Toll Hurts Kelly’s Constituents

Recent readers of the Medway Messenger (August 7) may have been shocked to read that newly elected Member of Parliament for Rochester & Strood, Councillor Kelly Tolhurst, was being stopped from doing her bit to help out the local community:

A group of business people set up to improve Rochester will lose out on tens thousands of pounds due to financial red tape.

Kelly Tolhurst wanted to donate her council allowances to the Rochester Town Centre Forum after she became MP for Rochester and Strood and also held onto her council seat in Rochester West in May.

Of course, a councillor choosing to donate their allowance to a good cause is a noble endeavour. So what “financial red tape” was stopping Kelly from donating her council allowance to the Town Centre Forum?

Tax law.

Because council allowances are paid directly to councillors, they are taxed like any other income. Just like they would be if you or I or anyone else decided to donate some money to a good cause. You pay tax, and then you can do what you like with whatever is left. Apparently this is an outrage to the esteemed Member of Parliament though.

The numbers

Rochester Town Centre Forum claims to currently have around £2,000 per year, that it mostly spends on Christmas lights.

Kelly Tolhurst wanted to donate her full council allowance of £8,730, which would have given the Forum £10,730.

Having to pay income tax, like the rest of us, would result in Cllr Tolhurst “only” being able to donate £5,238 to the Forum, leaving them with a measly £7,238.

As this would only be a mere 262% increase for the Forum, Rochester West’s Councillor has decided not to bother donating the money, and as such it will remain in the council account for no particular purpose.

If Cllr Tolhurst had followed through on this donation over her four year term, the Forum would have received nearly £21,000 in additional funds. But this won’t happen, all so she can avoid paying some tax.

The beneficiary

Although it’s rather moot at this stage, it is rather curious that Tolhurst would select the Rochester Town Centre Forum as her intended beneficiary. While any town centre can always use additional funds, her constituency also contains Strood town centre, Cuxton, Halling, and the villages of the peninsula. Surely any of these centres would benefit as much as, if not far more than, the town centre of Rochester.

The solutions

It would appear that rather than grandstanding on this issue, if they really did want to support the town centres of her constituency, there are a number of possible solutions:

The most logical would be to accept the council allowance, pay the legally required tax, and donate the remaining £21,000 to either Rochester Town Centre Forum or between the town centres in her constituency. After all, this money is urgently needed:

“The High Street Forum are working on projects around promotion, increasing footfall and tidying up the high street but there’s no money left to do any initiatives.

They are working on starting a Saturday artisan market and this money would have helped.”

With this being the case, there is a larger gesture that Tolhurst could make: Replace the £3,492 per year that is lost to tax with a donation from her parliamentary salary.

After all, MPs were recently given a raise of £5,588. Tolhurst could make up the figure lost, provide a nice boost to the town centres, and still be left with a yearly salary in excess of £70,000.

What do you say Kelly?

First They Came For The Supplementary Questions..

It might come as a surprise, but Medway Council meetings are fairly lively affairs compared to some councils. A turnout of 50 people in the public gallery is hardly unheard of (though few last to the end!), public questions will often overrun their allotted time, and it’s not unusual for the council to receive heckling, jeering, or other forms of protest. It’s those last couple of points that are most relevant here, as the council has decided it’s had enough of those pesky members of the public who want to ask questions.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get an answer out of your local councillor, but it can be a pretty trying exercise. Granted, if you want them to come and cut the ribbon at your fete, they’ll be there double quick, but if you actually have questions, things get tricky. Email or tweet them and you’ll likely get no response. Attend one of their occasional ‘surgeries’ and you’ll almost certainly get a non-committed, evasive, if polite, response to your concerns. One of the few ways to publicly make a point to a councillor is at one of the six public meetings of Medway Council that take place each year.

As it stands, any resident of Medway can submit a question to the council, and as long as it’s somewhat relevant to the authority, a response has to be given. Any person can submit multiple questions (though those with one take priority over a second etc.), and a substitute can ask the question at the meeting if you can’t attend due to work or ill-health or the such. Most importantly, after asking your question and getting a response, you’re allowed a ‘short, supplementary question’. While the first question can have a carefully prepared answer, the councillor will not know what the supplementary question will contain, so it’s the one time they won’t always be speaking in the boring shared voice of the council.

All of which means the administration has had more than enough of this kind of challenging behaviour.

Council questions

This recommendation will be put to the council this Wednesday, following absolutely no consultation whatsoever. It’s vague, it’s heavy handed, and it’s a borderline affront to democracy. You can read the full report on the changes here.

There is certainly a place for limited reform of public questions. The rule limiting answers to three minutes is sensible, if only for the sake of Cllr Chitty’s incredible ability to go on and on and on and on in response to questions. There’s even a case to be made for limiting each member of the public to one question. The council is often faced with large numbers of questions covering the same topic worded in different ways, and so a compromise could be found there.

Where it all falls apart is the removing of the supplementary question. As mentioned earlier, this has been a long-standing method of asking a councillor a proper question, and it’s removal is deeply worrying for the way that Medway Council would like to conduct business. Removing substitutes has no real practical purpose at all other than to limit the number of questions that can be asked. More concerning is vague rule of limiting any ‘organisation’ one question per meeting. In three years of attending these meetings, I’ve never seen a question come from an organisation, only members of the public. Unless the council is going to get into the very dangerous business of defining questions from members of political parties as such.

One legitimate complaint that some have with public questions is that opposition parties have their members submit questions that challenge the council to make a political point. All parties do this to a certain extent (with the exception of UKIP who were never that organised) – Labour are masters of the craft, the Lib Dems manage a few questions at every meeting, and even the Tories do so when they need an easy political point or to raise awareness of potential future councillors. It’s a bit of a crap way to do things, but it does still raise legitimate political issues, and is often the only route a smaller party will have to gain any attention for their issues. From the text set out in the report above, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible for the administration to deem swathes of questions as being from a single political organisation, and thus rejecting them en masse. There’s no suggestion that this is the council’s intent, but the fact it can’t be ruled out from the document demonstrates how sloppily this idea has been put together.

The reaction from the Medway Twitterati has been fierce, with members of Labour, UKIP, the Lib Dems, and ordinary members of the public lining up to condemn the move.

There’s little doubt that these limits to public democratic discourse will be adopted by the council – the ruling Tories hold a substantial majority which allows them full control over all scrutiny and decision-making, and there’s little incentive to face public questions when the average person takes little notice of these things. But an important part of the democratic process is being chipped away, and if they get away with this part unnoticed, who knows what will be the next thing to go?

Jennings

So, farewell then..

So, farewell then to no less than 20 Medway councillors.

Between councillors losing their seats, retirements, and deselections, over a third of councillors who were in office two weeks ago no longer are. I thought it’d be nice to take a look at those who will no longer be gracing the council chamber. Consider this like the ‘in memoriam’ section at the Oscars, just without the glitz, glamour, and likeable personalities.

The Stand Downs

This is the group that didn’t even try to fight their seat. Some quietly slipped into retirement, either through their own volition, or their party deciding for them. Others went on to better things.

Ted Baker (Rochester West, Con) – One of the longest serving members of the council, it’s been clear for some time that his reign has been coming to an end. He was giving a nice send off at his final council meeting, and will be awarded an honorary title on the council in recognition of his service.

Matt Bright (Princes Park, Con) – Cllr Bright not fighting his seat was a curious one. One of the younger members of the Conservative group, in a relatively safe seat, who never rebelled against his party in the chamber, he should have been a rising star. Alas, it was not to be.

David Colman (Gillingham South, Lab) – The Man Who Never Planned To Be A Councillor. The legend goes that at the last elections, Cllr Colman was merely a paper candidate, who was never supposed to win, but the collapse of the Lib Dem vote in Gillingham South saw him home. He served out his term, but seem to do very little during this time, and his replacements should be far more effective for the party.

Jane Etheridge (Strood North, Con) – Cllr Etheridge was widely liked but not necessarily the most forceful voice in the chamber. That all changed at her final council meeting though, where she made it adamantly clear to the discomfort of her colleagues that she was not stepping down of her own accord, and her party had deselected her.

Paul Harriott (Twydall, Lab) – Cllr Harriott has been a councillor in Medway for a couple more decades than I’ve been alive. After 52 years, he decided to call it a day, and he remained a force in the chamber right up to the end. Like Cllr Baker, he will be given an honorary title from the council to salute his remarkable council career.

Craig Mackinley (River, Con) – Left Medway, went to stand for Parliament in South Thanet, and became the almighty Farage slayer. (What’s a South Thanet? – Keevil)

Ray Maisey (Cuxton & Halling, Con) – I genuinely don’t think I know anything about Cllr Maisey. He rarely seemed to speak, and when he did, it was fairly unremarkable. (I never even heard him speak. – Keevil)

Tony Watson (Peninsula, Con) – One of the younger, more thoughtful members of the Conservative group. It’s unclear exactly why he didn’t stand again, but it’s worth noting that he was the only Conservative Councillor to vote against his group, standing up in favour of equal marriage, in a vote in the chamber some time back. Rebellions are so rare his is the only one I can remember during the past few years, and now he isn’t a Councillor. Not that I’m suggesting there’s a connection or anything. (Well done for clarifying that. – Keevil)

The Losers

Slightly harsh perhaps (accurate – Keevil), but these are the Councillors that tried to maintain a seat, but couldn’t manage it. Some were unexpected, some less so. Interestingly, every Councillor who recently switched parties, or tried to change the seats they stood in, lost. So if you become a Councillor, you should never, ever take any risks apparently.

Christine Godwin (Luton & Wayfield, Lab, lost by 70 votes) – One of the upsets of the night, as the Tories managed to take a seat in Luton & Wayfield, nearly taking down parliamentary candidate Tristan Osborne at the same time. Instead though, Cllr Godwin ended up as the casualty, after only one term on the council.

Patricia Gulvin (Princes Park, tried to fight Chatham Central, Con) – It seems that Gulvin intended to stand down regardless, as she moved from the relatively safe seat of Princes Park to the Socialist Republic of Maple. She did fairly well in that seat, but still didn’t really trouble the counting agents.

Vaughan Hewett (Rainham North, UKIP, lost by 765 votes) – An unfortunate tactical error for Cllr Hewett, who after leaving the Conservative group last year, decided to throw his lot in with UKIP. I suspect that isn’t where his allegiances truly lay, and he didn’t get the support he needed, so he lost by a large margin. A shame as he was one of the more reasonable voices on the council.

Stephen Hubbard (Strood North, Lab, lost by 297 votes) – A decent local Councillor taken out by the rising Conservative tide. Hanging on in a split ward is always a challenge, and Cllr Hubbard bore the brunt of the national swings.

Isaac Igwe (Strood South, Lab, lost by 627 votes) – The man who famously hid in the toilet purely to avoid having to vote on equal marriage lost his seat. No tears will be shed.

Josie Iles (Strood South, Con, lost by 118 votes) – The UKIP march on Strood meant that while the Conservatives were able to win one seat in Strood South, they couldn’t win them all. Unfortunately for Cllr Iles, her record has a local councillor wasn’t strong enough to see her hang on.

Chris Irvine (Peninsula, tried to fight Rochester East, UKIP) – One of the more baffling decisions of the election was that of UKIP group leader Cllr Irvine to give up a safe seat in Peninsula to fight Rochester East. He attests that this was the right thing to do as it’s the ward he actually lives in, and that’s very noble, but it does mean the likely collapse of the UKIP group on the council, and a valuable, if antagonistic, voice being lost from the chamber.

Geoff Juby (Gillingham South, Lib Dem, lost by 1006 votes) – A crushing defeat for long time Lib Dem group leader Cllr Juby, who saw his party pushed into fourth place in the ward. While his meandering style in the chamber wasn’t the most exciting, it’s a shame to see all representation of the Lib Dems being lost from Medway Council.

Sheila Kearney (Gillingham South, tried to fight Twydall, Lib Dem) – Cllr Kearney has been in poor health for some time now, and it was clear to all observers that her candidacy in Twydall was purely to make up the (small) Lib Dem numbers.

Tom Mason (Strood Rural, UKIP, lost by 262 votes) – Another UKIP defector that almost hung on, but was pulled down by the Conservative surge. Mason only seemed to go UKIP after his Conservative association deselected him, and while he almost hung on, the Conservative surge pulled him down.

Peter Rodberg (Strood Rural, UKIP, lost by 443 votes) – See Tom Mason.

Diana Smith (Watling, Lib Dem, lost by 452 votes) – It’s previously been joked that Cllr Smith could stand under any party banner and easily win, such is her local popularity. While that did see her through previous elections, and she was still the best performing Medway Lib Dem by some margin, it wasn’t enough for her to hang on. Her abstaining on important issues will be sorely missed.

20 councillors gone means 20 new councillors in their place. What will they bring us? We’ll be finding out soon enough..

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