We Are The Residents’ Watchdogs – So Don’t Muzzle Us!

Jackie Dillnutt

Jackie Dillnutt

Back in May I was the surprise winner in the council elections in Rayleigh’s Sweyne Park Ward. Winning an election is an exciting and humbling experience knowing that people came out and bothered to vote for you and what you have to offer. Then you get your first pile of documents to read, and you get down to work …

Meeting with local residents is definitely the best part of the job. Whether they vote for you or not, people are generally very friendly and if you can sort out a local problem and make a difference for residents, then you get a sense of achievement.

I’ve learned that the Lib Dem group can be great ‘watchdogs’ for Rayleigh. My colleagues, especially Ron Oatham and Chris Black, fought such an effective campaign about housing figures for Rayleigh that the Conservative group have been forced to reduce the numbers from 1800 to 740. Ron and Chris achieved this by doing what the Lib Dems do best: listening to residents and representing their views forcibly and repeatedly.

I’ve learned that achieving things needs real persistence. You get sent on training courses to learn how to be an effective councillor – and then find that the council bureaucracy ties you down in ways you didn’t expect. If you can get through the bureaucracy you find that the majority of councillors (in our district that’s the Conservatives) are failing to reflect the wishes of the local communities they serve.

A big example of this is the Grange Community Centre. It’s been run successfully for 21 years by local volunteers. All in all they’ve done a great job and are providing a much needed and very well supported local amenity. But now the lease is up for renewal.

Council officers recommended that the council continued charging a rent of £100 per year, something I fully support. But suddenly the Conservative group are acting tough. They want the association to do a whole load more maintenance on the building – costing tens of thousands of pounds, and then negotiate a new rent next year. Figures of up to £4,000 have been suggested!

This is an issue that concerns me greatly. There’s no guarantee that if the association do all the work that the council wants, that the council will still lease the centre to them. There’s a big playing field around it, and the Conservative Group are talking about allowing 500 houses in this part of Rayleigh. Is someone thinking of letting the centre die so that the council can sell the land and cash in? Stranger things have happened.

The council has the power to appoint two councillors to be trustees for the association, so that they can keep a close eye on the association and report back. Now, the Lib Dems proposed the obvious persons – the two ward councillors, Conservative Cllr Mrs Joan Mockford and myself.

However the Conservative leadership decided that they wanted to keep me away from the association, and proposed a Tory councillor from another ward instead.

Now, there are 32 Conservative Councillors and only 5 Lib Dems. It’s pretty clear that when you are outnumbered 32-5 you are going to lose the vote. But we decided to force a vote anyway, and there was a bit of a surprise. The Conservatives only won by 13 votes to 8 , which was really embarrassing for them. A lot of ordinary Tory councillors clearly felt that this wasn’t how ward councillors of whatever party should be treated, and abstained. Two Tories – Carole Weston and James Cottis – actually voted with us as did the Hawkwell Councillor John Mason and I respect them for that.

Though I’m not a Council Trustee I’ll still keep in contact with the community association. However I think the actions of the Conservative group are an insult to the people who voted for me in May …

The biggest way that councillors are muzzled now is the new ‘cabinet system’. This means that most decisions are taken by a committee of nine Tory councillors. Ordinary councillors – whether they are ‘backbench’ Tories, Lib Dems or Independents can’t even speak at these meetings, can’t ask any questions or even point out mistakes in reports written about their own wards.

As an example, my colleagues Chris and June Lumley have been looking at the possibility of residents being allowed parking permits in certain roads where there are yellow lines to stop commuter parking. There’s a report just gone to the cabinet dealing with this, but the council haven’t asked Chris or June for their opinions and Chris has found some mistakes in the written report, which means that the cabinet could decide things on the basis of wrong information.

As I said, we are good watchdogs so we know how to be effective on these issues. If we are unhappy with the decisions being made at cabinet we will ‘refer up’ the matter so it can be decided at full council by all councillors – not just a few. We will continue to find out what residents think and keep them informed in person, via our ward newsletters and through our local website at www.onlinefocus.org. And local newspapers such as the Rayleigh Times are doing a good job telling people what’s going on as well!