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Ash’s Absentee Councillors: Anger Erupts Again After Barrister’s Advice Is Revealed

Published on: 14 Oct, 2022
Updated on: 14 Oct, 2022

The two absent Ash parish councillors, Helen and Tony Gorham

By David Reading

Two members of Ash Parish Council who have not attended a single meeting in person since 2020 are entitled to remain in post, according to a barrister engaged by the council.

On Monday night, the council accepted the barrister’s opinion – sparking fury among members of the public present at the full council meeting.

Even before the vote was taken there was anger that the council had allowed the two councillors, Tony and Helen Gorham, to stay in post.

One resident said: “I’d like to ask a question to all of you about why you became councillors. How can you morally, ethically, and honestly defend not removing these councillors who have been absent for more than 18 months? Forgetting the law, forgetting the legal position, how can you honestly look at us all in the eye and defend that position? Why did you become councillors if not to help the community? Can you honestly say that these people are helping the community?”

Around 20 members of the public turned up to hear the debate.

The mainly Conservative council has been embroiled in controversy since Mr and Mrs Gorham left the area to live in Marlborough, Wiltshire, in 2020.

Since then, they have not attended a single parish council meeting in person. Their only attendance has been at committee meetings that were held online. This was permitted during the pandemic, but in the spring of 2021 a High Court ruling meant that attendance at online council meetings would no longer count.

Despite hearing legal advice from two further authoritative  sources, that the couple’s membership was unlawful, the council steadfastly maintained that the couple’s online attendance was above board and voted in May to pay for a barrister to clarify the position at a cost of £2,400 to the parish.

There has been suspicion among some local people that the chairman, Cllr Nigel Manning, has dug his heels in because he wants to avoid the risk of the Conservatives losing seats at a by-election.

Monday’s meeting heard the substance of the barrister’s decision, although not the full argument. His decision was that the online meetings attended by Mr and Mrs Gorham were held correctly and they were entitled to remain as councillors.

Despite the advice, all other parish councils have confirmed to the Guildford Dragon that they follow the “six month rule” requiring councillors to attend at least once physically every six months.

Parish Cllr John Tonks

The acting chairman, Cllr John Tonks – standing in for Cllr Manning, who was absent – continued to defend the Gorhams.

Only two members – both independents – voted against the move to accept the barrister’s advice.

One of them, Cllr Carla Morson, pointed out that the High Court ruling was very clear, stating that council meetings must take place in person at a single specified geographical location and being present at a meeting involves physical presence at that location.

Cllr Carla Morson

In an impassioned speech that was greeted with applause from members of the public, Cllr Morson said: “I became a councillor because I was elected by the people of this area – the people voted for me and I wanted to serve them. The principles I have to work to include selflessness – being concerned more with the needs and wishes of others that with one’s own needs – and integrity. Here we have councillors who are not following those principles. They know they are never coming back to this area and they are not resigning.”

She questioned how two councillors living 60 miles away could stay informed about local issues, such as traffic lights that stop working or road crossing problems.

She added: “We are supposed to be helping our residents. They have high expectations of us and they deserve the best from us.”

Cllr Pat Scott

There was further applause when Cllr Pat Scott, also an independent, emphasised that all councillors were expected to be out and about to listen to people’s concerns and do their best for the parish.

During public question time, residents present asked the council a series of searching questions:

How can two councillors represent Ash and Ash Vale while living in Wiltshire?

Does the council accept that their continued absence means there has been under-representation in Ash and Ash Vale?

Does the council really believe that democracy is being served?

Why is the council not following the High Court ruling but instead chose to seek further opinion?

Why has the council wasted public money on this?

Why is the council not taking notice of public opinion?

One resident told councillors: “It seems like you kept asking the question until you got the answer you wanted to hear.”

Cllr Tonks disputed that there had been under-representation, maintaining that he was  not aware of anyone being disadvantaged. Mr and Mrs Gorham were fulfilling their duties as councillors, he said, and there were no grounds for disqualifying them.

Extract from the High Court judgement. Until the full barrister’s opinion is published it will be unclear how the apparently clear ruling does not apply to the two parish councillors who have not attended physically for nearly 18 months since the ruling was handed down.

One member of the public referred not only to the High Court ruling but to further legal opinions:

  • Guildford Borough Council’s monitoring officer told Cllr Manning in an email in April that if Mr and Mrs Gorham had not physically attended a parish council meeting since May 6, 2021, and the parish council had not granted a special dispensation, then both councillors were automatically disqualified six months from their last attendance.
  • Anne Bott, chair of the Surrey Association of Local Councils, said in response to an email from Cllr Tonks: “A councillor will  be disqualified if within six consecutive months they have not attended in person a formal Meeting of the Council, Committees, sub-committees or any approved business of the Council, unless within the six months they have submitted apologies for absence WITH REASON which has been approved by the Council etc.”

At Monday’s meeting a vote was taken on whether the council accepted with the barrister’s finding. The motion was passed, with just two councillors voting against – Cllr Morson and Cllr Scott. Cllr Nigel Kearse abstained.

After the vote was made, the public gallery cleared with angry calls of “disgusting.”

The day after the meeting we asked Dennis Wheeler, parish council clerk, for a statement explaining the thinking behind the barrister’s decision.

Mr Wheeler replied that he would be emailing the barrister immediately informing him of the result of the meeting and saying his advice would go public. Once a reply had been received, the full reason for the barrister’s decision would be posted on the parish council website. By Friday evening this statement had not been published.

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Responses to Ash’s Absentee Councillors: Anger Erupts Again After Barrister’s Advice Is Revealed

  1. Chris Spencer Reply

    October 15, 2022 at 7:53 am

    Disgraceful. What makes this barrister so qualified that their opinion trumps the opinions of officials?

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    October 15, 2022 at 10:42 am

    Time the Gormans did the honourable thing and step down this has gone on long enough! Any who supported them should be voted out.

  3. Martin Elliott Reply

    November 23, 2022 at 9:50 pm

    Is this a Conservative party cultural thing? See:

    Apart from the cost of by-election, already overwhelmed by other costs, what is actually being achieved before next May?

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