Wednesday, 9 March 2011

It is with great regret that I must resign

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceAs a Ceredigion County Councillor, these past few days have been some of the most bemusing and frustrating since I was first elected, 7 years ago.

The Code of Conduct, which we all sign up too on our election and which has always been a bone of contention for local members because of its sometimes draconian and tight restrictions, has this week really struck home with me.

Cardigan Chamber of Trade
It all began on Monday with the Cardigan Chamber of Trade bi-monthly directors meeting.

For many years now I have been attending the Chamber of Trade meetings in town in an observing capacity and as a link to the County Council. So I have for many years now worked alongside the Chamber to further the needs of local traders in the town. A prosperous local economy after all leads to a prosperpus Cardigan in the whole.

Well, last summer after my year of Mayor during which I further cultivated a strong working relationship between the Town Council and the Chamber, I was invited at the AGM to become a Director of the Chamber. I was delighted to be asked and said yes. Now, looking back I must admit that that was an error. Because ironically, I've been of less use to the Chamber since joining its board. Why? Because as a locally elected Councillor, I have had to declare an interest at any time since last summer when dealings with the Chamber have arisen in Council meetings. This is quite right but what it means is that I have been unable to represent the traders interests as I used to when I merely attended their meetings in an advisorial role.

So it was with great regret, having been considering my position since before Christmas, that I had to resign from the Board of Directors of the Chamber on Monday night. My resignation was accepted and I will now revert back to my old role of attending their meetings as an observer to support them as a County Councillor. I will also do the same, on an equal basis, with the new Cardigan Traders group that have recently formed itself in town.

Cardigan Primary School Governing Body
But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

If Monday for me was a rather sad day, then yesterday went down as one of the most bitterly frustrating days that I can recall as a County Councillor.

On returning from a weekend away in Cardiff on Monday, I found the monthly agenda for the Ceredigion Planning Committee waiting for me in the post. To my complete surprise, I found that the primary school's application to build a new car park on its ground was back on the agenda having seemingly been in the verge of being withdrawn only a month ago. Whilst I support the school in the principle of the plan, the devil of course is in the detail and there are technical concerns regarding the proposed new access onto Pontycleifion by the hospital roundabout. The Welsh Ambulance Service which currently use this quiet cul-de-sac, along with local residents and the Trunk Road Agency have all expressed safety concerns. As it falls within my Rhyd-Y-Fuwch ward, my first responsibility is as an elected member and to represent those views at the planning committee. However, as a member of the Board of Governors at the primary school, I have a clear conflict of interest. But because the agenda came out so close to the meeting as is the case and because I was not warned in advance that this application was likely to be on it, there has been no time available for me to put in an application for dispensation to speak on the application to the Standards Committee.

I therefore contacted the Head of Legal Services and her office within the Council for advice and I was told that I could not speak on this issue because I have a personal and prejudicial interest in the matter.

So, for the past 48 hours, I've been wracking my brain for a solution to a situation that I have never, in 7 years on the Council, found myself in. On the one hand the school has an application that is recommended for approval but which on the other hand has still illicited safety concerns from local residents who I have a duty to represent and responsible authorities. One of these, the Trunk Road Agency, have referred the application to the Welsh Assembly so there is clearly still a need to hold back to see what their observations are on this matter.

In the meantine, yesterday saw me calling around friends and colleagues, asking for advice on what should be my best course of action.

Eventually, it struck me that the only way that I could represent the views of residents in my ward on an official basis as their democratically elected County Councillor, would be to resign from the primary school's Governing Body. I've been a member of this body since the junior and infants schools merged back in 2008 and was on the infants school's governing body before that since 2004. That's 7 years on the governing bodies of these schools and it is a fantastic, popular school which has done well in its Estyn inspections. Such a decision, again because of the strict enforcement of the Code of Conduct, is one that I therefore came too with the heaviest of hearts.  I therefore spoke to the Head Teacher last night to explain the impossible corner into which I'd been positioned by the Code and he understood perfectly the position I found myself in.

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However, this morning the planning committee saved me from making this final decision by reading out my request to defer the item to allow me the opportunity to apply for dispensation from the standards committee before the next committee in April. They also decided to hold an on-site inspection meeting in the meantime to hear the views of all concerned which is wise move.

So after 48 hours of soul-searching, I'm pleased that the committee has saved me from having to resign from my second committee this week by giving me the opportunity to request the right to speak on this issue. It'll be the first time that I've asked for dispensation in my time on the Council and I hope that it will be granted. If not, then I may have to re-visit the soul-searching mentioned above...


  1. Having been told by a councillor what could constitute bringing the Council into disrepute and on a charge to answer, it made up my mind not to bother to stand for the County Council.

    I have far more power in many respects, than a councillor does, certainly in speaking out. Trouble is, not many people want to listen to you as Joe Public, but maybe with Twitter and Facebook, more people can have their say and their opinions respected by decision makers.

    After all it was Facebook and Twitter that helped bring down the governments in Tunisia and Egypt.

    Another benefit of not being a councillor is that you get your life back and dont have people whingeing about planning applications, social services, Council Tax, or any other petty matter.

    I may be cynical, but I've been there and got the t-shirt and am happier without all the hassle it brings and I have the greatest respect for those who still want to do the job.

    This blog article just makes it more difficult for anyone to want to contribute to the Big Society as there are so many pitfalls and it has obviously upset you considerably. You have done a lot of good, but the rules are making it difficult to do the job as you would like, just because a few rotten apples have spoiled it for everyone.

    Sorry you are in this predicament, Mark. I always played by the rules, but they seem to now have a stranglehold and will put off others wanting to do their civic duty.

    13 out of 60 Pembrokeshire County councillors were elected unopposed in 2008. The way things are going, who will want to bother to stand as the rules are strangling local democracy.

  2. As a Welshman with a fairly lengthy history within the party - I have become increasingly alarmed at the way in which the party has been directed since the coalition.
    Can I draw your attention to the following analysis of the potential disaster that awaits the Welsh Lib-Dems at the Assembly Elections in May if the polls are to be believed.
    How frustrating that just when Wales gets proper primary legislative powers - the Lib-Dems may well be replaced by more Tories and, even worse, UKIP.