And this time it’s personal.
Hello, it’s me again. I have some news. I can also once again call myself Lord B: for reasons set down below I’ve had to be plain Mr B.
It feels strange writing about local politics in this strange time of chaotic national weirdness; it feels parochial and trivial against the constitutional contortions and internecine warfare that is witnessing, like staring up at a dying sun, the Conservative Party collapses in on itself.
Yet their is relevance as the local scene can often feel like a microcosm of the national, and after what I’ve been through over the last 18 months, which I will try and describe here, has much cross- over maybe not in scale, but in the behavior of those who feel that ruling is not an honour, not a responsibility, but a given right.
It also has a happy ending, of sorts. Let’s hope I’m ahead of the national picture on that one.
If you’ve read this blog over time, you’ll be aware that myself and Thomas Roberts conducted a very deep, very detailed investigation into Broxtowe Borough Council, and how the Conservative administration, in cahoots with the senior management of the council, had created a chaotic, toxic environment that had serious financial repercussions on the authority.
This financial black-hole, not helped by costly pay-offs to staff dismissed in unfair circumstances and the appointment of expensive temporary management staff, led to a rapid sell-off of assets. One such building put on the market was Beeston Town Hall, home to the very council that was selling it. The symbolism would make even the broadest satirical hack blush.
Thomas and I identified many bad actors, and called them out. This was at tremendous
risk: we know that the then head of council Cllr Richard Jackson was looking to sue us at the time and we know he even tried to bring in the police at one point. Chief Executive Ruth Hyde was livid at our revelations, especially when we revealed the conflict of interest she had with selling the Town Hall off to a branch of the homophobic and misogynistic Evangelical Alliance, of which she was a member. Everything therefore was assiduously cross-checked, researched in multiple different directions and sources vetted, cross-examined and, naturally, given absolute anonymity and protection. It was the most intense journalism that I have ever done, and the most terrifying. Yet it had to be done. Nobody else was doing it.
If you’d like to support our investigative work, a small donation will be mightily appreciated: every penny will be spent on coffee to accompany hunching over screens for hours reading pages of terminally dull spreadsheets: https://www.paypal.me/BEESTONIA
It also really, really annoyed the council who assumed we’d trip up and leave ourselves open to being sued. That frustration boiled over at a council meeting on the 7th March 2018 where the Town Hall’s fate was sealed. Tory Councillors attacked the work Thomas
and I were doing, calling as ‘fantasists’ and so on, knowing full-well that as observers to the meeting we had no right of reply. The public gallery, full of people who had no previous experience of attending council meetings, were amazed at the arrogance “I thought you were joking when I read your stories of what goes off here” said one “Now I’m surprised you kept so calm”. It was a disgraceful display, not least from the awful, outright racist Cllr Philip Owen, pomposity made flesh.
Worse was to come. As the meeting broke up I was talking to a couple of others who’d witnessed the farrago. Suddenly, a hand was on prodding in my chest and I looked down to see Cllr. Shane Easom, Kimberley Tory. He was at first incoherent, then I realised he was livid as I’d mentioned his dog in a story. To update those who aren’t regular readers, Cllr. Easom loves his town so much he was caught on CCTV letting his dog shit in the park and not clearing it up. He ranted that the dog had since died, with some bizarre implication I was somehow to blame. I’ve been blamed for many things, but killing dogs isn’t my thing. I’m not a Liberal Democrat.
While I was trying to absorb this bombshell, Cllr. Mel Crow, who has form in behaving awfully, launched a pincer attack and began to harangue me. This was, it is important to clarify, all within the council chamber. She told me Cllr Easom had been ‘very close to that dog’, and then called me a liar and writing untruths. Crow is a solicitor, so I’m sure that she would sue me on the spot should this be true: my legal experience only goes as far as doing the photocopying at Nottingham Law School a decade ago. I pointed this out, inviting her to take us to court, and she stormed out, mouthing ‘fuck off’ at me.
I’m seen some awful behaviour in local politics, but this felt coordinated with intent. It was intimidation, orchestrated to stop me reporting on their misdeeds.
And it worked.
I left feeling sorely depressed. All the work Thomas and I had done was to nowt. They ruled, and they did with arrogance and accountability. They could lie, they could disassemble, they could fib with impunity, and there was no sanction against them. For what it was worth, I filed a complaint with the council about member’s behaviour, and effectively wrapped up ten years of running this blog. I wrote a final piece about how flat-earthers now ran the (pancake-dimensioned) world, and packed in.
I received acknowledgement of the complaint – put it out of a tetchy stubbornness, more than anything- and then nothing. I repeatedly asked what was happening to it, but no response. Only when my repeated public tweets started to gain traction did Broxtowe respond, three times claiming they’d contact me the following day: this never happened, and when I queried this they told me not to contact them on Twitter, but directly. Sterling work, comms. team.
They did nothing. The complaint sat there, ignored, while councillors carried on being awful. My suspicion that they didn’t want to investigate as they didn’t want to be accountable was confirmed. Reluctantly, and only after much nagging, did they interview witnesses from the public gallery. Nine months after the event, of course, when memories wouldn’t have been as sharp (both witnesses later contacted me highly annoyed that they were called so late, when they couldn’t remember clearly and obviously had more scruples than the councillors in wishing to present as honest a picture of the event as possible).
Meanwhile, the Cllrs. Crow and Easom were interviewed. The usual process in any meeting is to keep notes of an interview, at the very least for your own record. Yet these were not kept. Or were they, but withheld purposely? Incompetence, or something much worse? Either way, not a good look, and grossly unfair.
I was tempted to give up on multiple occasions. The investigation was clearly partial and would not be conducted fairly. Time passed, life happened. My beautiful baby son grew into a wonderful toddler. We started house-hunting, and found one, from where I am typing right now. My magazine thrived. My day job became more fascinating and enjoyable. Good books were read. Bad books were discarded. I grew a beard. My wife commented it was ‘almost like a real beard’. I shaved the beard off. Cllr Owen, the bigot’s bigot, was reported to the police for racist remarks. Local elections were held, and the Tories lost their control. Time passed, life happened.
Yet I’m a stubborn bastard at times. Of course it would be a whitewash, I reasoned, but I’d make them do their jobs to the end. So I persevered, and each time they thought I’d let it drift away, I’d ask for an update. Broxtowe Borough Council’s own complaint code says it aims to resolve all complaints in 20-days. After 200 days of non-resolution, I decided to take things a step further. I called in the Ombudsman.
The LGO (Local Gov. Ombudsman) oversee councils and I do not envy their workload. They also deal with social care cases, in a sector that has had itself gutted by Tory austerity. I didn’t expect much from them, but I was wrong.
They took up my case that Broxtowe were not investigating my complaint seriously, and their clarity, professionalism and openness stood in stark contrast to Broxtowe’s behaviour. They kept me constantly updated, telling me how Broxtowe were not handing over requested documents or prevaricating in some way or another, and how they would persevere regardless. And so they did. In early July 2019, they reached a conclusion.
The council were found to be in fault in multiple areas:
20. The Monitoring Officer spoke to one of the councillors about the complaint almost
a year after the incident. The Council delayed speaking to the councillor and
failed to keep a record of the discussion. This was fault.
21. The Monitoring Officer did not speak to the other councillor, but instead relied on
an email about the incident which she sent before Mr B complained. The Council
should have told the councillor about the complaint and it should have written to
both councillors with its findings. It did not do so; this was fault.
22. The Monitoring Officer, in consultation with the Independent Person, decided in
June 2018 that Mr B’s complaint about these two councillors did not justify the
cost of an external investigation, but that the Monitoring Officer should make
further enquiries. The Council should have written to Mr B to tell him its decision,and the reasons for its decision. It did not do so; this was fault.
As a result, it is not clear if the Council decided that the complaint merited formal investigation, or whether it was decided more information was needed before it could reach a decision on whether a formal investigation was needed.
23. In any event, the Monitoring Officer did investigate the complaint. The policy says
that where a complaint merits investigation, the Monitoring Officer will appoint an
Investigating Officer, who can be a senior officer of the Council. The failure to do
this resulted in an inadequate investigation and significant delays.
24. The failings in this case have caused Mr B frustration and put him to avoidable
time and trouble. He has also been left with uncertainty as to whether a different
decision would have been reached if there had been no fault by the Council.
TLDR: My complaint was in turns ignored, not taken seriously, and whitewashed.
Jeez. The system works. At least, the ombudsman part works. The council, who for years I’ve been shouting about and tirelessly researching, writing and risking my livelihood over, have been found to be an utter mess. But it didn’t stop there.
You may note that I said that the Ombudsman reached these conclusions in early July. You may take a look out the window, and note the browning leaves and shortening days show its September. You might wonder why I’m only just telling you this.
Because even after THEIR OWN OMBUDSMAN had found against them, Broxtowe refused to admit fault. They would not apologise, they would not pay the suggested compensation. They held out for another two months. I rang the Ombudsman, and asked what was happening. They were as bemused as I was, and explained this wasn’t usual. Being legally barred from writing about the council, once a strand of income and reputational worth for me, was extended for another two months.
Eventually, and I don’t know why, they buckled. Two days ago Broxtowe Borough Council admitted culpability in screwing up my case, and agreed to pay compensation and issue a full apology (yet have to be received. If previous trends govern when this will be, it will be a nice letter to arrive with the Monarch’s telegraph wishing me a happy 100th).
Now I’m free to talk about this, I’m going to start asking some questions.
- What was the Chief Executives role in this? Did she try and stop / slow down the investigation?
- Did Cllr. Richard Jackson exert pressure on the Monitoring Officer to not investigate fully, due to the delicate timing moving into an election phase?
- Why were no notes kept of the meetings with councillors? What was said?
- Why did the council refuse to accept the LGO’s findings?
- Will they reexamine the complaint in light of the findings of the ombudsman?
- Now the investigation is over and Broxtowe has been found at home, will Cllrs. Crow, Easom and Owen care to repeat their claims on record? I will happily take you to court, and invite you to do the same to me when I am now free to describe you as nasty people in politics for nothing but their own gain?
- Will the new administration: a rainbow coalition of Labour, Lib Dems and Indies, take a serious look at what is happening within the council’s senior management?
I will not let this drop. I’ll also be resuming investigations into the way the council was ran during the Conservative rule, and how the sacred split between the executive and the political may have been compromised. I won’t be the only one: while I have had to publicly quiet about this for a year and a half I have kept fellow journalists informally in the loop, and the council’s seeming desire to brush their behaviour under the carpet has only led to a greater scrutiny. Some pending cases look like being very revealing: now I’m at liberty to write about them, I will be doing.
Returning to the bigger picture – and in the couple of hours I’ve been writing this I’ve been idly glancing over at Twitter and seeing more political drama pop up than an entire year’s worth pre-2016 to the extent I can’t even confidentially tell you who is in power right now – there are parallels, and I’m not just saying that to get this blog’s readership extended beyond the borough’s borders.
They can lie. They can abuse systems. They can obfuscate, they can arrogantly assume that they are born to rule, and you are born to be their lessers. We currently have a government led (citation needed) who lies to get by. Being a clubbable type of guy, he’s been given a free pass to do so by many sectors of the media and the political sphere because they wish to be clubbable guys.
But the mask can, and seemingly has, slipped. The lies, the gaslighting, the denial of reality is being called out. Boris Johnson is proving to be a tetchy incompetent mess, not the saviour his followers – and terrifyingly, his own ego – assumed. Dominic Cummings is being exposed not as a master strategist, but a yobbish bluffer. The edifice is disintegrating, the narrative changing.
There are those who I will disagree with on most policy who do at least share some common ground with me: the framework of democracy can be frustrating, can seem arcane: but if you arrogantly assume it does not apply to you, then you are mistaken. There are enough people left to make sure you will be pulled up, you will be resisted, you will be pushed back. I write about local democracy not because I want to bring it down: I write about it because I am a huge believer in it, and feel a great need to protect it from those who seek to damage and destroy it.
My own 18 month experience has been depressing, disheartening and at times made me wonder what the point was when Jarvis Cocker seemed to sort it out in a song a few years ago, but with a bit of tenacity we CAN beat them. One small local government case is nothing compared to the vastness of dysfunction right now, but for me it has blown flame back onto the kindling that needs to be burning. As Boris Johnson would no doubt put it, in the hope we would lie prostrate and supine at his superior Latin aphorisms, Illegitimi non carborundum.
We’ll say it as it mean to be said, and with resolution to resist: Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.
Throughout the case, the LGO assigned me the name ‘Mr B’ to assume anonymity. I was tempted at times to ask them to change it to ‘Lord B’, if not just to confuse former Tory Cllr. Adam Stockwell, who, not being the brightest of bulbs in a field of dull bulbs, once tweeted about my hypocrisy of both being ‘A Lord and a supporter of socialist policies’. Thank god Stapleford booted him out.