Local democracy – the past, the present and an increasingly opaque future… are we being taken for fools?

Stuart Baillie has worked in the newspaper industry for almost 40 years and in that time he has seen the willingness of our public servants to speak publicly evaporate. Here he recalls the ‘halcyon days’ when the local MP was just a phone call away and compares that with his efforts to get Hastings Borough Council to be open about how much of YOUR money they have given Freedom Leisure. Should we really need to use freedom of information requests to get answers from our councils when the work they are doing is supposedly in our name? We are the masters they are the servants – or are we?

When I launched Hastings In Focus two and a half years ago I hadn’t done any ‘proper’ reporting for over 30 years.

Stuart Baillie

Back in those halcyon days, as local newspaper reporters, we had access to everyone. My contacts book included the phone number of the London flat of our local MP Sir Hector Monro and you could dial it, wait for it to be answered and speak directly to Hector himself.

Over the road from our offices were the council chambers and quite often we’d just nip over to speak to the director of whatever about a story we were writing. Councillors and council officials were free, frank, open and accessible and of course the elected councillors said what they thought regardless of whether it chimed with the stated policy of the political group they represented.

It was therefore hugely dispiriting to discover just how much had changed. Speak to someone in person? Don’t make me laugh! Speak to someone on the phone? Getting them to answer it in the first place is the issue… “…you’ve reached the voicemail of…”. No it’s all sanitised communication, specific answers to to specific emailed questions, if you can even get a reply! And of course no opportunity to ask supplementaries.

In an age when communication is supposed to be easier, it is actually more difficult…

For those in what they believe to be ‘power’ – the party managers – it’s easier that way; no one goes off message, no one says what they shouldn’t, no one gets to express a personal opinion – only the party line is ever promoted. It makes it impossible to forge proper relationships, I doubt I’ll still be in touch with any of today’s councillors in the same way that I’m still in touch with the likes Tom McAughtrie and John Dowson who served on the councils in Dumfries nearly 40 years ago.

Relationship building is important because there are times it’s necessary to have an ‘off the record’ conversation. As a reporter it can help you understand a position or how an issue is being dealt with and will mean in a week, a month, or a year, whenever you come to write that story you’ll write a better informed more accurate piece and your reader will understand things better.

Back in July Old Town councillor James Bacon published this video in which he predicts increased parking charges would be a “complete disaster” for the town. By the time of the video’s release the new charges had been implemented and the scale of the increases had been know since January – a whole six months before – why hadn’t councillors shouted loudly then? And why did Hastings Borough Council not object to East Sussex County Council’s proposals in the first place? See the whole video here https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=323501659042616&extid=s3sFBmgGwtSc2RLR

In an age when communication is supposed to be easier, it is actually more difficult; answers from councils, the police, from just about anyone in public life are scripted and formulaic. Gone are the times when one of the first jobs in my day was to go round to the local police station and see the duty sergeant who’d go over with me all that had happened in the previous 24 hours – no, what they want you to know all comes from a centralised press office now, 

In setting up Hastings In Focus I wanted to get back to what I’m not afraid to describe as ‘old-fashioned’ values; reporting on events in a balanced way before leaving you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions.

Largely we have not commented, we have not expressed our opinion as that is not what I see to be our job. There are exceptions to every rule and today is one of those exceptions. Borne out of frustration we feel a need to let you know what is being done in your name. 

I’m horrified by what the local press in the UK has become. Swingeing cuts by nationally owned newspapers groups mean our local papers no longer have the manpower to fully cover councils and courts and more and more reporting of council meetings is simply just the regurgitation of a council press release that presents only one side of the story – the winning side!

We have focussed a lot on the work of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) because it is spending YOUR money. It has no money of its own, it can only spend what we give it! Let’s remember too what HBC’s key functions are. It’s key functions are to empty the bins, clean the streets and oversee planning – does anyone think it’s doing any of those things well?

…a clear case of shutting the stable door long after the horse had bolted…

At one of the first HBC committee meetings I attended – a planning committee – a councillor was told his objections to a plan could not be considered as those objections, and his alternative suggestions, were at odds with what the officials who work in the planning department thought. Those officials, he was told, were experts in their field, he was not and therefore he could not challenge their advice! So what’s the point of a planning committee? Follow that logic and we might as well save ourselves a fortune and let the officials make the decisions. 

Then there’s parking!  

In July the cost of parking on the streets of our town rocketed. It was a decision by East Sussex County Council as HBC was keen to remind us. But had HBC objected to the original proposals to increase parking charges in our town?

No it had not!

When ESCC published – in January – specific details of what the new costs would be did HBC complain?

No, it did not.

So why was it only when the charges were imposed and therefore impossible to overturn, that Hastings councillors started to get hot under the collar?

In July the deputy mayor, Councillor James Bacon, launched a petition supported by a video, opposing the new charges – a clear case of shutting the stable door long after the horse had bolted – or maybe just window dressing?  

The time for action had been during the initial consultation process in July 2019, or even January 2020 when the scale of new charges was published, but no, Hastings councillors sat on their hands and said nothing.

What about full council meetings?  

We haven’t had one in Hastings since February. The official line is that the council’s IT department needs to test the technology – Microsoft teams.

That will be the same technology that hundreds, if not thousands, of small businesses and sports clubs have been using for most of this year for sales meetings, conferences and other events. The same technology that can, straight out of the box, cope with meetings of over 200 people, the same technology that many local sports clubs – some of them one-man bands – used to run training sessions for dozens of people at the same time and managed that without having a full department of IT experts on call as our council does.

…decision to withhold information on how it was spending public money…

It’s also the same technology that HBC has been using for its committee meetings since lockdown began in March, was that nor rehearsal enough? 

Suddenly opposition claims that council leaders are trying to avoid scrutiny seem plausible. 

A full council meeting is symbolic. Yes the actual work might go on in committee but full council meetings are a stage where YOUR council can demonstrate publicly that it is working in YOUR best interest…!

…it appears to me that councils are exploiting the opportunity to hide certain actions from public gaze…

Over in Rother – where full council meetings have been taking place via Teams – the council has gone public with the fact it has made £415,000 available to support Freedom Leisure. HBC point blank refuses to do the same. It says it is ‘prevented by law’ from making the number – rumoured in some circles to be over £1m – public! When we challenged that, pointing out that Rother seemed not to be governed by the same law we were told ‘individual councils take different legal advice’. So we went back again three weeks ago today and we asked under what legislation was the council basing it’s decision to withhold information on how it was spending public money – we have been ignored!

We could go on we could look at the demolition of Harold Place toilets, the borrowing of tens of millions of pounds to buy commercial property the list is endless. 

As the local press in the UK has retreated, has stopped scrutinising its local councils in a way that we did when I started my career 40 years ago, it appears to me that councils are exploiting the opportunity to hide certain actions from public gaze and they know that through lack of time young underpaid local reporters will not have the confidence to challenge or seriously question a council press release.

It’s been an exhausting couple of years at Hastings In Focus and we’re going to drop down a gear for a week or two.

In the meantime, what I’d like to know from you our readers – and in August we had almost 30,000 of you – is does any of the above actually matter to you? Is it just me who is getting all steamed up about how opaque our council and other public services have become? Would you prefer us to concentrate on the light, the fluffy and the entertaining?

You can tell us what you think by leaving a comment at the bottom of this story, you can email tellmeyourstory@hastingsinfocus.co.uk or use our social media Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, just search Hastings In Focus. 

We look forward to hearing from you!

12 thoughts on “Local democracy – the past, the present and an increasingly opaque future… are we being taken for fools?

  1. I am hugely disappointed with the lack of transparency from Hastings Borough Council. I am a Labour supporter but feel, on a local level, they are at serious risk of losing my vote.

  2. HBC appears to hide behind a veil of secrecy as a matter of policy. The current and unprecedented global situation has provided them with an ideal opportunity to bury information from a community it was elected to serve.

  3. This council keeps everything secret.they couldn’t care less about people.no discussions nothing.just what they want.its disgusting.

  4. You are doing a grand job – a civic service. But seemingly the electorate are content. They keep on voting for Christmas.

  5. Yes, please carry on questioning everybody on our behalf. I completely agree with your sentiments, there is far too much done without the public being listened to!

  6. Thanks for a timely article on a recognisable problem at HBC. My sympathies for members and officers have been eroded over the years.
    One sad instance was when a planning matter was queried. A reply was offered for about £150. It wasn’t paid but the evasion of accountability (one of many) was noted
    Cllrs suggest they can’t comment on planning applications (as it would look like predetermination), but this snag was reformed years ago. They are elected representatives — but too often they don’t represent their electorates. Instead they do what officers tell them to. Lord Nolan’s 1997 report on ‘Standards in Public Life’ was clear:
    286. It should be firmly stated that there is nothing intrinscially wrong if planning committees do not invariably follow the advice of officers. Planning officers exist to advise [emphasis in original] planning committees, which are entitled to reach their own decisions by attaching different weight to the various planning criteria which are relevant to an application.
    The idea that developers can sue the socks off a Council for a decision made in good faith is exaggerated, even fanciful.
    Local democracy: give it a chance.

  7. What a brilliant insight and analysis of the situation that faces us with HBC and beyond. As said the lack of “Transparency” is nothing short than appalling. Where councillors don’t reply to your emails or voice mail messages. As you say decisions are made without any notice or public consultation. I note the observation regarding the planning committee. Here is a committee that has a standard phobia about objections and objectors. Where in past discovered evidence decisions were made prior to the meetings. In order not to make that comment appear libelous, I cite the example of a 2013 application for some twelve houses in Fern Road. Still to this day unfinished.
    Other secrecy’s must be Rocklands – landslide, the Bunker. Archery Road development, to name a few.
    Long gone are the days as Stuart recalls how you could phone just about anybody in a council, police force, MP’s etc. My days in journalism were on that level. Officials were accessible and often convivial. I recount how covering a major story in 1975 The Balcombe Street siege where hostages were taken by the IRA. The then Met Cheif of police Sir Robert Mark headed the press briefings. Any questions he could not directly answer, he would say call me at the Yard tomorrow on that. And when you did you spoke to him and not some front. Now its wait for that email which may never arrive.
    The level of opacity within HBC is something we will sadly have to grim and bear as I cannot see them going back.

  8. I have no confidence in HBC, they seem to have an ongoing record of poor or mistaken decisions (especially planning matters) which they then try to ignore or cover up.
    There is now no local scrutiny of their actions so they seem to think what ever they do will never be questioned or investigated. So please keep up your good work.

  9. Thank you Stuart. I pity anyone dealing with HBC’s planning department over matters concerning their homes. Officers overlook objections & carefully laid out facts in favour of incorrect often misleading info spoon fed to them by applicants. Officers routinely appear lacking in knowledge & detailed understanding of buildings & community areas they make critical decisions over. It is a terrifying slapdash box ticking process with shocking repercussions for residents. I have known great people move away as they simply cannot stand this broken dysfunctional council. A council that conditions & grinds down it’s residents into not caring about many important matters.. If you do dare to care & persist in speaking up you are labelled a nimby, shown the door. The same door held wide open welcoming in bad practices to town draining their resources like Gulzar’s Lions Pier, The AZUR Pavillion, Rocklands bunker, the Rachman like slum landlords & managing agents, the landbanking property owners etc etc etc. A current example is the proposal of throwing away a jewel of prime seafront land to Sunley Properties for luxury London housing, notorious for their links to Richard Tice, it’s offshore tax haven companies & for blacklisting union members. Thank heavens for champions in this town WHO DO DARE TO CARE & continue to ask important questions. What were local Labour thinking electing Chowney as leader, who would eagerly vote for anyone involved in this broken draconian council let alone its leader? Next time airlift in a candidate with a fresh vision of this town’s glorious assets & potential. Someone capable of listening & respecting scrutiny instead of just shrugging away questions into the deep long grass HBC style. Forward & Fitzgerald have seven short months to seriously improve Labour HBC’s dire image before the 2021 May local elections, so many mistakes they can learn from should they have the gumption.

  10. HBC do their best to prevent the release of information requested under Freedom of Information. HBC wilfully misuse information regulations. There are often delays in obtaining information and the information released is of little value. HBC have restricted the supply of info concerning Rocklands and the glen by placing a large number of requests “on hold” for over 2 years. This is misuse of information regulations – it took us over two years and several complaints to the Information Commisioner before the Information Commisioner ruled that HBC were at fault and there was no status of “on hold” and that HBC should not have sat on the requests for over 2 years. Once this tactic failed HBC focussed on claiming that release of information would lead to a long list of alleged harms that included defamation, harassment, harm to Rocklands health and quality of life etc. No evidence was ever supplied of any of these harms and the Information Commisioner did not consider them relevant in refusing to release information. HBC have refused to release simple lists of what information they hold and on several occasions have provided incomplete lists that do not include all the information they hold.

  11. Well done Stuart Ballie for highlighting this issue. Local government in Hastings has become wholly undemocratic. It is also incapable of listening to its ratepayers when they ask meaningful questions – even when these would prevent them from making mistakes. There is very much a ‘bunker mentality’ about the current HBC set-up, with Freedom of Information requests illegally ignored, enquiries by local media and community groups ignored, and the scheduling of open and transparent council meetings ignored.

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