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The Dragon Says: The Strange Case of the Disappearing Councillors

Published on: 15 May, 2022
Updated on: 16 May, 2022

What are we all to make of the situation at Ash Parish Council? It seems bizarre.

Why is the council chairman Nigel Manning so determined to keep his two absent councillors, who moved to Wiltshire in 2020, in post?

See also: Parish Council to Seek Further Legal Advice on Absentee Councillors

They don’t appear to be doing any casework on behalf of residents and they were not elected to either of the council’s two committees.

Can it really be, as has been suggested, that Cllr Manning is scared of losing two more of his Conservative group’s 10 seats in by-elections? Why should he worry, he would still command an 8 to 4 majority?

In the meantime, if the views of those who attended last week’s council meeting are representative, the reputation of the parish council is suffering among those Ash residents who are paying attention.

Even if the Gorhams were replaced by non-Tories the Conservatives would still have a 8-4 majority.

At that meeting, the council voted to pay for further legal advice on the status of the two councillors. This is only slightly less perverse than the option supported by two members that the council should carry on as if nothing had happened. Any council deserves better quality judgement than that.

Just to remind you, there is ample evidence that the two absent councillors, Helen and Tony Gorham, should have been automatically disqualified from retaining their posts when they failed to attend a council meeting, in person, for six months.

There is Section 85 of the 1972 Local Government Act, with which all councils complied before the pandemic; a very clear high court judgement handed down in April 2021; clear advice from the borough council’s monitoring officer, a lawyer who has over 20 years experience of local government legislation; plus the fact that no other parish council in the borough appears to be interpreting the law in the way Cllr Manning is, but are instead complying with the “six-month rule”.

A parish clerk from one of the 20 parish councils that have confirmed they are complying said: “Yes, we have got back to ‘normal’ and have been meeting in person since 6 May 2021; as soon as we were advised by GBC that remote meetings were no longer acceptable.”

Cllr Nigel Manning, chairman of Ash parish council

On the other hand, the evidence that supports Cllr Manning’s position is a single phone conversation with an unnamed person at the National Association for Local Government. But the council chair, er, didn’t take any notes and er, didn’t get it confirmed in writing.

What?! Can he be serious?

He is depending on this as evidence for the legitimacy of two councillors whose views, if he is wrong, could be still improperly influencing council decisions. And if they are not participating in council affairs why keep them as councillors?

This matter has not just come to light. The Dragon questioned the position of the Gorhams when their six months of non-physical-attendance first occurred last November. Even if not before, why was confirmation not sought then?

See: Parish Council Fails to Explain Councillors’ Six-month Absence

To their slight credit perhaps, some of the Conservative parish councillors did look uncomfortable during last week’s debate on the subject. So did the parish clerk, whose job it is to ensure that statutory and other provisions governing or affecting the running of the council are observed.

Some say we get a standard of government we deserve and as Nigel Manning pointed out, all the 12 Conservative councillors appointed in May 2019 were elected unopposed. In 2023 it will be up to the voters in Ash to decide if their parish councillors have used their power wisely and fairly and to decide if they wish them to remain again unchallenged in an election.

They might get a chance earlier, at by-elections, if the “can” is not kicked further down the road by delays in getting, and deciding on, the further legal advice that is now being sought at considerable extra cost.

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test One Response to The Dragon Says: The Strange Case of the Disappearing Councillors

  1. Martin Elliott Reply

    May 24, 2022 at 6:52 pm

    Under the ongoing Ward Boundaries review, one of the Ash Wards is removed and merged into the other three. Does that come into effect in 2023?

    Editor’s response: The recommendation report states: “Subject to parliamentary scrutiny, the new electoral arrangements will come into force at the local elections in 2023.” But it is not the entire ward of South Ash & Tongham that is subsumed. Tongham is to become part of a larger Pilgrims ward represented by two councillors.

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