Saturday, 30 November 2013

Kidsgrove Town Council - A Snapshot Personal View

 As I'm interested in local democracy, I wonder about democratic structures.  I live in Stoke-on-Trent which is run by a unitary council and I wonder whether more layers, such as parish/town councils, may be useful in getting democracy closer to the grass roots.  At a Democracy4Stoke meeting, one member suggested a visit to Kidsgrove Town Council might be interesting.  So whilst this wasn't my idea, on a relevant Thursday evening when my more exciting plans didn't pan out, I decided at short notice to turn up to a meeting.

I attended the Kidsgrove Town Council full council meeting on 21st November 2013 as an observer.  Two of us attended as members of the public, myself and a student doing a piece of practical journalism.  Unfortunately I had no agenda as none seem to be published and I was not given one.  It does not seem that recent minutes have been published on the web either.

The following is a purely personal account and just picks out some key points, rather than being comprehensive, based on my own impressions and opinions from observing that one meeting. Whilst I try my best to report any actual facts accurately, I do apologise if I get anything wrong or misquote anyone and stand to be corrected if that is the case.  I concentrate heavily on my impressions as an outsider though.

In the chair was Mayor Kyle Robinson, with another councillor on his left and town clerk Jill Waring on his right.  13 other councillors were present.

Personnel Buildings & Services Committee

This committee had produced a document requiring full council approval.  Cllr Waring raised a concern that actions had been taken by the mayor prior to council approval that Cllr Waring believed Newcastle Borough Council had told the meeting that it needed.  There was a suggestion that this may even be illegal.  Cllr Locke said discussion was difficult because of confidentiality.  Cllr Stringer and Cllr Bailey seemed to be keen to avoid delay but Cllr Waring proposed deferring approval of the document because related items had been deferred, there were 4 votes for and 8 votes against deferral.  Cllr Turner then proposed accepting the document, which was passed by 8 votes for and 3 against.

Allotments Committee

It appeared that there had been problems for years with people getting into the allotments and causing damage.  Apparently the sort of pigeons kept by pigeon fanciers can cost £1500 so the death of one can be costly.  Razor wire is not allowed and it was thought neither is barbed wire.  Cllr Jukes suggested the same fencing as used at the health centre which he guessed was £8-12 per metre, but Cllr Stringer said there had been a quote of £53,500 for a fence! I think I heard someone else say that up to £3,000 can be applied for from the police and crime commissioner for allotment security.  There appeared to be some tension between Cllr Stringer and Mayor Robinson.


The tension between Cllr Stringer and Mayor Robinson became much more apparent in a discussion on committees.  A vote was required to agree committee membership but Cllr Stringer objected to being deselected.  It transpired, as far as I can gather from the discussion, that Cllr Stringer had resigned as leader of the Labour group but not from the finance and general purposes committee and objected to Labour deselecting him because he does not attend their meetings.  It seemed Labour wanted to replace him with Cllr Bates who Cllr Stringer said had originally turned it down.  Cllr Stringer said he was "fed up, absolutely fed up" - and that is a direct quote.  He objected to Mayor Robinson smiling in a smug way.  As the public seats were to the side of the mayor's table I was not in a position to observe the mayor, but I could see Cllr Stringer and he seemed to feel genuinely aggrieved, did indeed look fed up and even a little bit furious!  The item was deferred in order for the mayor to obtain clarification.

Planning Applications

There was more unity on this item, but apparent conflict between Kidsgrove  Town Council and Newcastle Borough Council.  The main discussion was on an application by the Turners to build a house at 20 The Avenue, which had been lodged in 2008 but had been refused by Newcastle Borough Council for reasons involving trees.  Despite a new light survey which had passed tests and neighbour support, the application had been refused again and there seemed now to be a lack of communication and a meeting had been refused.  The Turners had asked for Kidsgrove Town Councillors to support their appeal.  Cllr Locke declared an interest as he had written a letter of support when he was a Staffordshire County Councillor.  He said he thought someone at Newcastle Borough Council got it wrong originally and doesn't want to admit this.  Other councillors were generally supportive and thought that at least the applicants should be getting replies and that Newcastle Borough Council should be asked to sort it out!

Dangerous Road

A councillor, Cllr John Parsons I think, said he was nearly killed and thinks someone will be killed if nothing is done, because of trucks travelling at speed using Jamage Road to access the A34. He asked for a letter to be written to businesses asking them to use Oak Tree Lane instead. Councillors agreed that Jill Waring, the town clerk, would write to Staffordshire County Council asking for a weight limit on Jamage Road.

Victoria Hall Decorating

The Victoria Hall is the Kidsgrove Town Council Building and it seems it requires some renovation. There seemed to be an awful lot of silliness with this item.  From an outsider's point of view I got the impression that Jill Waring, the town clerk, had been at a meeting about this some time ago but had left early and is now being excluded from meetings and information. Newcastle Borough Council was reported to have cancelled meetings or not invited Jill Waring.  Cllr Bates seemed to have a key involvement in meetings.  Cllr Waring and Cllr Stringer pressed Mayor Robinson to say whether he had been in meetings about the decoration without the clerk there and asked why?  Eventually Mayor Robinson admitted that he had met with Cllr Bates and an officer from Newcastle Borough Council about the decorating. Jill Waring said that an officer from Newcastle Borough Council had been told to give the information to Cllr Bates.  The crazy thing is that Victoria Hall is heavily used by the public and Jill Waring did not have the information to give to the public as to when the hall will be closed for decorating! Councillors agreed that they should write to Newcastle Borough Council requesting that Jill Waring be told the decorating plans.

Victoria Hall Ownership

This is an issue that had seemed to have dragged on for years and the town clerk was concerned about the length of time communications with Staffordshire County Council are taking.  Cllr Waring moved that the £500 land registry cost be paid as this is crucial to ownership, this was passed.  There were moves to get the land next to the Victoria Hall to belong to Kidsgrove.  Questions solicitors were asking included some about rights of way.  As a Stone Ramblers committee member myself I am interested in such things.  Ordnance Survey getamap provides a good method to look at footpaths etc. The nearest public footpath runs beside Kids Wood, but there is a cycle route, route 5 and part of Stoke-on-Trent City Council cycle ride 8 which passes just behind Victoria Hall.  In fact I'm leading a Stone Ramblers walk there on January 16th, but may divert down Liverpool Road so we can take a look at Victoria Hall.  Anyway, I've digressed.

Office Security and Use of Office Equipment

The meeting ended for members of the public as this item was to be discussed in a private session.  This led me to speculate whether all and sundry might have been getting in and using office equipment for purposes beyond the legitimate, but of course I make no such allegation as I know no facts because I wasn't allowed to stay for this discussion!  I thanked the mayor and left.

My Conclusions

I did find it interesting to observe this meeting and I thank the clerk, mayor and councillors for accommodating me.  

Prior to this I had reasonably positive views of the idea in principle of town and parish councils as a mechanism to bring recognised democracy closer to the grass routes.  I have to say that this meeting has influenced my views away from supporting town councils because of the unfortunate level to which party politics seems to pervade and interfere with proceedings, particularly Labour party in-fighting which I find frequently and universally tiresome.  I don't mind the idea of a little extra tax levy to enable  better local decisions at town council level but wouldn't like it just providing a further platform for the Labour party to indulge its childish antics. 

I was also concerned about conflicts and barriers between the different levels of council; town, borough and county, where I would hope for more cooperation.  Even at the cynical old age of 54, it seems my ideals are still too far removed from practical reality.  I wonder what the young student observer thought?

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