Chairman's Annual Report by Cllr Nina Shields
LEDBURY TOWN COUNCIL – ANNUAL TOWN MEETING 28.4.19
Chairman’s Report, April 2019
What a year! The aftermath of the Judicial Review was enough of a challenge. I didn’t expect to find the administration of the Council in quite such a badly managed state.
Firstly the Judicial Review. Where do I start? The first thing was taking some advice from the police in June. I was relieved to be assured that we were dealing with incompetence. The alternative of a criminal case / Misconduct in Public Office would have been an even bigger challenge. We have a duty of care and needed to ensure that we were not negligent on the one hand by failing to try to recover costs, but not defamatory in any way on the other hand in pursuing this course of action in a way that would bring claims from any individuals. The start was a review of the files.
First problem – no files. Some say that they must have been deliberately destroyed. There was no evidence of this other than we couldn’t find them. No hard copies, no electronic copies. Short sighted, if they had been destroyed. All we had to do was ask the solicitors acting for the Council at the time to provide copies of everything. This they did.
Full Council decided we should initially do as much as possible within the office to keep costs down. Thankfully we had a legally trained administrator with us on a temporary basis. She prepared the papers for us in a format that could go straight to the solicitors/QC giving a thorough overview of the case. The solicitor recommended getting a QC to review the case. Once he agreed to take it on, we sent over the complete files.
Reading the paperwork was sobering. I found it hard not to start thinking that Cllr Harvey had been set up. Sadly, that would have been easy to do. Even the judge described her behaviour as ‘robust’. For some, that would easily be seen as aggressive.
From the paperwork it looks like procedures were made up as they went along meaning that no proper procedures were followed. There’s no evidence that any thought was given to the basic principles of natural justice. No effort was made to resolve things but then, although described as an ‘employment issue’ no HR advice was taken. Our QC appeared quite surprised at the poor level advice provided in the early stages. I would strongly recommend that the new Council does not continue the subscription to Herefordshire Association of Local Councils. There are insufficient grounds to claim against this organisation because the Council went on to take further advice from solicitors and barristers. However, HALC’s involvement appears to have made matters worse.
The next shock for me was finding that the then Council had gone to so many different solicitors and barristers to seek advice. They had been advised very early on by a barrister that they were acting beyond their powers, did not have a case and if they proceeded would land up in a Judicial Review. Of course, everyone is entitled to a second opinion. It seems that the Council sought ever more expensive advice until they found a QC who advised that there was a 75% chance of winning the case. The judge found this opinion to be wrong but there is no legal redress for this.
I say ‘the Council’, but from the records, it appears that there were only a few Councillors pursuing this. They appeared to believe they had delegated authority. This is far from clear although the ‘watering down’ of the Standing Orders and the Finance Regulations no doubt made it easier to do.
Not surprisingly, the solicitors who advised the then Council could not act for us in the case review. They would have been conflicted. We approached a solicitor in Hereford with appropriate experience. I stressed the need to contain costs and explained we would need to agree the budget every step of the way. Every piece of work had to be priced and agreed before we would proceed. Full Council were given a breakdown at each stage and then voted on the expenditure.
Our solicitor advised us to request a case review by Queen’s Counsel to see if there were grounds for any claim against any organisation or individual. The wording was to ensure that no possibility for a claim was ruled out by our approach. We were fortunate that Richard Clayton had followed the case and was able to keep costs to a minimum. Full Council agreed to a total budget for solicitor’s and QC’s fees of £8000.
As has already been made public, there are insufficient grounds to make any claim with any likelihood of recovering costs. Full Council has accepted Richard Clayton’s advice.
When a problem goes ‘up the line’ in any way to find a solution, there is often dissatisfaction all around with the outcome. I don’t think either ‘side’ is happy with this outcome. Both ‘sides’ seem to think that the others ‘got away’ with something. My own view is that everyone has been a loser in this in some way.
What we have got though is the application of law – not the same as Justice. The concept of justice depends on so many things – beliefs, values, context. But the law is the law. What the former Councillors did was outside the law, but there is no law against their incompetence, or the wrong advice of their QC.
I very much hope that the new Council will draw a line under this. Otherwise it will be like a festering sore that will waste energy and continue to do damage. Our solicitor has advised that to spend any more money on this will raise issues about the Council’s duty of care.
Moving on, the major shock for me back last May, was the woeful state of things in the office. Everything from the management of contracts to the maintenance and operation of policies and procedures was in a staggeringly poor state. There had not even been a hand over on the financial side and the record keeping there was complicated beyond all reason. Grievances had not been dealt with, health and safety issues had been ignored or at best overlooked. The filing systems were in a mess. It suggested years of mismanagement and it was hard to know where to start, especially with no Clerk or Deputy Clerk.
I approached Herefordshire Association of Local Councils for some temporary help with Clerk duties. I suppose I should not have been surprised that this was declined. Looking back, I suspect that they had ‘put the word out’ around quite a wide network, that we were not to be given any help. There were definitely rumours going around that ‘the old guard’ were waiting for us to fail. If that was so, they didn’t know me - I do like rising to a challenge.
I soon discovered that Tracey, then an Admin Officer, had been holding things together for some time. We were very quickly on the same wave length. She had her‘finger on the pulse’ of the problems arising day to day, and I had years of experience in problem solving. I can only say that I would have walked away after a couple of weeks if it hadn’t been for Tracey. She more than deserved her promotion to Deputy Clerk and has been proving her worth ever since.
We needed to get the committee structure working more effectively. Everything took so long. Looking back, I get the overall picture that in the past, if something was difficult, it just got postponed from meeting to meeting – this could take years. (I’m sure Cllr Hopkins will confirm this with reference to the War Memorial.) My reaction was to increase the number of meetings to cope with the work. I think I can probably claim the record for holding the most meetings in a year. This has been a strain but it has meant that we have got to grips with most of the work that had been allowed to slip.
I won’t detail all the things we have had to rescue and put right – although I will confirm that we have brought both Standing Orders and Finance Regulations back to the national standards, and that we have reviewed contracts and updated them. We have also contracted with an HR consultant so that we have employment advice ‘on tap’. But apart from that, I’ll leave the Committee Chairman to give you some of the detail. I’m sad that we didn’t get as far as setting business objectives but we have made huge progress, and I had to leave some challenges for the new Council.
On the civic side, I am sure I have done less than previous post holders – purely on the basis of time. My diary was already busy. My aim was to try to attend events where it was important that Ledbury be represented. Acting as an ambassador, gave me the chance to rebuild relationships across the county and demonstrate that Ledbury Town Council is ‘open for business’ again.
I’ve been encouraged by the reaction we’ve got from the organisations we work with, particularly the officers at Herefordshire Council. They are not always going to agree with us, but I have to say, they have been so helpful. Their reaction can be summed up by the following feedback: ‘Talking to you is like a breath of fresh air’.
People have told me that Herefordshire Council ‘hate’ us. Really? How come then that they have been so helpful? Could it say something about the way they used to be treated? After all, behaviour breeds behaviour. And what about the £2.5 million they gave the town to restore the Master’s House? That’s an odd sort of ‘hate’. I would like to record my thanks for all the help various officers have given us.
Another heartening piece of feedback is:‘I’ve had more sense out of you in the last five minutes than I’ve had from the council in the last five years’.
It’s amazing what progress you can make when you listen and try to understand the problem that is being presented to you – and we have made a huge amount of progress. This will make it much easier for the new Council and I’m sad that only 10 candidates came forward for election. They are all ‘elected uncontested’ and the new Council will have to consider holding a by election or co-opting, to fill the eight remaining vacancies. For anyone who wants to make a difference, this is an extremely good time to join the Council.
I can’t finish without talking about the office team. They have been short staffed all year. The plan was to recruit a new Town Clerk before recruiting for other vacancies. This was something of a challenge given that Ledbury had gained a bad reputation nationally in the world of local councils. We needed time to demonstrate that things have changed.
My heartfelt thanks go to Tracey Smith our Deputy Clerk, for all her hard work and help, particularly in the beginning when we both wondered what we had taken on. I also want to record my thanks and appreciation to Mel ab Owain for trying to do our full time Clerk’s job in three days a week. His advice has been invaluable. Thanks too to Gwlym Rippon who has Clerked our Full Council meetings and kept me out of trouble with potential breaches of procedure.
I am delighted to say that we are nearly back up to strength. Angie Price has now joined us as Town Clerk. Just before joining us she kindly came over to carry out interviews with Tracey for an Admin Officer. We have Olivia joining us next week. Having worked with us on a temporary basis since Christmas, Hannah has joined us on a permanent basis as Receptionist. And Terry is now our Groundsman. I think the town now has a cracking team in place.
On a more public front, I have very much appreciated all the residents who have come up to me to say thank you for the work I have done this year. I know that many would have liked me to stand for Council again and I thank them for their confidence in me, but I need a break.
And finally some words for our new Council. I wish you every success. You know there’s no need for aggression. You’ve proved how much progress we can make without it. Discussing different views and the pros and cons of issues gives the opportunity to make better decisions. I hope you choose a new Chairman who has good chairing skills. If not, please consider some training, for them and the new chairmen of committees. Acquiring new skills is not an admission of failure. And please value the team in the office. They are our ‘unsung heroes’ who quietly go about getting things done even when Councillors make requests without giving adequate information, or without understanding the competing pressures on the team’s time.
Chairman, Ledbury Town Council 2018-19