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Parish Council Fails to Explain Councillors’ Six-month Absence

Published on: 15 Nov, 2021
Updated on: 18 Nov, 2021

Cllrs Helen and Tony Gorham

By David Reading

Ash Parish Council has failed to explain why two councillors who are not recorded on its website as having attended, in person, any meetings for six months can continue as councillors.

Normally non-attendance for six months automatically disqualifies a councillor but the parish council chairman has said that our interpretation of the rules is incorrect in this case.

In September 2020 Cllrs Tony and Helen Gorham left Ash Vale to live 60 miles away, in Wiltshire, insisting that they could continue to effectively serve the people of Ash and Ash Vale. There is nothing in law to prevent councillors continuing to serve if they move away, even if they move abroad.

Their attendance at council meetings wasn’t an issue up until May 7, 2021 as council meetings were permitted to take place online because of Covid restrictions. But the government announced, in the face of some criticism, that virtual attendance, online, would no longer count and for six months, from May 7 to November 7 2021, according to the parish council website, the two councillors have not attended one council meeting in person.

The Local Government Act 1972 states that when a council member fails to attend any meeting for six consecutive months from the date of their last attendance, they cease to be a member of the authority, unless the council accepts a reason for the failure to attend before the six months period expires. Other Ash parish councillors spoken to know of no such decision.

Ash Parish Council’s meeting minutes for October 2021 showing Helen and Tony Gorham absent as they were from all other full council meetings from May to November.

Mr and Mrs Gorham have both attended committee meetings online during that six-month period but they have not physically attended any meeting of the full council. It is understood by those with specific knowledge of the relevant law, consulted by The Dragon, that this disqualifies them.

Irrespective of the rules, some have argued that it is unacceptable for councillors to live 60 miles away from the area they serve. Last autumn, after Mr and Mrs Gorham left the area, an official complaint was made to Guildford Borough Council by Ash Vale resident Peter Corns because he believed Mr and Mrs Gorham would not be able to represent the parish effectively from that distance. He said the matter had caused a great deal of anger in the local community.

See also: Residents’ Rebellion Against All-Tory Ash Parish Council Rumbles On

But the complaint was dismissed. The borough’s legal department found that the two councillors had not breached the parish council’s code of conduct.

Cllr Nigel Manning, chairman of Ash parish council

The chairman, Cllr Nigel Manning, said at the time, that moving away did not mean a councillor had to resign. This was supported by the borough council. Candidates seeking election to parish councils are required to meet certain conditions on the day of the election under the Local Government Act 1972 but can then move away and remain councillors for their remaining term of office.

Now, more than one year on, Mr Corns believes his concerns have been well-founded.

He said this week: “Ethically, parish councillors should understand the issues that face their community. When I vote for a local councillor I vote for the person, not the party, believing they will work with empathy for the community.

“Ash Parish Council are failing their community and themselves if they continue to support this charade.”

On Wednesday (November 10) we asked Ash Parish Council’s clerk, Dennis Wheeler, whether there was some reason under the rules that allows Mr and Mrs Gorham to serve on the council. No reply had been received by our deadline of 2pm, Friday (November 12), and no reply to our questions has been received from Mr and Mrs Gorham.

All committee meeting minutes published on the Ash PC website show that all such meetings are held online, attendances at which The Dragon has been told, do not count for the “six-month rule”.

Earlier in the week, the council chairman, Cllr Nigel Manning, asked about the apparent disqualification, would only say: “You are incorrect in your reading of S[ection]85 LGA [Local Government Act] 1972 (the relevant legislation), as you will find out if/when you make a report!!” He concluded his email: “I have nothing further to add.”

Some people have voiced the opinion that the reluctance of Mr and Mrs Gorham to resign may reflect the wish of Cllr Manning to maintain the parish council as a Tory stronghold. Only one member is a non-Tory, Carla Morson, a Lib Dem supporter who was elected as an Independent in May 2021.

Cllr Tony Gorham’s profile on the Ash Parish Council website says: “I have continued working towards helping people have better lifestyles. My wife Helen and I moved to Ash Vale in 1989. We have been part of the Ash and Ash Vale community and although now moved out of the area still see our role as active councillors.”

Carl Cookson, a concerned member of the public who attended this week’s council meeting, commented: “Cllrs Helen and Tony Gorham are no longer part of the Ash parish. By moving away, how can they suggest that they are? They have not been at public meetings for a lengthy period and in my experience are not contactable. This should be trigger enough for them to resign and allow parishioners to elect a councillor who is local, listens to parishioners and bring a positive impact to the community.”

The 12 members of Ash Parish Council. The website has yet to remove (as at 4pm, November 15) Ed Schofield who has told The Dragon that he has resigned.

Mr Cookson, a leading member of the campaign to re-open the parts of the Ash Ranges that were closed to the public early in 2020, has also complained about what he perceives as a catalogue of frustrating attempts in recent months to hold a conversation with the parish council, notably with the chairman, Cllr Manning.

He said he had emailed all councillors during the summer of 2021 to show them the positive feedback the campaign was getting from the national press and TV and to highlight that he was getting no response at that time from Cllr Manning. At the September meeting he was told “we thought the campaign had stopped”.

Mr Cookson claims he attempted for some weeks – by phone and email – to set up a dialogue with parish councillors but had limited success, and no success with Cllr Manning. Cllr Manning said he was having difficulty with his emails and his phone.

At one stage, he rang Cllr Tony Gorham but the phone number listed on the parish council website turned out to be the office phone. The person who answered could not provide another contact method for Cllr Gorham or Cllr Helen Gorham than that listed. Mr Cookson said he emailed Mr and Mrs Gorham but got no reply and could not reach them by phone.

He said: “It is essential for our councillors to be open to discussion, be available to their constituents in a timely manner. Without email or phone connections, this is impossible. I feel that the Gorhams are not taking their responsibilities as councillors seriously and should consider resigning. They no longer represent our community and do not want to interact with it.”

In response to Mr Cookson’s complaint about communication, Cllr Manning told The Dragon: “I am not aware of any residents apart from one who has had difficulty in communicating with councillors. Any councillor can choose not to respond to an email, if they consider the contact is, for example, vexatious, time-wasting or they have concerns that it contains a virus.”

Ash Parish Council is already facing the probability of one by-election, with news that Cllr Ed Schofield resigned from the council this week because his work time commitments were not allowing him to do the job “as it should be done”.

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test 3 Responses to Parish Council Fails to Explain Councillors’ Six-month Absence

  1. Carl Cookson Reply

    November 15, 2021 at 5:07 pm

    I have now received a response from Cllrs Gorham (on matters unrelated to the main issues raised in the article). It only took five emails, three phone call chases, raising at a public meeting and an article in The Dragon.

    It could be deemed vexatious and time-wasting (in the words of Cllr Manning), but I will not apologise for expecting elected officials to have open communication channels.

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    November 15, 2021 at 9:15 pm

    If Carl Cookson has been deemed “vexatious and time-wasting” by Cllr Manning, I’m not sure how he would describe me.

    • Daniel Hill Reply

      November 17, 2021 at 1:42 pm

      Calling people “vexatious” seems a very easy way to avoid answering important questions. GBC uses the same tactic.

      It was the reason given by GBC when they refused to answer any of my questions about Stoney Castle.

      It seems once that label has been given to a person it is impossible for that person to ask a council any questions, on any subject.

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