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Comment: Why the Derisive Laughter Over a Council’s Behaviour Is Understandable

Published on: 16 Nov, 2022
Updated on: 19 Nov, 2022

Cllr Nigel Manning, chairman of Ash parish council

By Martin Giles

It hardly seemed possible that the reputation of Ash Parish Council could sink further in the eyes of some Ash residents but that is what happened at its meeting on Monday (November 14).

Derisive laughter met a statement from the chairman, Cllr Nigel Manning, when he raised the issue of the attendance of a fellow councillor, Helen Gorham, who moved to Wiltshire in 2020 but remains a council member. 

Since May 2021 Cllr Gorham and her husband Tony, also a council member, have both attended occasional committee meetings of the council – but never physically, just online.

Most observers understood that following the ending of emergency Covid provisions, councillors had to attend physically at least once every six months. 

Even the monitoring officer at Guildford Borough Council opined that the two councillors were disqualified and this was reinforced by a similar view from the chair of the Surrey Association for Local Councils. But £2,000 of parish council money was spent on obtaining a legal opinion that the two councillors could remain in place.

So back to Cllr Manning’s announcement. “It has come to my attention,” he said, “that the minutes of previous meetings show that Cllr Helen Gorham has not attended council meetings, virtual council meetings, since April.” 

If that is the case it would mean that Helen Gorham has not attended even an online meeting for over six months and must be disqualified.

But the chairman continued: “I asked Dennis [the parish clerk] to investigate what records we have because my recollection was that she had attended more recently than that. Dennis has made some investigations and whilst there are no formal records within the offices there is some information suggesting the minutes may be wrong.” 

This is when laughter broke out in the public gallery. 

The chairman wasn’t happy retorting: “This isn’t funny because it shouldn’t happen!” 

No one could disagree that it shouldn’t happen but the farce had become laughable, the derisory mirth telling.

The serious problem underlying the issue is that the ethical credibility of the parish council is shot to pieces. Nigel Manning, for some reason, is so desperate to keep the Gorhams in post he will bend the normally observed rules of fair play.

The two physically absent Ash parish councillors, Helen and Tony Gorham

For years, exclusively Tory councillors elected in uncontested elections got used to having everything their own way. There was so little opposition to the “my way or the highway” approach of the chairman that the Conservative group had to create its own strife. Cllr Paul Spooner, fresh from borough council election failure, fell out with Nigel Manning and quit. 

The resulting vacancy was poorly advertised during the pandemic and even the local vicar was visibly angry when another Conservative was co-opted in preference to an Independent candidate who appeared far more deserving. 

Paul Spooner’s sidekick Graham Eyre then also decided that he’d had enough and chucked it in. This time the residents were wise to the vacancy rules and made sure a by-election was held. It was no surprise when Carla Morson, the overlooked Independent from the earlier co-option, was the residents’ choice. 

When yet another Tory quit, the pattern was repeated and… another Independent was elected.

But the balance on the council was still ten Conservatives to two Independents so nothing for Nigel to worry about, surely?

Not so, it would seem. Two more councillors – Mr and Mrs Gorham – were expected to quit when they moved house to Wiltshire because how could they function as parish councillors from two counties away? But it is a well-known loophole in the law that local councillors can move away from the area they represent, even move abroad, and remain as councillors, so long as they attend at least one council meeting every six months.

When the two failed to attend any meetings physically for over six months it was widely accepted that they were disqualified. Every other parish council in the borough complies with the “six-month rule” but a convoluted legal opinion was obtained and the two councillors remained in place.

However even that could not help if Helen Gorham had not attended a council meeting, even online, for over six months. It seemed to some residents that partial justice might yet be served.

Then came this week’s shambles. But we should not be surprised. Who cares if agreed minutes say one thing if the chairman thinks something else? Perhaps it is like Trump declassifying documents – he only has to think it?

After announcing the possible discrepancy with the minutes, Cllr Manning continued: “So on that basis I’m going to be calling an extraordinary meeting of the council before the next full council meeting in order that councillors can consider the minutes and what information there is to suggest whether they are correct or not.

“I will let people know when that date is and circulate it as soon as I can check on people’s availability. At the moment I’m expecting it to be in the first week of December. There is a legal time for sending out agendas so I need to make sure everyone is aware and can turn up because it’s obviously very important to.”

At public question time…

Resident Carl Cookson said: “The meeting you have just announced – will it be open to the public?”

Cllr Manning: “It’s not a private item.”

Carl Cookson: “If the minutes weren’t accurate for the last six months can we forget what’s happened in all those meetings? Shall we be trusting them?”

Cllr Manning (getting rather tetchy with Cookson): “That’s what we will be discussing at the meeting. I’m not going to discuss it any further here. This isn’t going to be a trial run, or to go over arguments, we will deal with it at the extraordinary meeting.”

Carl Cookson: “Will the public be able to have a say in that or is it just going to be another kangaroo court?”

Cllr Manning: “It won’t be a kangaroo court. The clerk will be checking on the legal position regarding public interaction. My initial thought is that there will be public interaction the same as there is here, but I need to check that.”

Cllr Carla Morson: “I and Cllr Pat Scott wrote to you last Thursday requesting an extraordinary meeting to discuss the disqualification of Cllr Helen Gorham and you today have called an extraordinary meeting. But can we have that meeting earlier than the first week of December? This is an issue that has been going on an awful long time, it’s a one-item agenda to discuss whether Cllr Helen Gorham should be disqualified and to take it three weeks hence….”

Cllr Manning: “I did say at least as early as the first week of December. I will be sending out an email to everybody basically saying we need a meeting, give me availabilities for Mondays. It doesn’t have to be a Monday, it’s just that Mondays tend to be in people’s calendars. We will try and do that as soon as possible because we need to get this resolved.”

Ain’t that the truth? But perhaps the real resolution will come in May.

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Responses to Comment: Why the Derisive Laughter Over a Council’s Behaviour Is Understandable

  1. David Roberts Reply

    November 16, 2022 at 6:09 pm

    While most of the world is trying to get inside the head of Vladimir Putin, Guildford residents have the much harder job of figuring out what on earth these dinosaurs of the local Tory Party (Manning, Spooner, Moseley…) are trying to achieve. And why, exactly?

    Although they have each received many thousands of pounds over the years in public allowances and expenses, the direct pecuniary benefits of being a Guildford councillor are not especially compelling. Is it all therefore all just a pathetic power trip – a matter of local status, ingrown cronyism and petty snobbery? If so, the term “bumbledom” springs to mind.

    For people who should be motivated by nothing but selfless public service, I find this psychology beyond baffling. If the local Tory party is serious about winning back votes they should get rid of these time-servers bag and baggage.

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