The Medway Commercial Group (MCG) has been in the news recently, whether it be over issues regarding CCTV or potential controversy regarding the building of a new Independent SEN School. Who or what is MCG? Keevil set to impartially find out, using an alternate delivery model of as many screen shots as possible to save on typing.
It remains curious why Alan Jarrett, the Leader of Medway Council, promoted Mackness to the Children’s Services portfolio, even after the original allegations came to light.
We reached out to the Medway Conservative group for comment on this story, and received this response to the situation from Cllr Mackness:
“It is imperative for elected Members to be transparent in their work, as I am at all times, which is why I declared my interest at Hook Meadow in the first instance, along with my other declarations. The declaration in relation to Hook Meadow was incorrect and was not a pecuniary interest at all and should not have been listed. I have no financial interest in this site at all and it has been removed. This is pure administrative error on my part.
Whilst I of all people am keen for this to be resolved, there is a process that must be followed, I have co-operated completely with Medway Council’s legal department, and should the Police be in contact, I will be pleased to assist them in any way that I can to conclude this matter.
When this matter is concluded I will be asking for a review of the whole process, having been unable to comment or be interviewed at any stage by the Councillor conduct committee, which is a ridiculous situation.
The matter raised by the Labour group is a clear attempt to damage my reputation and nothing else.”
The Medway Labour group have formally written to Medway Council’s Monitoring Officer to complain about the actions of Conservative councillor for River ward, Andrew Mackness, alleging a breach of the council’s rules regarding conflicts of interest.
Cllr Mackness and the Hook Meadow redevelopment
Cllr Mackness is part of the governing cabinet of Medway Council, as the portfolio holder for Children’s Services. As such, any decisions the council needs to take about redeveloping or selling off council assets would be a decision for him and the other nine cabinet members.
On 12 February 2016, Cllr Mackness added a new role to his register of interests: ‘Consultant Hook Meadow Library Site Redevelopment’. This in itself may have raised a few eyebrows as at the time there were no known council plans to redevelop the Hook Meadow site, but there’s nothing problematic about this appointment in itself.
Things took a bit of a turn on 7 June, when an item appeared on the cabinet agenda that involved the disposal and redevelopment on a number of council sites, including Hook Meadow. According to the minutes of the meeting, no disclosable conflicts of interest were recorded:
As per the council’s code of conduct (set out below), Cllr Mackness should have removed himself from the discussion the disposal of the Hook Meadow site, but he remained in the room, and voted for the disposal and redevelopment of the site.
Following the council’s processes, the Medway Labour group ‘called in’ the disposal of Hook Meadow and another community centre, claiming they were being carried out without proper consultation. As such, on 9 August, the issue once again returned to cabinet for discussion. Once again, the minutes again show no declaration of interest from Cllr Mackness, despite another cabinet member declaring a similar interest and removing themselves from the room:
Once again, Cllr Mackness took part in the discussion on the proposals for Hook Meadow, and once again voted for the disposal of the site:
The Medway Council Code of Conduct sets out the rights and responsibilities of all councillors when it comes to declaring interests outside of their council role:
You must act solely in the public interest and should never improperly confer an advantage or disadvantage on any person or act to gain financial or other material benefits for yourself, your family, a friend or close associate.
You must not place yourself under a financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence you in the performance of your official duties.
When carrying out your public duties you must make all choices, such as making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards or benefits, on merit.
You must declare any Disclosable Pecuniary Interests as required by law.
You must, when using or authorising the use by others of the resources of your authority, ensure that such resources are not use improperly for political purposes (including party political purposes) and you must have regard to any applicable Local Authority Code of Publicity made under the Local Government Act 1986.
The Code of Conduct goes on to state that all entries to the register of interests must be complete and up to date, and states the following regarding the participation in relevant meetings:
Unless dispensation has been granted, you may not participate in any discussion of or vote onto any matter in which you have a DPI.
Failure, without reasonable excuse, to comply with the above provisions as to notification and disclosure of DPIs and participation in a matter in which you have a DPI is a criminal offence in accordance with section 34 of the Localism Act 2011.
Unless dispensation has been granted, you must leave the room during any discussion of or vote on any matter in which you have a DPI.
Following all of this, Cllr Vince Maple, leader of the Medway Labour group, has written to Perry Holmes, the Monitoring Officer of the council, to ask whether the actions of Cllr Mackness have been appropriate.
Cllr Maple suggests that Cllr Mackness has not met the seven principles of councillors – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. He goes on to ask further questions, the answers of which are all in the public interest:
All Councillors are given access to Council officers. Consultants for developers are not. Has Councillor Mackness received access to Council officers in his capacity as a ‘Consultant’ that he would not have received were he not a Councillor?
Do you believe that it was appropriate for a Councillor to be voting, in his capacity as a Cabinet member, on a decision on which he clearly has a vested interest?
Do you believe that it is right for the Leader of the Council to keep Councillor Mackness in post knowing that he would be voting on a decision which would directly influence him in his role as a ‘Consultant’?
Clearly, these are all questions that need answering. That Cllr Mackness chose to both declare his interest in the redevelopment and participate in meetings where decisions on it would be taken is questionable at best. That the leader of the council allowed this to go on without question shows anything from poor judgment to outright arrogance.
It’s unclear exactly what will happen from here. The council’s internal procedures for dealing with complaints are notoriously toothles, the system being so perverse that a panel made up primarily of his colleagues would assess the issue. At the very least though, it allows the Medway Labour group to make some noise about such things, as they will tomorrow (13 October) when Cllr Griffiths asks the following slightly awkward question at full council:
It may well be that, despite all of the above, Cllr Mackness hasn’t done anything that formally breaks the code of conduct. But if that is indeed the case – and that a paid ‘consultant’ on a redevelopment is allowed to vote on the very same redevelopment – it does raise very serious questions about the rules that are currently in place.
Update 14 October: The matter has now been referred to the police. More details here.
Reviewing the Boundary Review
On Tuesday, the Boundary Commission for England unveiled their proposed new constituency boundaries. There were no huge changes for Medway, but a fair number of little ones. Higham will be brought into the Rochester and Strood constituency, Lordswood and Capstone will move to Gillingham and Rainham, and Chatham and Aylesford is set to become Chatham and the Mallings. The proposed boundaries are now subject to a lengthy consultation period, so it’ll be next year before we hear any final plans.
In a rare bout of organisation, the Medway Lib Dems managed to be the first party to select their candidate for the Strood South by-election. In an even more unusual step, they’ve selected a new – and young – candidate, 18 year old activist Isabelle Cherry. Cherry’s campaign will apparently focus on issues like school improvement, litter, and public transport, so all fairly safe, but at the least the Medway Lib Dems are putting up a fight once again.
Return of the Iles
In perhaps the least surprising Strood South selection, the Conservatives have selected Josie Iles as their candidate for the Strood South by-election. Iles is a former mayor of Medway, and was the Councillor for Strood South up until losing her seat to UKIP last year. Going into the election, she remains the odds on favourite to retake the seat.
Other Strood South candidates Not much else to report on the Strood South by-election front, despite the fact that the election is a mere 31 days until the election takes place. UKIP have two candidates to choose between (one being former local chairman Chris Spalding), Medway Labour have about 800 people putting themselves forward, and the Greens apparently have a candidate, but are busy filling out the paperwork to announce who it is.
Councillor allowances As per their legal obligations, Medway Council recently published the details of councillor allowances paid for 2015-2016. The small problem with this is that they seemingly did a horrifically sloppy job with it, as Medway blogger Alan Collins covered in forensic detail. The sheer number of errors in the document raises serious concerns about the openness and transparency of Medway Council.
Following last week’s sad passing of Councillor Mike O’Brien, a necessary reshuffle took this week within the Cabinet. Councillor Andrew Mackness will take over O’Brien’s education portfolio, with new Councillor Martin Potter taking on the new portfolio of educational improvement. The former corporate services portfolio of Councillor Mackness will be split amongst several other Cabinet members.
We haven’t written an actual post about the referendum, because what can you say, really? We try and remain impartial with this site, yet this was a decision we cared greatly about, and impacts our futures in a big way.
In the next couple of days, we’ll get something up on the exact results from Medway and what it might mean, but for now, let’s do what we always do: snark mercilessly about what each of the parties have been up to in the past couple of weeks.
Medway MPs in Parliament
Neverendum When it all came down it, our three Medway MPs managed to provide three different stances for where they stood on the referendum. Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst decided to focus on her career by endorsing remain, which will have seemed like a horrible mistake by Friday. Gillingham and Rainham MP Rehman Chishti went for leave, which probably sets himself up nicely for this post-Brexit world. Finally, Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch decided to vote, but not tell us how. Which is absolutely her right, but we wonder how that might go down with her constituents down the line.
Medway Labour Utterly incredibly, it’s now been 17 weeks since the Medway Labour website was hacked, proving a security risk to user’s visiting, and they still haven’t managed to fix it. And yes, we are going to mention this every single time until they do something about it.
It’s hard to keep track of all of the animosity between Labour councillors and activists on Twitter at this point, but it’s worth noting that three councillors – Tristan Osborne, Naushabah Khan, and Andy Stamp – all called for Corbyn to step down this week. Which went down with certain activists like a cup of warm sick.
Medway UKIP Still missing, because.. wait, why the hell would they be missing at this point?
Medway Liberal Democrats Unsurprisingly, they aren’t thrilled about the referendum result, and dealt with it the best way they know how: a 60,000 word essay about it on their website.
Matthew Scott is Kent’s new Police and Crime Commissioner – full story Last week, after an uninspiring campaign period, voters of Kent went to the polls to select a new Police and Crime Commissioner for Kent after sitting Commissioner Ann Barnes decided to stand down. Matthew Scott for the Conservatives was victorious, beating second placed Henry Bolton of UKIP. We had full analysis of the results, including an awful lot of graphs.
The Medway Council April ding dong – full story Medway Council held it’s April meeting, which featured such exciting events as a new mayor being selected, and some revelations on the EU referendum. As usual, we were there to livetweet the proceedings, and you can catch up with all of the highlights above.
Medway MPs in Parliament
Save Sod the children In one of the most remarkable votes of this parliament so far, both Gillingham and Rainham MP Rehman Chishti and Rochester and Strood MP Kelly Tolhurst voted against allowing unaccompanied child refugees into the UK. Kelly Tolhurst even spoke at length in the parliamentary debate on why taking needy children in would be such a terrible thing to do. Of course, it’s all slightly moot now as it seems the government will u-turn and allow the children in after all, but it’s worth remembering that the first instinct of Medway MPs was to refuse to help children in need.
In, out, shake it all about Six weeks out from the EU referendum, and our three Medway MPs are still declining to reveal where they stand on this incredibly important issue. It almost seems like they are all attempting to run out the clock and not tell their constituents where they stand, to avoid any awkward confrontations with their local party members.
Medway Conservatives Missing, because after winning the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner election, they don’t really need to bother doing anything.
Medway Labour Utterly incredibly, it’s now been ten weeks since the Medway Labour website was hacked, proving a security risk to user’s visiting, and they still haven’t managed to fix it. Yet they’d like the voters to hand them the keys to Gun Wharf.
Medway UKIP Curious events within Rochester and Strood UKIP as chairman Chris Spalding stepped down from the role. No reason was given for this, but rumours of disharmony within the local party over the actions of Medway UKIP leader on Medway Council Roy Freshwater may well have played a part.
In a rare bout of local campaigning, the very same Cllr Freshwater was out and about in Chatham, encouraging people to leave the EU. Obviously.
Medway Green Party As you might expect, the local Greens are a little concerned about Medway’s new local plan allowing housing development on green spaces, particularly after leader of the council Alan Jarrett stated that this would be necessary.
Reckless move After being unceremoniously losing his Westminster seat in last year’s general election, Mark Reckless made his return to mainstream politics after being elected to – of all places – the Welsh Assembly. While we wish Mark well in his new venture, we are left wondering what will happen with his wife’s council seat in Strood South. Will she be resigning this to head to Wales, or will Mark be taking in one hell of a commute? Either way, it’s a question that Cllr Andrew Mackness is eager to get the bottom of.
Serious allegations raised about Kelly Tolhurst’s campaign spending Channel 4 News crunched the numbers of the Rochester & Strood by-election in November 2014, noting that the Conservatives may have exceeded the spending limit by over £50,000. Notts Police have begun an investigation following similar claims over the Newark by-election, but so far, Kent Police have said nothing on the matter. Kelly Tolhurst has, for her part, managed to keep her head down and not make any comment on the issue.
Also this week, MPs voted to reduce the Revenue Support Grant, the main grant for funding local councils, by 24.6%. Unsurprisingly, both Rehman Chishti and Kelly Tolhurst voted for the cut. Given both are also councillors on Medway Council, this may put them at odds with certain council colleagues who are unhappy with the reductions.
Medway Council is continuing to develop it’s Local Plan, where it needs to find room for tens of thousands of new houses over the next two decades. All of the documents for this and the ability to respond to the consultation are available via this webpage. Alternatively, you can go along to a local event to see more detail and discuss it with council officers. This week’s events are:
Medway Park, Gillingham – Tuesday (10am – noon)
Riverside Country Park – Thursday (11am – 2pm)
Capstone Country Park – Friday (11am – 2pm)
Rochester Farmers Market – Sunday (10am – noon)
By now, you’re mostly likely aware of the Rochester Town Council campaign. It’s been running for a while now, with the primary aim to give Rochester more say over it’s own affairs. This article is not about the pros and cons of such a council, it’s about the process and barriers that the campaign is having to deal with.
Disclosure: I am a supporter of the Rochester Town Council campaign, and signed it’s petition. The reason this is relevant will become clear later on.
The campaign for a town council formally began in March of this year. It needed to collect signatures from 7.5% of registered electors in the area of the proposed council to trigger a Community Governance Review. This essentially forces the council to hold a full consultation on whether or not a new council needs to be created. 7.5% of the electors of Rochester meant 1644 signatures were required to meet this threshold.
Throughout the campaign, Medway Council have made their feelings on the matter clear. Despite the fact they have to give the campaign a fair hearing via the Community Governance Reviews, cabinet members (especially the portfolio holder for Democracy and Governance, Andrew Mackness) have stated on several occasions that they see no merit in creating an additional layer of local government in Medway. While this can be dismissed as personal opinion, there are some rather more worrying signs from the council about their commitment to treating the campaign fairly.
In October, the campaign formally submitted their petition to Medway Council, having collected 1785 (141 more than required) signatures in the previous seven months. After two months, the council declared the petition to be invalid, after refusing to accept signatures collected online rather than on paper, despite previous suggestions that these would be accepted. Granted, the campaign should have probably done more to ensure they had the status of online signatures in writing, but it’s not difficult to look at this and wonder why the council didn’t flag this earlier.
The second issue is the way in which the council is verifying the signatures, even those submitted on paper. The council decided to compare the submitted signatures with those on June’s electoral register. This was not the start of the campaign, nor was it the end, instead it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s also how they were able to deny my own signature.
I moved into the town council petition area in September. I duly notified the council and added myself to the electoral register, and received confirmation in writing that I had been accepted. As such, I signed the Rochester Town Council petition, yet have since discovered that my own signature was declared invalid as I didn’t live within the town in June. Which leaves me in a slightly odd position of living within Rochester, being on the electoral roll in Rochester, while also apparently not being a valid resident of Rochester at the same time. I am Schrödinger’s constituent.
The Rochester Town Council campaign are not giving up though, instead attempting to collect all of the online signatures on paper (and some extras too). These will be submitted to the council in the new year, when the council hopefully won’t find another arbitrary hurdle that the campaign has to overcome.
We kind of thought we’d be done writing about the restriction of public questions at Medway Council. We did our little experiment, published our thoughts more than once, and the whole thing was inevitably waved through at last month’s council meeting. So imagine our surprise when Cllr Andrew Mackness, the portfolio holder behind the changes, got in touch following the vote to comment on our approach. His statement is presented below, unedited:
I can appreciate the frustration of running a political blog and only getting a limited response from members, I really can. I would also note that any resident committing time to blogging about local government should be commended. Not least the commitment to still be at full council going into the 5th day of Local Democracy week! However, it is disingenuous to infer that because members haven’t responded to an overtly political blog that they are not responding to constituents. I am sure that my colleagues from across the chamber won’t mind me saying that the great majority of ward work is apolitical and that as a ward councillor you don’t assess a case for its political volatility or opportunity to score points. Having just given evidence to the Independent Remuneration Panel, when their report comes out, I understand it will have an analysis of the time commitments made by ward councillors. I hope that this will be a more concrete form of evidence than a round robin email. When it comes out, I would be happy to bring the report to your attention, if this would be of help.
We appreciate the fact that Cllr Mackness has taken time to respond to us on this issue, but unfortunately, we also feel we must take issue with some points he raises.
We accept that a “round robin” email isn’t a good way to assess how well councillors are doing their jobs, nor was it necessarily supposed to prove that one way or the other. The intent behind our experiment was to simply see how likely one was to get a response, as email has often been cited as an alternative option given the removal of questions in the chamber.
The problem here is the removal of the public record. Of course this kind of email isn’t an ideal way to see how well a councillor does their job, and nor should it be, but when the on the record options in the chamber was severely restricted, exactly how else are we supposed to judge how responsive a councillor is? We know a good number of councillors from all parties go considerably above and beyond their duties, just as we know there are some that don’t. The issue is that as each aspect of public scrutiny is removed, it becomes increasingly difficult for the average member of the public to gauge how much their councillor is doing.
It’s also disappointing that we’re being painted as an “overtly political blog”, though we’re not entirely sure how to be a covertly political blog. We have stances, but we have gone to great lengths to engage and give a platform to parties and politicians of all stripes. Even if Cllr Mackness feels we don’t deserve to be regarded as press when it comes to politics in Medway, it’s unfortunate that we weren’t seen as deserving as answers as residents either.
We’ll be very happy to look at (and cover) the findings of the Independent Renumeration Panel on how much councillors are doing, in the same way we’re happy to look at anything that gives us a glimpse into how councillors are or are not performing. Until then though, we’ll go on the evidence we’ve managed to collect so far.
Unless something changes in the coming months, this will likely be the last gasp of the public questions issue for now.
So, what are we to make of Medway Council’s proposal to limit public questions because email is apparently a good alternative when hardly any councillors answer their emails?
As our investigation established, only 14 out of 55 Medway councillors bothered to reply to questions. More damningly, not a single member of the Cabinet – the councillors that currently answer public questions in meetings – responded in any way.
To reiterate, the people that are currently forced to answer questions at meetings are the least likely to answer public questions by choice.
At the previous council meeting, Cllr Mackness, the portfolio holder in charge of this issue, insisted that public questions were not needed because residents can contact him via email.
Cllr Mackness did not respond to our email with questions on the subject.
That is not to say that public questions at Medway Council meetings shouldn’t be reformed in any way. Many councils only allow the public to ask one question and a supplementary at meetings, whereas Medway allows two plus two supplementaries. A number of councils limit any member of the public to only asking questions at two meetings per year, whereas Medway allows the same person to ask questions at every meeting, so four times per year.
A more interesting arrangement is that a number of councils have a smaller number of public questions at full council meetings, but allow 10-15 minutes of public questions at all other meetings, from planning committees to overview and scrutiny committees. This allows questions to be asked, on the record, at more specialist meetings, on relevant topics. If the aim of the proposed changes to stop grandstanding at the (relatively) well attended full council meeting, this would seem like a good solution that still maintains public scrutiny. Indeed, Tony Jeacock, the Medway Liberal Democrat chairman will ask whether or not this is possible at Thursday’s meeting.
It is unlikely that much can be done to stop the proposals. They will go to a vote on Thursday, and the Conservatives have such a stranglehold over the council in Medway, with the councillors terrified of defying the party whip, that it seems all but certain that these changes will happen. With four years until the next elections and an opposition that borders on irrelevant, it’s very likely that after Thursday, proper public scrutiny in Medway will be a thing of the past.