www.counterbalance.org.uk

 

fylde counterbalance logo

search counterbalance

plain text / printout version of this article

countering the spin and providing the balance


 

Lytham: St John's Ward By-Election?

Lytham: St Johns Ward By-electionThis is a puzzling story with the potential to divide opinion amongst our readers. It concerns the hugely popular Councillor Mark Bamforth who was elected as the Councillor for St Johns Ward in March 2014, but who is about to be removed as a councillor - in effect - because of a medical condition he suffers (although the technical reason is a failure to attend meetings of the Council).

Our own take on the matter is at the end of the article.

SYNOPSIS:

As usual, we begin with a look at the Background, then we have a brief look at the Roles of a councillor. Next we look at Cllr Bamforth's circumstances and The Council's circumstances and in particular its documentation such as 'Working With Councillors With Disabilities' and Fylde's 'Handbook for Newly Elected Councillors' Then we look at 'Fylde's Constitution and the Law'

We then ask 'What do others say about such circumstances' before arriving at some 'Conclusions, and finally, giving Our own take on the matter.

 BACKGROUND.

Cllr Bamforth first entered Fylde Council before the Millennium - at the same time as Cllrs Roger Lloyd and Tim Ashton. He was very popular and well supported because his family is well known in Lytham where, until recently, he ran the post office on Warton Street

He's a very straightforward, practical, and down to earth chap. No policy follower and no strategy wonk. He worked tirelessly to solve the problems and concerns his residents took to him.

But he had an episode of ill health, after which he withdrew from the Council for a time.

However, after the also popular Ratepayer Cllr Kath Harper died, a by-election was called in 2104 and Mr Bamforth stood as a Ratepayer candidate.

As we reported in 'Lytham St Johns By-Election Result' he won the election by a massive majority, polling twice as many votes as all the other candidates combined....

  1. Mark Bamforth (Ratepayer) 804
  2. Brenda Blackshaw (Conservative) 205
  3. Timothy Wood ( UK Independence Party) 100
  4. Carol Gilligan (Liberal Democrat) 62
  5. Bob Dennett (Green Party Stop Fracking Now) 53

We said at the time "He's the sort of chap who sets out his stall and gets organised with the minimum of fuss. An unceremonial, practical man who makes things happen, and we wish him well representing the people of St John's Ward."

We also said "...this result will be an enormous shock for Fylde's Conservatives. They will no doubt rationalise it on Cllr Bamforth's personal popularity. But it is nevertheless a stunning moment for them."

Now he is being 'fired' as a councillor - not by those who elected him, but by a technical and miserably hard-hearted implementation of the law.

 THE ROLES OF A COUNCILLOR

Fylde Council's own guide to being a councillor says:

 "The basic role of all Councillors who are elected by the community is to represent and champion the interests of local people, businesses and the community as a whole."

It also says "As well as the basic role described above, it is likely that you will attend meetings or take responsibility for certain key local decisions in your role as councillor. Borough councillors may serve on specific committees such as Cabinet, Development Control, Scrutiny, Licensing panels etc..."

From our own experience of councils, there are several aspects to being a councillor.

The least 'sexy' of these is the one known as 'casework.' This is the hard slog of trying to help those of your electorate who come to you with a problem by trying to sort it out for them.

Most Liberal Democrat councillors are well known for their forte in this field - and are known generally (if somewhat disparagingly by those who might look on this role with some disdain) as 'pavement politicians'.

The Fylde Ratepayer Party is likewise close to its people and driven by their needs. It would not be an exaggeration to say Cllr Bamforth would be at the extreme end of this approach in his willingness to take on casework for his constituents.

At the opposite end are those who have a good grasp of, and revel in, policy formulation. These are the 'control freak' mould of Councillors who expend their efforts into setting the broad overall 'rules' that they expect other councillors to follow. They expect - and prize - consistency of decision making (sometimes irrespective of the impact of that policy on individual electors).

In our view, the better councillors ignore these policy rules and operate from basic humanity, rather than adopting a one size fits all 'follow the policy' approach.

Cllr Bamforth is undoubtedly one of the latter.

What matters to him is people and their problems.

Another aspect of being a councillor is the mustering of support for things you want to achieve by persuading other councillors of the rightness of your case and getting them to support things you want to propose in Council or in Committee.

Unfortunately at Fylde, this aspect of being a councillor is almost completely nullified by the block voting of the Conservative majority.

We have known them deny the existence of whipped decisions and of block voting of course - usually by asserting it is simply that they have all come to the same conclusions individually at the same time - because they are the right conclusions.  "Yeah, right" (as one of our readers would frequently say).

But, (as former Conservative Cllr Barbara Pagett found out when she was disciplined by her own party for voting against the party line) the Conservative party rule book that threatens sanctions for individuals who vote against the party line (with expulsion from the party as the ultimate punishment), and which restricts an individual Conservative councillor's ability to even abstain in a vote, is the ultimate behavioural arbiter.

This brings us to the view that it is almost impossible at Fylde for any group of councillors to outvote the Conservative group (who have an overall majority). So the most that can be done in meetings is to expose, and hold to account, those with whom you disagree.

Whilst this remains a valuable and important function in Councils where party dogma rules over common sense, the value and importance of participation in such meetings is lessened when you cannot directly affect the outcome.

This is why we say party politics should have no place in decisions made by local councillors, and why we deprecate those who see themselves as politicians rather than local councillors.

 COUNCILLOR BAMFORTH'S CIRCUMSTANCES

The condition that Cllr Bamforth developed, and which caused him to leave the Council years ago, is not a physical impairment, and to be honest we don't know enough about it to offer much of an opinion ourselves. We do know it is medically diagnosed, and it concerns agoraphobia.

According to the NHS, many people (us included up to now) assume that agoraphobia is simply a fear of open spaces, but the NHS say it's actually a more complex condition. It results from panic disorder which can be triggered by a traumatic event such as bereavement. Someone with agoraphobia may be scared of for example, travelling on public transport or visiting a shopping centre, or even leaving home.

The NHS also say that if someone with agoraphobia finds themselves in a stressful situation, they'll usually experience the symptoms of a panic attack, such as: rapid heartbeat; rapid breathing (hyperventilating); feeling hot and sweaty, and or feeling sick.

Again, according to the NHS, 20 people in 1000 have panic disorder and it is thought around a third will go on to develop agoraphobia.

There are various approaches to treatment, ranging from lifestyle changes through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to medication that is usually connected with the regulation of serotonin levels found in those with depression. It is essentially a mental illness.

Around a third of people with agoraphobia eventually achieve a complete cure and remain free from symptoms. Around half experience an improvement in symptoms, but they may have periods when their symptoms become more troublesome – for example, if they feel stressed. And despite treatment, about one in five people with agoraphobia continue to experience troublesome symptoms.

Cllr Bamforth suffers from agoraphobia, and it mostly manifests itself with him as an inability to remain comfortable in gatherings of people.

As a consequence, he finds it somewhere between difficult and impossible to attend Council and Committee meetings in person.

We know he is being treated for his condition, and that it varies in intensity.

But the issue causing the problem in this matter is really about the extent to which Fylde Council should make allowances or exceptions for his illness.

 THE COUNCIL'S CIRCUMSTANCES

We first had a look at what FBC had published about this sort of thing.

 WORKING WITH COUNCILLORS WITH DISABILITIES

Fylde say the last meeting Cllr Bamforth attended was on 11th April 2016. And on 22 July of the same year, (that would be three months into what was to become the six month period preceding his exclusion) the Council prepared a document called 'Working with Councillors with Disabilities'

We couldn't find any committee approval or adoption of this policy.

That's not to say it wasn't approved by a committee, just that we couldn't find it after we had quite a good look with both Google and Fylde's own internal search engine. They only turned up the policy, not a Committee agenda showing how it came into being.

So its status is unclear to us. It may be that the officer class at Fylde think they have the authority to produce and implement policies such as this without reference to the people we elect to become the committees that carry out the Council's functions and take decisions.

If that were to be the case, we disagree fundamentally. In our view the wording of all policies need to be decided by the Council.

But either way, the opening paragraph says:

'Elected councillors are at the heart of the local authority. They set the strategy and direction of the council, take the most important decisions and lead and guide the organisation. Councillors do much of their work with individuals and bodies in their communities. However, it is also important for them to take part in council and committee meetings, where policies and priorities can be debated, discussed and decided.'

We find that opening paragraph extraordinary.

Unless you were laying the ground for its future use, we struggle to see why on earth the last sentence in that paragraph is such an important issue.

Historically, non-attendance for 6 months is virtually a 'non-issue' at Fylde - and we would find its inclusion in that first paragraph very worrying if it was specifically included with intent for future 'disciplinary' use.

It goes on to say:

'This policy on members with disabilities sets out the arrangements that are in place to assist with the particular needs of councillors who have a disability.'

That too is a puzzle to us because it suggests it was written by someone whose perspective implies there are a fixed set of arrangements that can be made for those with a disability, rather than treating such folk as individuals and trying to accommodate their needs.

Furthermore, we know that councils such as Fylde have a particularly onerous responsibility when it comes to advancing the cause of equality.

Because FBC is a public body, the council is, exceptionally, subject to the 'Public Sector Equality Duty' which, amongst other things '....includes the duty to have regard, in exercising its functions, to the need to advance equality of opportunity between people who are disabled and those who are not. Among other things, this involves encouraging people who are disabled to participate in public life.'

So under the present situation, Fylde has a greater responsibility that most organisations to be a leading light, to be a beacon, for demonstrating equality of opportunity between people who are disabled and those who are not.

Another paragraph in Fylde's 'Working with Councillors with Disabilities' says:

'When a candidate puts in nomination papers to stand for election, we will ask them to briefly indicate whether they have a disability and, if they do, the nature of the disability. This will help us to start thinking early about the adjustments that might need to be put in place if they are disabled and are elected.

We will meet with each newly-elected councillor individually during the induction process following their election. For a disabled councillor, this will include exploring in detail with them what particular arrangements and facilities they might need to help them in their new role.'

So superficially at least, with that as an aim, we wonder why more was not done to address and accommodate Cllr Bamforth's needs. We detect a cultural dichotomy between the early and later paragraphs of this document.

 FYLDE'S HANDBOOK FOR NEWLY ELECTED MEMBERS.

Another of Fylde's publications is their 'Handbook For Newly Elected Members.'

Although this appears to be primarily intended to address the relationship between councillors and employees, it quotes from the 'Disability Discrimination Act 1996' saying:

‘No employee or prospective employee should receive unfair or unlawful treatment due to race, colour, ethnic or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, marital status or religious or political beliefs. ’The DDA covers the disability issues in respect of access to services not just employment."

We understand Fylde has indicated to Cllr Bamforth that because he is not an 'employee' of the council various aspects of the legislation do not apply to his situation.

But that last sentence addressing 'access to services not just employment' seems to us to widen FBC's remit beyond employees.

 FYLDE'S CONSTITUTION AND THE LAW

Then we looked at the latest version of Fylde's Constitution - and far as we can see, it is silent in the matter, except to the extent that it requires compliance with the law.

And this is the root source of the problem.

THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACT 1972 – Section 85 says:

85 VACATION OF OFFICE BY FAILURE TO ATTEND MEETINGS.

(1) Subject to subsections (2) and (3) below, if a member of a local authority fails throughout a period of six consecutive months from the date of his last attendance to attend any meeting of the authority, he shall, unless the failure was due to some reason approved by the authority before the expiry of that period, cease to be a member of the authority.

(2) Attendance as a member at a meeting of any committee or sub-committee of the authority, or at a meeting of any joint committee, joint board or other body by whom for the time being any of the functions of the authority are being discharged, or who were appointed to advise the authority on any matter relating to the discharge of their functions, and attendance as representative of the authority at a meeting of any body of persons, shall be deemed for the purposes of subsection (1) above to be attendance at a meeting of the authority.

(3) is about special arrangements for members of the armed forces who have to be away on forces duties.

This section, of course, is a provision originally intended to address the situation where, for one reason or another, a councillor simply 'gives up' and decides they don't want to do it any more, but they won't formally resign.

HOWEVER, as the law is written, unless a councillor has prior approval not to attend, they do cease to be a Councillor.

And that's what's happening to Cllr Mark Bamforth. 

If it is the case that acquiescence in his previous non-attendance for periods that did not exceed six months cannot be construed as 'prior approval' then the Council is undoubtedly within the letter of the law when it seeks to claim its pound of flesh from Cllr Bamforth.

He is angry that his constituents are being deprived of a member who works (in our view, exceptionally) hard on their behalf. (We've heard stories from inside the Council about the frequency with which he contacts the council on matters for his constituents. It's said to be far more than any other Councillor).

And whilst he accepts that he has not attended meetings within the six month period because of his medical condition, he also believes that FBC - who have known about his condition for a long time - have not treated him fairly because they have not made sufficient adaption and arrangements to accommodate his disability.

It is not disputed that FBC has made some accommodations. They have tried.

But the question in this matter becomes whether they have tried hard enough - whether what they *have* felt able to do ought to have been sufficient to allow him to attend the meetings.

Even without such attendance, in our view he has (arguably more than) fulfilled what FBC themselves describe as his basic role as a councillor - in supporting his electorate.

So there are two issues really. First whether FBC was overly heavy-handed in going straight to the letter of the law without exercising enough humanity, and secondly whether the accommodations they proposed for his disability were sufficient.

And it's that latter point where the water gets really murky.

 WHAT DO OTHERS SAY ABOUT SUCH CIRCUMSTANCES

Well, as you would expect, the organisations associated with disability and equality are not likely to be rushing to award Fylde five stars for the what they have done about this matter.

Our own understanding of the Equalities Act suggests a council has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to deal with a someone who has a disability.

Defining what are 'reasonable adjustments' and thus whether the law has been complied with by Fylde's behaviour, we will have to leave to lawyers to argue out.

Sadly, we understand that if it has not become so already, it may eventually come to this anyway.

But what about the Council's side of things?

Well, the Local Government Association (that's the 'trade body' for local councils) published a guide called 'Finding your way' (with the subtext of 'A Guide For New Councillors 2013/14')

Section 4 of that guide is called 'Support for Councillors' and the paragraph heading 'Accessing information' includes the following:

'Increasingly, council papers are provided electronically rather than in paper form, to give councillors rapid access to information and to cut down on the mountains of paper that councils traditionally produce. Many councils have good teleconferencing facilities that allow you to attend meetings remotely, or they may allow you to join meetings via telephone or Skype.'

This seemed like it could be a solution to us, so we looked into it a bit more.

From what we can see, the law requires a councillor to 'attend' at least one 'meeting' every six months. It does not specify that such attendance has to be in person.

That would seem to permit the use of teleconferencing and even more simple forms of attendance via, for example, Skype.

Fylde used to publish webcasts of their meetings, but stopped when the Committee system was introduced.

They thus have some experience of webcasting technology and might  even be able to deploy to a much wider audience if they implemented live webcasting of all their meetings (as Lancashire County Council has done for many years now) and Cllr Bamforth was able to 'attend' in that way (and perhaps even participate by telephone) as the LGA suggest.

We found an example of this sort of approach being used when Broxtowe Council's Leader became the first councillor on that council to participate in a council meeting via Skype on 18th October 2016 when a Cabinet meeting was held.

It seems he was attending a meeting in London and could not return to Nottinghamshire in time for him to attend the Cabinet meeting, but he and the Council arranged for a Skype link to be set up, and he not only attended the meeting, but participated in it remotely.

However, he could not take part in the vote because (as in common in councils) voting has not caught up with the digital age and, as with most councils (including Broxtowe), you have to be present in the room to vote.

However, he did 'attend' the meeting, (which is what the law requires for Cllr Bamforth).

The law does not (and, of course, should not) *require* you to vote.

We recognise that Skype arrangement was for the convenience for the Broxtowe councillor concerned, not because of a disability, but we see no difference in the principle, and we wonder why, especially in view of the regard in which he is held by his electorate, Fylde would not be prepared to do the same sort of thing for Cllr Bamforth.

 CONCLUSIONS

We understand Cllr Bamforth had made senior officers of the Council aware of the problems caused by his agoraphobia and he has asked for the ability to participate by some form of video link, (such as Skype) because, depending on his variable medical situation, he is, at times, unable to physically attend meetings.

We know Fylde's officers were aware of his problems well before last April (when the counting of the six months began), but we are not clear whether the request for the video link participation was before or after his six months of non attendance.

By it's not offering this adaption, Cllr Bamforth thinks the Council has discriminated against him in contravention of the Equality Act 2010.

He has asked for the six month rule not to be implemented and the Council to put a mechanism in place that will enable him to participate in meetings and overcome his disability and continue to serve the many people who voted for him and who continue to support him.

But the Council is playing hardball, and disregarding this request in relation to his removal as a Councillor (possibly because it may have been made after the expiry of the six months)

The Council meeting on Monday 5th December 2016 has a terse report from Fylde's Chief Executive which says:

'Under the Local Government Act 1972, Councillor Mark Bamforth has automatically ceased to be a councillor because of non-attendance of meetings. The council is required to declare his office to be vacant so that a by-election can take place.

1.The Chief Executive reports that Councillor Mark Bamforth, St John’s Ward, has not attended any meetings of the Borough Council, Committee or Sub-Committee nor any other meeting as a representative of the Borough Council since 11th April 2016.

2. Section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972 provides that if a member fails to attend any such meeting for a period of six months, he ceases to be a member of the authority unless a reason for non-attendance has been approved by the Council before the expiry of the period. The Council must then declare the seat to be vacant. The six months expired on 11th October 2016.

3. The Chief Executive has written to Councillor Bamforth informing him of the situation and inviting him to comment on the accuracy of the information in paragraph 1.

4. In the absence of any contrary information from Councillor Bamforth, the Borough Council is asked to declare the seat to be vacant. The by-election to fill the vacancy (the term of office for which expires in May 2019) must be held within 35 days of the declaration of the vacancy on a date fixed by the Returning Officer.'

The meeting on Monday will determine the position. We expect the Conservative majority to declare the seat vacant, and that will force a by-election.

 OUR OWN TAKE ON THE MATTER

We said earlier that we saw two issues here, hard heartedness; and whether sufficient adaption had been offered and made to overcome Cllr Bamforth's disability.

It is undoubtedly correct that a version of The Merchant of Venice is in play here.

Someone wants their pound of flesh and Cllr Bamforth removed.

It's not clear exactly who that is, but for all our disagreements with what we regard as his overly informal style and socially liberal approach to running the Council, we struggle to believe that the Chief Executive is the source of the driving force behind this move to oust Cllr Bamforth.

Yes, he is the one that is implementing the legislation in a cold and hard-hearted way, but we suspect the push for him to do so is a party-political move on the part of Conservative group at Fylde.

From our experience of watching him at work, we think it is simply not the CE's style to approach such a problem in this way, and he appears to us to be being driven to this action, unable to resist the pressure being applied to him.

The Conservatives are a hard-hearted bunch when it comes to party politics. We have seen historically how they have destroyed long careers of those on their own side when they have deselected their own sitting councillors - especially those from County Councillor positions (Cllr Walton and Cllr Jealous to name but two).

That hard-heartedness and lack of humanity is also in evidence at Fylde today. We hear they have recently de-selected County Councillor Fabian Craig-Wilson for the County Elections next year, and will replace her as a candidate for those elections with The Brigadier.

So when they are prepared to do that to their own supporters, it should not be a surprise that they would be equally or more hard hearted to what they see as 'the opposition'.

We also think the timing of aspects of this matter are worth considering.

The inclusion of the (to us) curiously worded sentence "....However, it is also important for them to take part in council and committee meetings, where policies and priorities can be debated, discussed and decided.' in the opening paragraph of Fylde's 'Working with Councillors with Disabilities' publication that was produced three months into the six month period, suggests to us it was done with the intent at that time of being able to refer to it retrospectively as though it was some sort of gospel on the matter.

We also note there has been no humanitarian leeway in the six month period by, for example, being proactive and offering an 'approval exemption'.

It might also not be a co-incidence that the timing of this move is destined to produce a by-election in early January when everyone is pre-occupied with getting back to work after the Christmas break and other such matters, and less likely to vote in a by-election.

So it feels to us that this move has come about as what we consider to be a  blatantly party-political attempt to oust a non-Conservative councillor and increase the chances of a Conservative councillor being elected following a big push from party members in the lead up to a by-election.

That's only our view of course, but it is what it feels like to us.

As a result, we feel pretty confident that Cllr Bamforth will cease to be a Councillor on Monday evening when his seat is 'declared vacant'

We do know Cllr Bamforth has attended some meetings at Fylde because we recall seeing him at meetings on those occasions when his condition has been less bad, (we think it was three times in 2015/16) so it is not a blanket problem, and we are surprised that Fylde's officers have allowed the inhumanity of the approach being adopted to hold sway given their 'Public Sector Equality Duty' status as a public body.

So this now brings us to what might happen after the declaration of such a vacancy, and we see two possibilities

The first would be some sort of legal challenge brought either by Cllr Bamforth himself, or by an organisation on his behalf.

The other would be to see if he stands for re-election as a Councillor in the by-election that would follow the decision.

To be honest, we hope he does. He is the epitome of a straightforward, practical, councillor who works for the good of all the people who elected him, and from whom he is likely to receive strong support.

Although his style will undoubtedly not fit comfortably within the policy-driven direction in which Fylde is moving, he is our sort of councillor, and we would vote for him without hesitation.

We think it would be a fitting end to this matter if he were to be re-elected by those he has helped, and those who know about his concern for his constituents.

It would be even more fitting if he were elected with an even greater majority than before, and the Council made the adaptions necessary for him to perform the role his electorate want him to do.

Given the current public rejection of the hard-hearted technocratic and policy-driven approach (as evidenced by Brexit, Trump and others) we could easily envisage such a result for him.

It might also serve remind those who thrive in their rarefied atmosphere of cold party politics that the fundamental purpose of a Councillor is not to oppress their constituents, but to help and support them.

We're put in mind of a quote made in 2008 by (the then) Mr - but later Conservative Cllr - Tim Armit, who wrote about the closure of St Annes Swimming Pool saying

"What is a council for? Think back to our small villages choosing the elders to look after them, to represent them, to ensure all that the village needed was in place. When did Fylde borough change from being the people's representative and enabler to, in most people's opinion, the enemy? The people stopping things happening, the people damaging the very town we want them to represent? Is this right? Is this what a council should be? "

We think his quote neatly sums up much that is wrong with the present version of Conservative controlled Fylde Council today. Its morals and ethics now seem to run no further than its wallet or party advantage.

It is withdrawing from providing public services and moving to deliver individually chargeable ones- and it is also using that opportunity to generate additional taxes through higher charges for those that remain. It indulges in asset disposals that sell off the family silver, and it implements new charges for things we're already paying for.

The excessive Green Bin Subscription charges, and the recently proposed Fixed Penalty Notice Fines proposed for use with the new Dog Control Orders are just two of the most recent examples of this direction.

It used to be that a Council stood on high moral ground.

But today, that ground is so far above the present Council's stance that it must now be all but invisible to them.

We'll bring readers more on the situation with Cllr Bamforth when we have it.

Dated:  1 December 2016

 


info@counterbalance.org.uk

To be notified when a new article is published, please email 
notify@counterbalance.org.uk