By Councillor Dave Wilson / Latest News / 0 Comments

Labour councillors called an ’emergency’ council meeting this evening on the future of the bin service following an alarming rise in complaints since the council brought back the service in February. As promised the Conservatives boycotting the meeting leaving elected councillors and members of the public unable to ask questions about the service.

Cllr Dave Wilson, Leader of the Labour Group made the following statement after the meeting was deemed ‘inquorate’.

It is disgraceful that the Conservatives have decided not to attend tonight’s formal Council meeting.

Their claimed reasons for not doing so are spurious. They are a dereliction of Councillor’s civic duty to attend, and a deliberate ploy to avoid being answerable for the results of their decisions. This issue is no longer about refuse collection – although that still desperately needs to be improved – but is about Councillors’ accountability. The Tories’ contempt for the views of residents is clear: they don’t want to answer their questions, and they won’t accept on-the-record discussion. 

Not only is this unacceptable, but it calls into question how they can be trusted to wield additional powers under the new Executive Cabinet system which they seem determined to impose. Put simply: if they flatly refuse to be subject to questioning under the committee system, what chance is there of them accepting any challenge under a Cabinet system which hides their decision making from public view?  No-one can have any confidence at all in the assurances offered by their Leader, Cllr Fitter-Harding, on how the Tories would behave if they were given enhanced executive powers if they are prepared to go to such extreme lengths as boycotting a Council meeting.

In short, they have shown themselves to be wholly unfit to lead this Council, resorting to name calling and baseless slurs while refusing to go on the record about their performance. The residents of the District deserve better than this from their elected representatives.

The Tories have claimed that the meeting is “a waste of time and money”. Labour councillors offered to pay for the costs of the Hall hire, which the Chief Executive declined because, he said, The meeting will have been called in accordance with the constitution, and [Labour councillors] have the right to do that.” In any case, the Tories have overseen a series of failed investments requiring borrowing of £200 million and resulting annual interest payments of £5 million, so they are hardly in a position to censure anyone about wasting public money.

They have said that the performance information we are seeking will be made available at the November Communities Committee. That will be 9 months after the launch of the Canenco service. The Tories say they want to run the Council as a business, but what business waits 9 months to assess the performance of a new subsidiary?

The Leader says the service is “going from strength to strength”. Leaving aside that he has no evidence for this, what evidence there is contradicts his claim. Since the beginning of February (when the service began):

  • The Chief Executive has provided 21 weekly updates to Councillor about Canenco. 11 of those have been predominantly about problems and delays with refuse collection
  • The Council has made 14 posts on Facebook, 9 of which have concerned delays and service failures
  • The Council Leader accepted at the July 15th Council meeting that there were sufficient performance concerns to require the establishment of a Councillor Working Group to oversee service improvements – something he has since failed to make happen
  • He also promised at that meeting that performance data would be made available “in the autumn – another promise which looks set to be broken
  • The Council Leader has personally intervened to try to intercept resident’s complaints
  • In the Gazette of 29th July, he responded to multiple complaints from residents and Councillors by saying that there had been teething problems but “we will do better”
  • In the edition of 9th September, he said “there are still some issues, and some of the recurring ones have proved difficult to remedy”.

There is therefore ample evidence to justify Labour’s concerns and none whatever to support the claim that the service is doing well. 

By Councillor Dave Wilson / Environment / 0 Comments

It’s clear that the awarding body, UNESCO, is becoming more active in protecting key sites. Not only have we seen Liverpool waterfront stripped of its status, but now Stonehenge. Of all places, is threatened. If it can happen to Stonehenge, we can’t take Canterbury’s status for granted. We need to be active in protecting it, because of how crucial it is to our tourism (both domestic and international) and hence to our ability to recover from the economic crisis caused by Covid and Brexit.

The problem we face is common: the need for development conflicts with the need to protect the heritage site. And the fact that we have three distinct components within the UNESCO designated “property” makes this much more difficult. The protected site is not just the Cathedral, as some people might imagine, but also the historically linked ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and the still very much active St Martin’s Church. The integrity of the three together is critical to maintaining the UNESCO status.

That’s why there has been such an outcry about the intrusive and unsightly air conditioning units which have been plonked unceremoniously on the top of Canterbury Christ Church university’s new medical block.

But this isn’t the only threat. There’s increasing pressure from property developers working within the City walls to build higher, to give them views of the Cathedral. But of course, views work both ways.  

There are other problems. Like all the UK’s heritage, Canterbury’s is seriously underfunded. St Augustine’s is exposed to the weather, as well as being immediately adjacent to both the King’s School and CCCU site, with the latter obviously developing its buildings. Like our City walls, heritage requires constant maintenance which is hugely expensive.

There are two bodies charged with looking after the UNESCO site here. One of them, the canterbury Heritage Design Forum, has within the last year been stripped of its right to directly refer planning applications which it is concerned about to the City Council’s Planning committee. That’s an important erosion of its ability to defend the World Heritage site and surroundings.

The World Heritage Site Management Plan Committee includes CHDF, but it’s not entirely clear who else is on it or whether it is at all active. The latest management plan for the site which I could find dates from 2002. The world has changed a bit since then. Who is actively defending our World Heritage status?

Imagine the negative effect on all this of the Government’s proposed relaxation (they would say, simplification) of Planning laws. Without the Council having the legal right to define and protect the site, can we really be confident that our heritage, let alone its global recognition, is something we can be sure of?

By Councillor Dave Wilson / Latest News / 0 Comments

Our Council is so strapped for cash that earlier this year it decided to take £28,000 worth of free parking away from Blue Badge holders. Despite that, the ruling Tory Group has just forced through a change in its decision-making process which could cost up to £250,000.

That’s an awful lot of money to spend when you don’t have any in the first place. Especially so when it’s going to be spent on changing something that most people felt was working perfectly well. So there has to be a good reason to do it, doesn’t there?

 To which the answer is: no-one knows. The Council Leader, Ben Fitter-Harding, has been repeatedly asked why he has imposed this change. He has produced no evidence that a problem exists, relying on a mere assertion that change will result in more efficient and effective Council. He has produced no evidence of what problems he believes are hampering efficient working. And of course, as a result, he is utterly unable to provide any evidence that the change he proposes is the best solution.

You may wonder whether this vacuum of rationality is because the sole aim of the proposed solution is to give him and a few of his supporters much more power.

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All this has been done in the guise of providing strong leadership. But Cllr Fitter-Harding exhibits none of the characteristics of a genuinely strong leader. He can’t abide differing points of view, even within his own Party. He has systematically shut down the Forums for public debate. He has abolished Councillor working groups on key issues. He has allowed the   Regeneration committee to be cancelled 3 times in five meeting cycles, at a time when “build back better” is so important for our District. Time after time he has shied away from presenting his arguments to the public and from any questioning by Labour and Liberal Democrat Councillors. Now, he’s even refusing to allow anyone even to have a say on whether to change the decision-making system or keep what we have: the change is simply going to happen.

Despite saying initially that he wanted to have cross-Party working, he has forced through every policy, not only with without making concessions to other views but often without even justifying his own position. These are the actions of a weak leader, unable to muster any argument beyond “I have already decided” and then use crude weight of numbers to force through his whims.

We agree, of course, that if there is genuine scope for improvement in the way our Council runs then we should consider it. But the way to do that is through analysis and consensus. Opposition Councillors represent 65% of the voters of the District. We also have skills and experience which could help to develop better ways of working. Instead of forcing through this power grab, a confident leader would have discussed with us how best to address whatever problems might exist. Instead, we have the imposition of a prejudged decision which removes meaningful scrutiny of decisions not only from the opposition Councillors, but from at least 14 of the Conservatives as well.

This is not democracy. Worse, it’s a disservice to our residents. Whatever the Tories claim the merits of a Leader and Cabinet system might be – and thus far they have given absolutely no clues – it is a behind-closed-doors decision making process. Local Government must be open and accessible to residents. Its decisions must be proven in the public forum and subject to accountability by the public.

A Cabinet system fails both these requirements. It presumes that a small number of Councillors, selected on the whim of the Leader and with no proven skills and experience in the areas they will oversee, are more capable of managing public services worth upwards of £175 million a year than the professional officers who have years of training, qualification and experience behind them. This is utter nonsense. Worse, it suggests that Councillors who (wrongly in my view) are complaining they have no control over the services the Council delivers are suddenly going to be able to improve matters. If they were capable of that they’d already have done it. Their failure is not the result of the system, but of their own shortcomings. And no change of system is going to remedy that.

Our residents deserve better than this.