipswich Borough should have their meetings in their Council chamber in the magnificent Town Hall not a corporate office block.

The questions on tourism from Kevin Algar were typically not answered by Labour’s Economic Development chief Cllr Carole Jones. She has a perfect ability to just waffle a reply to any question which – if you can hear her rather grating and whining voice at all – are couched in local government speak to the point of incomprehension. 

For some reason only known to Cllr Kym Stroet, he asked a question to Labour’s culture spokesman Cllr Bryony Rudkin which managed to reignite the Broomhill Pool row. “Does the portfolio holder believe that spending £1 million on a lido, likely to be used by very few people, is a wise use of taxpayers money?”, Cllr Stroet posed. This caused an uproar of heckling from the public gallery. Now, I’m not in a favour of any public money being given to starting up an outside pool business, which very few people want to pay to use, but there are a lot of people in North West Ipswich who are exercised by the Broomhill Pool nostalgia – and most of them vote in seats the Tories are trying to win or hold on to! Baffling.

Labour’s housing chief from the 1970s and also in the year 2014, Cllr John Mowles, was asked a question by former Tory group leader Cllr John Carnall about the decision by the Council to knock two homes together to house an unemployed couple and their (now) thirteen children and why he didn’t listen to the 84 petitioners who were against the move at a cost which is now almost three times the original budget. “I have no intention of discussing this and I am surprised this was raised and it disappointments me and demoralises councillors when such a question is asked – it should not be aired in public!”, Cllr Mowles replied. What on earth is he talking about? The council is spending a large chunk of taxpayer’s money commensurate with the Borough Council’s relatively small budget and Cllr Mowles has the audacity to say it is an issue which should not be raised in public. This smacks of Labour not wanting to discuss a subject they are ideologically influenced by and was boosted by Cllr Sandy Martin saying during the Council Rent Increase report later in the meeting he would prefer to see everybody in Ipswich live in a council house! Well, if he is that keen on living in a council-owned property, why doesn’t he move down the road from his privately rented cottage on Milton Street to the Priory Heath estate?

As was decided at last week’s Executive meeting (the real power-base of the Council), Full Council on Wednesday was asked to rubber-stamp a 5.5% increase in council house rent. Several Tory councillors asked how this policy ties in with Labour nationally always bleating on about the “cost of living crisis” – no answer did cometh from Cllr Mowles or Labour leader Cllr Ellesmere except to say they were “only following Government guidelines”. Conservative Cllr Carnall retorted the only reason rents were going up was to fund the new Council home building programme done to bolster Cllr Ellesmere’s Labour parliamentary campaign. There’s more than a grain of truth in that statement!

Later in the same meeting, there was a report discussing business rates and the Government’s plan to let Councils keep most of the money raised (before the Coalition came to power, all of the business rates were sent to Whitehall for re-distribution into Labour heartlands). Supposedly, there has been a few issues with the paperwork and Grafton House mandarins haven’t been able file their documentation to Whitehall yet.

The Labour group naturally blamed central Government and Cllr Ellesmere used the opportunity to let the Council know he was still waiting for Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles, to tell him the council tax increase percentage threshold at which the Borough must ask permission of residents in a referendum – no doubt so he can lower it by 0.0.1% and then that will be this year’s council tax increase in Ipswich! Just for the record, Government guidelines stipulate council tax should be frozen but it seems the Labour-run council are ignoring the guidelines when it suits them.

There was an interesting report from Labour’s rising-star and Borough communities chief, Cllr Adam Leeder, where he told the meeting Area Committees were receiving new powers, mainly to do with being able to spend their budget as they see fit rather than always deferring back to the Executive. The points of interest weren’t in the detail of the report but in the debate amongst councillors. Cllr Sandy Martin made the most pertinent point when he told the meeting just one Area Committee represents a greater population size than any parish or town council in the rest of Suffolk, but still Conservative-run Suffolk County Council were not engaging with Ipswich’s Area Committees despite actively engaging with a Parish council in Lavenham or Bury St Edmunds Town Council. You just need to look at Suffolk County Council’s ‘Find your County Councillor’ site, where Ipswich is relegated to a ‘Parish’ to see the point!

This is one of the most powerful arguments for Ipswich being a Unitary Authority. Ipswich Borough Council has very little power, apart from planning application matters. All the roads, verges and any changes to traffic flow in the town are in the hands of Suffolk County Council; earlier in the meeting, Liberal Democrat Cllr Inga Lockington raised the condition of grass verges in the estates of Ipswich since the County Council took away the Highway Authority from Ipswich (meaning no decisions on anything to do with transport are now taken by the Borough Council) and low and behold it is nigh on impossible to get a verge repaired in Ipswich because it is like trying to climb Mount Everest to get it in the hands of a bureaucrat at Endeavour House, who has the whole of Suffolk to look after. Additionally, all the local authority schools are run from Endeavour House and as Cllr Martin made patently clear, the corporate structure at the County Council doesn’t even recognise the main conduit of communication between the electorate and their councillors. It is as if Ipswich is East Germany behind a modern day Berlin Wall, out of sight of County leader Mark Bee and his Cabinet in the “West”.

Despite Labour’s Cllr Martin articulating the raw deal Ipswich receives from Suffolk County Council, it was pointed out by Cllr Carnall that Ipswich has 11 Labour county councillors compared to just the one Tory in the Borough and perhaps they should get on with lobbying the County Council on behalf of Ipswich and its residents.

Another notable aspect of the Council meeting on Wednesday were the number of people in attendance to ask and support questions on the proposed Northern Fringe development. Questions on sewerage, traffic congestion and the New Homes Bonus were asked – all with an anti-development slant. Both Labour and the Conservatives (who cares what the Liberals think!) are in favour of building houses on the northern outskirts of Ipswich’s borough boundary; it was the Tories who approved it in the Local Development Framework when they were in power before 2011 and Labour are naturally in favour of upping the number of social houses built. So it really has become now a Town versus Country issue. As soon as the Council Questions were over, there was a mass exodus of rich baby boomers and their flat caps as they traipsed back to the 4X4s and their pretty villages. God forbid Ipswich will have more houses for their children to live in!

And this was the main thrust of the meeting, all two hours of it filmed below for your infotainment. Next time, Ipswich Spy won’t have to beg the Grafton House mandarins for permission, as the right for public meetings to be filmed by bloggers and the mainstream media is now enshrined in law, courtesy of Eric Pickles’ Local Audit and Accountability Bill which obtained Royal Assent the next day.


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Ipswich Borough Council Executive filmed for the first time

These are the people who run Ipswich and it is the first time (I’m aware of) they have been filmed, outside of the stage-managed arena of the Full Council meeting at the Town Hall, in the power base that is the Executive Committee.

It is the Executive (also known as Cabinet at some local authorities) where the crucial decisions affecting Ipswich residents and businesses are made. Even the Council Tax is set at Executive and only rubber-stamped at Full Council when the ruling party has a majority – which the Labour Party certainly do, having 21 more councillors than their nearest Tory rivals.

I congratulate Ben Redsell over at the Ipswich Spy parish for spending a large amount of time getting to the point where he could film the Executive Committee last night. Grafton House mandarins have been reluctant to comply with the Local Government Secretary of State’s advice (soon to become Law) to Councils to allow filming, tweeting and reporting at all local authority public meeting, but with persistence Mr Redsell was able to overcome these obstacles with some caveats. Officers were not filmed – a whole bank of them – probably more than the number of councillors present are sitting to the right of the Executive Chairman and Council leader, Cllr David Ellesmere. In local government, councillors are paid an allowance not a wage and certainly not enough money to make it a full time job (if they want to eat and pay rent/a mortgage that is) so the Officers wield much more commensurate power (with many decisions delegated to them to save on councillor time) than civil servants have in Whitehall –  making a case for senior officers to be filmed as they direct proceedings. Ipswich Spy – whilst filming is in its infancy – have, rightly, taken the decision not to antagonise the powers-that-be by filming the Chief Executive and his Directors.

Ipswich Spy  is also taking full responsibility for data protection, which would not be the case if they were just filming say the external architecture of the beautiful Town Hall on the Cornhill – another public place just like the Orwell Room at Grafton House was during the Executive Committee’s meeting. That’s a discussion for another time but you can gauge how difficult it was for Ipswich Spy to film last night and they should be congratulated for their public service.

The decisions made at this Executive meeting were to increase council housing rents and approve funds (details excluded from the public) for the Holywells Park renovations, amongst other items. The full Agenda can be read here.


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Socialist Ipswich bans blogger from recording public meeting

Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson being arrested for trying to film Carmarthenshire County council public meeting - soon local authorities will be forced by law to drop the Stasi-like tactics to keep decisions secret

Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson being arrested for trying to film Carmarthenshire County council public meeting – soon local authorities will be forced by law to drop the Stasi-like tactics to keep decisions secret

Despite the Government of the day and the Labour Party in Westminster consistently telling local government to stop blocking bloggers and citizen journalists from reporting on public meetings, local councils are continuing to act like Soviets in the former USSR. And last night Ipswich Borough Council refused permission for local blogger Ipswich Spy to film the Executive Committee’s public meeting where the ruling Labour Party make key decisions affecting the town’s residents and businesses.

Ipswich now joins the ranks of councils in Carmarthenshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in continuing to ignore the Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles, call for local authorities to allow the recording and reporting on all public meetings. 

The Conservative-led Government has had enough of councils acting like tinpot dictators when it comes to promoting transparent democracy and have decided to legislate to force local authorities like Ipswich Borough Council to open their public meetings to reporting by all electronic communication means: blogs, Twitter, sound recording and filming.

The Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which has now completed all its stages in the House of Commons and House of Lords, will include a law to enshrine a blogger’s – or any member of the public for that matter – right to tweet, sound record and film the proceedings in town halls in England. The Bill will receive Royal Assent early next year.

As Ipswich Spy pointed out in their post yesterday, the Executive Committee of Ipswich Borough Council is the power committee: all key decisions are made here. Please do not be fooled that the council meetings at the Town Hall have any real significance – they are mainly a show council meeting to go through the motions of democracy. The Labour leadership ensure anything of real importance, such as spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayer money on a new ICT platform and council housing contracts, are taken at the Executive Committee within a secure office meeting room – as was the case last night.

Grafton House mandarins spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to stop Ipswich Spy from filming key decision making at the Executive Committee. Soon they will have to grant permission swiftly.

Ipswich Spy contacted Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis MP to inform him of Ipswich Borough Council’s decision last night to refuse permission to film a public meeting. Mr Lewis responded by saying: “We finished the third reading of the new Bill today so it will soon be law. Councils should be encouraging openness. Good ones do.”


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New law could see councils forced to allow webcasting

Is the day which sets bloggers free to fully report on local councils coming to an end?

Is the day which sets bloggers free to fully report on local councils coming to an end? Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson was arrested in February for filming her local council meeting

As regular readers will know I have been campaigning through my blog, along with Ben Redsell of the Ipswich Spy parishto persuade the Executive committee at Ipswich Borough Council to enhance democracy in local government and start webcasting their six-weekly meeting of all 48 councillors and key committees such as Planning and Overview & Scrutiny.

Cllr Martin Cook

Luddite or just anti-democracy? – Labour Councillor Martin Cook

In February this year, I took my campaign in person to the Town Hall and exercised my democratic right as a resident of Ipswich to ask a Council Question to the councillor responsible for IT, Cllr Martin Cook (and fellow employee of technology giant, BT). I asked Cllr Cook if the Borough Council would follow the lead of other English councils and start webcasting their public meetings. Unfortunately, and in a obscure roundabout way, Cllr Cook refused.

Despite the rebuttal I and fellow bloggers haven’t gone away. We are not campaigning to enhance our readership figures or ‘play with’ technologies.  We are campaigning for local government decisions to be made open and transparent to benefit the democratic process in this town. Up and down the land, including in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, bloggers have been refused permission even to tweet council meeting proceedings and at Carmarthenshire County Council when local blogger Jacqui Thompson tried to film a public council meeting, the Council called the police and had Mrs Thompson arrested. Anyone would think we were in East Germany or the People’s Republic of China based on the behaviour of local government officials.

But now local council mandarins are being brought to book. The Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles MP, is bringing forward a law to enshrine a blogger’s – or any member of the public for that matter – right to tweet, record and report the proceedings in town halls in England. Unfortunately, the law will not have jurisdiction in the devolved assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so our fellow blogger in Carmarthenshire may have to lobby her Welsh assembly politicians a bit more on this one.

The news laws will be part of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is set to be debated by MPs in the House of Commons on Monday 28th October, having completed its Lords stages. You can follow it’s passage through parliament on the UK Parliament website.

It is not acceptable for councillors to close their doors on the people who have elected them and effectively take decisions on their behalf with no reporting by the media. Only last month at the Town Hall meeting of councillors in Ipswich, no one from the mainstream media turned up to the meeting. The only reporters were bloggers who are unpaid volunteers providing a free public service because of their commitment and passion for local democracy. During the meeting, three Conservative councillors walked out of the meeting in protest at how the ruling Labour administration were answering the public’s questions. This is a very serious matter – as it goes to the heart of how the democratic process is conducted in Suffolk’s county town –  but the local newspaper – the Ipswich Star – took almost a week to report this story. It was reported within minutes by the bloggers in attendance.

The introduction of webcasting would have ensured the decisions taken or public points swiped away by the ruling Executive were known to the taxpayers and electors of Ipswich in real-time. In Westminster we rightly have televised proceeding of all House of Commons debates and Committees (no one is asking for that in local government) but webcasting is a proven technology and relatively cheap to implement and will go a long way to closing the gap between voter and councillor in local government. Many decisions taken at Ipswich Borough Council actually have a greater impact on the day-to-day lives of Ipswich residents and businesses than those taken in Westminster, which may not have an effect on the town and in many cases have a very long lead time before implementation.

I would ask Ipswich Borough Council’s ruling Labour Party to look again at their decision to refuse webcasting of their Full Council meetings (in the first instance) before Parliament forces their analogue hand into our digital world.