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Monday Memories – The Work of a Councillor, Pt. 2

Stop press: I have updated my Publications page with a cover reveal and blurb for my forthcoming book.

As well as visiting schools, we were expected to make occasional visits to our local Police Station, and to council run childrens’ homes and old people’s homes around the county. And there were, inevitably, the things the general public regarded as “Jollies”, the national and international conferences and fact finding/lobbying trips undertaken at council expense.

There were two annual conferences for education authority members, the Northern conference in January and the National conference in July. There was a conference for European Regional Airports and Airlines (only one such during my term). This took place in Eindhoven. The Dutch international airline, KLM, took the opportunity to launch a regional subsidiary during the conference.

Attendees were taken by coach to the venue, where we were treated to a canapes and wine reception and each of the men were given a tie in the airline colours, emblazoned with its crest. I remember being affronted when we returned to the coach and a group of Labour members of a northern airport authority discovered a box of the ties on the back seat which they proceeded to share among themselves.

Businesses setting up, or increasing their investment, in the county, invited members of the authority to receptions, launches and factory tours. I have on my mantelpiece an example of Norwegian glass sculpture presented to me – and the other delegates who accompanied me – on a visit to the Norsk Hydro fertiliser factory.

A visit to a chicken hatchery and processing plant near Scunthorpe included the laboratory where we were informed that salmonella is endemic in chickens and were shown the steps taken to ensure it did not reach the food chain. I don’t know if one of my colleagues passed that information to Edwina Curry – she may have got it from an entirely different source – but it was only a few weeks later that she repeated the fact in Parliament thereby creating a brief cause celebre.

The council funded a number of community and voluntary organisations, among them Councils for Voluntary Service, Citizens’ Advice Bureaux and an organisation called Humberside Co-Operative Development Association. Council members were allocated seats on the boards of these organisations in order to ensure that they were properly managed and the funding used for its intended purpose.

Thus I found myself on the boards of the CVS and CAB serving Grimsby and Cleethorpes and also on the Hull based CDA. My contribution to the latter was appreciated to the extent that I was invited to remain on the board after I ceased to be a councillor. Its role was to assist social enterprises and worker owned small businesses with training and the accessing of grants, as well as offering advice on legal and financial matters affecting their business.

Whenever the full council met, four times a year, as well as debating again the more controversial of the issues already dealt with by the service committees, there was an opportunity for individual councillors to bring forward motions with the objective of changing some aspect of the council’s central policy.

Hebden Bridge – image from Wikipedia

As Liberal councillors, we were members of the Association of Liberal Councillors. The ALC was headquartered in a small office in the village of Hebden Bridge, close to the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire. For our small subscription we were able to receive artwork we could use in our newsletters and other literature that we distributed around the districts we represented. They also provided suggestions for motions to present to councils which, even if unsuccessful in influencing policy decisions, nevertheless gained publicity for the causes close to the hearts of Liberals.

One of these causes, one that had attracted me to the Liberals in the first place, was environmentalism. So when the ALDC suggested that Liberal councillors should attempt to persuade the councils of which they were members to incorporate in their purchasing policies an intention to purchase timber products only from sustainable forests, I welcomed the opportunity

On the morning of the day of the meeting we were informed that the motion was inadmissible because we were not permitted to discuss issues that were not directly relevant to the county. We were a long way from the rainforests, so protecting them was deemed irrelevant.

I vaguely knew that one of the problems arising from the destruction of rainforests was rising sea levels. Humberside was a coastal county, one, moreover, in which parts of the coast were already eroding, clay cliffs regularly falling into the sea. Spurn Point, an important nature reserve, was especially vunerable. Could we not at least have a debate around  the question of the subject’s relevance? The Chief Executive reluctantly agreed.

It was all very well having a vague idea about the connection between rainforests and sea levels, but if I was to present a convincing argument I needed some detailed background. Fortunately the debate was scheduled to take place after all the committee minutes had been debated, which meant late afternoon or early evening.

Beverley Library – image copyright Bernard Sharp / Beverley Road, Kingston upon Hull

I spent the lunch break in Beverley library where I found a book that explained the connection. In  brief, there is a great deal of water permanently bound up with the forests. Destroy the forest and that water has to go somewhere. Where it goes, eventually, is the ocean, causing the sea level to rise. A neat theory, but the oceans cover a vast area. How much forest do you have to destroy to add more than an inch or two to their level?

My argument was greeted with scorn from both sides, one member in particular muttering “Stuff and nonsense”. Some years later that particular member’s daughter would marry a certain David Cameron. In Autumn 2013, and again in Februry 2017, the spit of land connecting Spurn Head to the mainland was breached, turning Spurn Point into a tidal island.

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Monday Memories – Finding a Middle Way

County Hall in Beverley. Now East Yorkshire, but, in the 1980s, the home of Humberside County Council. George Robinson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

34 years on from my election to Humberside County Council, as one of four Liberals holding the balance of power, I cringe at my naivety. I recall being interviewed for the local TV. Asked what I hoped would be better about Humberside at the end of my four year term of office I struggled to come up with an answer and produced something pretty vague about giving people a bigger say in the decisions we took.

One certainty in politics is that everyone thinks they can do better than the current crop of politicians at all levels of government. That was certainly the belief I had on entering politics. It was not long before I came across a number of people who felt the same and found myself explaining that it is not as simple as it seems from what you read in the papers. Quite early on I invited a critic, someone who had written scathingly about the council in a letter to the Grimsby Telegraph, to accompany me on my next briefing session with the Director of Education so that he would have a better understanding of the kind of problems we had to grapple with. To his credit, that man wrote a second letter to the Grimsby Telegraph expressing his appreciation for what I had done.

We had access to the experience of Liberals on other councils where there was no party with an over all majority. These advised strongly that we should not seek alliances with either of the other two parties and this policy was endorsed nationally by the Liberal Party. We might be only 4 men, but together we represented about a quarter of all of the votes cast in the election; we had our own policy priorities, some of which were shared with Conservatives, some with Labour. We would need to consider each decision on its merits, not vote consistently with only one of the other parties.

This proved hard for the others to accept. They were used to a situation where the casting vote, if needed, was the Chairman’s – normally it would not be needed since each service committee would, like the council, have a majority of members from one party. For them this was a new and strange situation. We had to persuade the other parties that, for the next four years, committees would have equal numbers of Labour and Conservative members plus one Liberal; the committee’s chair person would not have a casting vote, the Liberal member would.

To begin with, Labour would not accept committee chairmanships on that basis, so we supported Conservative chairmen (they did not offer any women for these positions.) That lasted until the setting of the first annual budget early in 1986.

There is an endemic problem with the way local government is funded in the UK, one that is, if anything, worse now than it was in the 1980s. A mixture of government allocation and local property tax means that any reduction in the government allocation has to be met, either by a disproportionate amount raised locally, by cuts in services, or by charging for some services. Moreover, there are certain services the council has a statutory duty to provide and which cannot, therefore, be cut, which means that other services are particularly vulnerable to cuts and/or charges. Every such enforced decision – increasing taxes or charges, or cutting services – is bound to make the local politicians unpopular.

The education department, for example, was legally bound to provide education for children aged between 5 and 16 – and beyond for those able to benefit from continuing full time education. Adult education and provision for under 5s were therefore extremely vulnerable to any cuts in the education budget. Councillors on the political right were especially scornful of such provision. Still clinging to old fashioned notions about women’s roles, they believed that, should a mother choose to return to the workplace, she must pay for whatever provision was made for the care and education of her infants until they reached the statutory age for starting school. Likewise, adult education was regarded by the same individuals as a hobby activity which should not be tax-payer funded.

Similar arguments were used in the Social Services area with regard to the provision of home care services.

We were not prepared to support such policies and joined with Labour in voting down the budget proposed by the Conservatives, whereupon they resigned the chairmanships. Labour accepted the chairmanships (including one female) on our terms. That remained the position for the rest of the four year term.