Sunday, December 3, 2023

Opinion: “Is it always like this?”

“Is it always like this?”

I went to the Amber Valley Borough Council Meeting last night. I go as often as I can, not that there has been one for a while. For some reason that we, the public, are not allowed to know, the last full council meeting was held on 5th June. Amazingly, when we came to the agenda item entitled ‘Report of The Leader of The Council’, the Leader of the Council said that there was nothing to report.

Nothing.  Three months without a meeting, and nothing to report.

There were more people than usual in the public gallery, but still less than you could fit into the back room at The Queen’s Head.

About halfway through the meeting, the woman next to me asked “Is it always like this?”

“Yes,” I said. “Always.”

Here are my recollections from the meeting (I took some notes at the time) and an explanation of her question and my response.

During the ‘Mayor’s Announcements,’ the Mayor said that his charity would be a farm charity (I didn’t catch the name) where they help young people who are ‘basically delinquent.’ I couldn’t help but muse on the current facts of delinquency. The austerity measures implemented by the Conservative government mean that Amber Valley are receiving less money and having to cut services. So, unless the Tories who sit on Amber Valley Borough Council are not voting Conservative at a national level, they are part of the reason for the cuts. It is these cuts that are part of the cause of the increase in delinquency – and therefore the increased need for the charity that the Mayor is going to support.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said in a report in 2015 that: “Cuts are having a profound effect on the services people receive. The poorest people and communities are being hardest hit and those least able to cope with service withdrawal are bearing the brunt.” The maintenance allowance for young people staying on at school has been scrapped, the funding in real terms for the education of young people has fallen, there have been cuts in youth services and the NHS is struggling – again, due to austerity cuts – to provide adequate mental health service to young people. In short, the Tories have created a problem, and the Conservative Amber Valley Borough Mayor wants us to let us know about his charitable efforts to curb delinquency. I think there’s a psychological term for people who create a problem so that they can look good when they do what they can to make things better afterwards – I just can’t bring the name of it to mind.  Please excuse me if I’m not impressed.

I digress.

Pretty much from the beginning of the meeting, the Mayor was rude and dismissive of the people on the Labour side of the chamber. He didn’t allow them to finish speaking or asking their questions. I understand. They are often rude. But speaking and asking questions is the minimum requirement for an opposition party at any level of government, and this should not be impeded by the chair of the meeting. As far as I was concerned, most of what was being said, and questions being asked, were perfectly appropriate. Especially appropriate were Councillor Neville’s questions regarding the ‘political decision’ of cutting council tax by .25% just prior to the last borough elections when there was clearly going to be a financial shortfall over the next few years.

A request was put by Labour asking for the council meetings to be broadcast via webcam so that the public could watch the meetings at the time they were taking place or at a convenient time afterwards. I thought that this was a great idea and would mean that both sides of the chamber would need to ensure that their behaviour and conduct was up to public scrutiny. It was also mean that what was said and decided at these meetings could easily be checked. The Leader of the Council said that this would not be ‘value for money’ – a phrase which is used often during the meetings (and nationally, come to think of it) by the Conservatives to justify anything that they didn’t want to happen. This was one of those things that they didn’t want to happen, and so the Conservatives voted it down.

Various motions were put to the council by the Labour Group during the meeting, including one about recording in the minutes any questions raised at full council meetings. As with all the motions raised by the Labour councillors, the vote went as follows – all Conservative councillors voted against them and all Labour councillors voted for them. It was after a few times of this happening that the woman next to me asked me the question ‘is it always like this?’ She also asked me if they were always so rude to each other. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘they are.’ I could have said that sometimes it worse, much worse.

Another motion from Labour asked that the council agree that ‘the Leader of the Council and the Chair of the Planning Board should consider their positions and resign immediately,’ following a debacle over the council deciding not to defend their position on a planning decision regarding Amber Valley Rugby Club. Members of the public in the area concerned had raised the money to defend the decision to turn down the planning application at a public hearing. The planning inspector actually said at that meeting “I have found that the Council’s decision on the planning application was justified. Its subsequent decision not to contest the appeal was however, unreasonable…”

The vote was taken on this motion. All Labour councillors voted for the motion, all Conservatives obviously voted against it.

The last motion of the meeting was asking if meetings of the planning board could be held in a suitable venue in the area concerned if there have been 200 or more objections to a planning application.

This is such a good point.

There is only room for around 25 people in the public gallery at Ripley. Our own town council meetings in Belper can accommodate more of the public than that – although very few people attend these meetings regularly. The vote went the usual way. The way almost every vote at Amber Valley Borough Council meetings goes. The Labour people all vote together, and the Conservatives all vote together. As there are 23 Conservative councillors and 22 Labour, the votes always go the way the Conservatives want them to – for the moment.  Given the one seat majority, there is always the possibility that one day there will be more Labour councillors at the meeting than Conservatives – a cynical person might wonder if this is why full council meetings have not been going ahead during the summer months…

As a Green Party member and activist I was concerned that, when asked about recycling percentages, the Leader of the Council said that the measure used to determine how successful recycling is in Amber Valley was ‘customer satisfaction.’ Recycling is not something that can be measured by ‘customer satisfaction’, only by hard facts and figures. He confirmed that there was a 32.2% target for recycling and that no improvements are planned.  Given the way that our Conservative government is dealing with issues regarding the environment, I am disappointed but not surprised.

In summary then, let’s consider the decisions last night.  No, we cannot know why there hasn’t been a meeting since June. No, we cannot have the meetings live streamed so that the public can observe proceedings. No, we cannot have any questions raised in the meetings recorded in the minutes. No, we cannot trust our council to back the decisions that their committees make at any appeal hearings. And no, we cannot make sure that all the people who are concerned about any particular planning decision can attend the meetings where those decisions are made. Basically, we can only know what is actually going on at these meetings if we actually go to them – and then only 25 of us will be able to get in!

After the meeting, as I hadn’t seen her at the full council meeting before, I asked the woman next to me why she had decided to come. She is part of a community within Amber Valley that is fighting inappropriate planning applications – there’s a lot of it about. She said that she had been shocked by the meeting, especially the tribal nature of it and the rudeness. I suppose, after going to these meetings for quite a while now, I had become desensitised to it – although it did make me catch my breath on a couple of occasions last night. We said our goodbyes and agreed that we would see each other again at the next meeting. When I got home, my husband asked me how the meeting had gone. I said, “oh, you know, you’ve been to them, it was like always.”

He nodded knowingly.

By Sue MacFarlane

Claire Meese


6 thoughts on “Opinion: “Is it always like this?”

  • Janice

    That’s shocking!!! Are these people paid?? Actually, even if they aren’t, it sounds like a shambles.

  • Maurice Maguire

    Great Ummary Sue, thanks. Having spoken at the planning meeting on Monday I am totally gobsmacked by the immobility of the current lead group in AVBC. May is not too far off!

  • Cllr Ben Bellamy

    It is massively frustrating , as a Labour Councillor , to put what I believe are sensible and progressive motions forward, such as mine to move controversial planning meetings into the community, and see them rejected just because they are our idea. I understand the voting tribally on political policy issues, but not on extension of democracy.

    Wednesday was the worst council meeting I had taken part in. There was , as Sue says, no leaders report. I was prevented from the fair question what has been going on in amber valley Inthe last three months . There was no contrition for making the dreadful mistake, criticised by the inspector, for not defending the planning board Somercotes decision. A recognition that they got it wrong and an apology may have drawn the line under that issue for the very angry residents who were awarded costs.

    It is also of note, that we never hear from more than half a dozen of the conservatives, and most of them we do only because we direct questions at various cabinet members.

    But we can make a difference. The Bullsmoor and Belper lane decisions overturned council plan policy. Largely, perhaps , pressure and intellegent from wonderful community told in these cases. I do hope that I may have also had an impact with some hard and long researched precedent and cases that I was able to bring forward. Who knows.

    Rudeness is often born of frustration. It should be restrained, however if watching is frustrating, taking part when you have tried to raise sensible researched motions is doublet so. Not an excuse, but perhaps an explanation. Must try harder.

    The lack of transparency, and the resistance to democracy is shameful. I will keep pushing for it, whoever is the controlling group.

    Cllr Ben Bellamy

  • Chrissy Powell

    I have been to a number of planning meetings over the years at Ripley and find it to be cramped. I also have found objecting to plans a complete waste of time because the individuals who sit on the board just completely bulldoze any objections and “poo-poo” legitimate facts on issues of conservation, environment, flood risks etc. I live near Bullsmoor in Belper and i see first hand the chaos of rush hour in that area never mind the impact building all those houses will have on our beautiful area.

    My parents currently have a building site for one dwelling behind their property (in Heage) that does not have adequate building regulation fencing or signs to prevent people entering the site and gaining injuries. The individual blatantly flies in the face of health and safety and continues to work on the site well beyond normal working hours and at weekends. To boot, he uses increadibly smelly old tractors to move materials around which causes terrible pollution in the area. Let’s not also forget the site entrance is increadibly dangerous and the house is being built on a natural spring – where will this water go? After all, Heage is renowned for flooding, especially in that area.

    So why is it one rule for one and rule for another? I think Amber Valley Borough Council is stuck in the dark ages and the bunch of dinosaurs who are allowing RIDICULOUS plans to pass when we already have over-subscribed schools, doctors, dentists and dangerously busy roads obviously don’t live in these areas otherwise they would never let this happen.

    We also asked for a waste bin on Brook street for people to dispose of dog waste bags in and not left on the pavement or shoved through my parents hedge. Dog fowling is a massive problem in Heage. We asked for one thing, One average size bin. But nothing.

    I have no faith In my council anymore.

  • Cllr Maurice Neville

    While I agree that there was an extremely combative atmosphere at the last council meeting, this level of ill feeling is not typical – Sue MacFarlane does not attend enough full council or committee meetings to see the whole picture. The context is that the current Conservative administration seems to be doing its best to smother discussion or wider knowledge of its incompetence, particularly in planning – indicated by the cancellation of the July full council meeting and the insulting ‘nothing to report’ statement by the leader of the council. Frustration with this state of affairs led to an unusually large number of opposition motions ( which were duly rejected) and spilled over during the meeting. Belper’s World Heritage is currently under seige by developers and, as it approaches what looks likely to be a third humiliating and expensive failure to achieve a Local Plan, AVBC is evidently struggling to deal with this. The planning system is very heavily weighted in favour of those with most power and resources, land owners and developers. The vast majority of British land is owned by a tiny minority; a third by aristocrats and rural gentry. There is a crying need for a change to the balance of power in planning which ultimately can only be achieved by a fundamental change in ownership and control of land use, but at the very least requires a competent planning authority to protect Belper.

  • Sandra Devine

    It is a long time since I last went to an AVBC meeting but I recognise Sue’s description. It sounds as if nothing much has changed, sadly.

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