Are we being gagged?

September 13, 2010 3:06 PM

Recently, in the middle of the night, I awoke from a dream in which I was being forcibly gagged. I quickly reassured myself with the thought that, while it may be known for many things, Norfolk is not a county markedly recognised for sheltering roaming gangs of serial nocturnal gaggers. Then the source of the dream came to me; it was what I had been reading in the Eastern Daily Press (“EDP”), our local newspaper.


Sheringham, a popular small seaside town here, is currently the scene of a supermarket war between Tesco and Waitrose. This has torn the local population in two. The umpire is North Norfolk District Council (“NNDC”) whose planning committee has been struggling for ages now with the two rival planning applications. What did the EDP report that caused me my problem? You will have to be patient with me. It is a longish story.


At a planning committee meeting in March this year, one of the committee members – Cllr Penny Beavan Jones – expressed the opinion that the Waitrose scheme should be preferred, because the elderly and disabled would find the experience of a ride on an electric bus to the Waitrose store “the highlight of their week”. Of course, in terms of planning law and policy, Cllr Jones’s opinion of what the elderly and disabled might or might not enjoy is entirely irrelevant to the determination of two controversial planning applications. (It is hardly – for those of you in the know – a “material consideration”.) But, we have all experienced this kind of thing before with planning committees.Gagged1


Then, however, I wondered how I would feel if I were (even) older than I am or disabled, or both. I would certainly find her statement pretty offensive. Paul and Wendy Norman of Sheringham evidently did. They made a formal complaint against Cllr Jones to the NNDC standards committee, alleging a failure on her part to “treat others with respect” as the NNDC members code of conduct requires.


The complaint was investigated, and having been subjected to the filter system, proceeded this month to a full hearing by the NNDC standards committee. It was rejected. At that point, while I sympathised greatly with Mr and Mrs Norman, I did not anticipate bad dreams. But then Norman Lamb, the usually widely respected Lib Dem MP for North Norfolk, aired his own views on these events in an article in the EDP entitled “It’s like the Thought Police have gone into overdrive”.


Mr Lamb’s thrust, if I may put it that way, was that this comment “given in good faith as part of a contribution to this local debate” did not justify the time and expenditure on the part of NNDC that it involved. In short, it should never have been entertained.


Let us look at a few facts. All local authorities are obliged to impose a code of conduct on their members. The requirement “to treat others with respect” is uniform. In 2009-2010, the NNDC standards committee received a total of fifty-three conduct complaints. Of those, twenty-five alleged a failure to treat others with respect. That, alone, should tell Mr Lamb something.


Local councillors occupy a privileged position in our communities. Sadly, in the case of a few, that brings with it an unjustified sense of self-importance. This is occasionally manifested by flippant, off-the-cuff- remarks that may not be intended deliberately to offend but, in fact, do so. That is simply not acceptable to many members of the public, as this episode illustrates. One incredibly humbling comment posted on the EDP website by a disabled reader is evidence enough of that fact.


I am terribly sorry for Mr and Mrs Norman, who undoubtedly now feel that they have done something wrong and consider that they are being punished. They have done nothing wrong. Their complaint survived a rigorous filter process, before reaching a formal hearing, and that speaks for itself. This is an example of a retrospective attempt to gag them.


But, dear readers, there is worse to come! With virtually no publicity, NNDC at the same time issued to all parish councils within its area a document entitled “Policy on Unreasonably Persistent Complainants” with the recommendation that it be adopted. In fact, one parish council has apparently already adopted the policy “without much discussion”. Individuals can be designated under this policy as “unreasonably persistent complainants” and can be made subject to official sanctions.


I have found it impossible, so far, to trace a copy of this document on the NNDC website, but it probably emanates from guidance issued by the Local Government Ombudsman (“LGO”). What, I hear you ask - isn’t that the same LGO that has a dismal record of upholding complaints against local authorities? I know of no other. And why is a complainant usually persistent?  This is frequently because his or her complaint has not been dealt with properly, e.g. no reasons given for dismissing it, or it has been ignored altogether.


And so we come back to my dream, and gagging, for this is what it is about. Local authorities owe their residents a duty to act constitutionally and within the law. When they fail in this respect, those residents must have an unrestricted right to pursue whatever is the appropriate complaints procedure without hindrance from the authority in question, and without being designated as an offender. Will I have bad dreams tonight?


John Martin, Norfolk


Recently, in the middle of the night, I awoke from a dream in which I was being forcibly gagged. I quickly reassured myself with the thought that, while it may be known for many things, Norfolk is not a county markedly recognised for sheltering roaming gangs of serial nocturnal gaggers. Then the source of the dream came to me; it was what I had been reading in the Eastern Daily Press (“EDP”), our local newspaper.


Sheringham, a popular small seaside town here, is currently the scene of a supermarket war between Tesco and Waitrose. This has torn the local population in two. The umpire is North Norfolk District Council (“NNDC”) whose planning committee has been struggling for ages now with the two rival planning applications. What did the EDP report that caused me my problem? You will have to be patient with me. It is a longish story.


At a planning committee meeting in March this year, one of the committee members – Cllr Penny Beavan Jones – expressed the opinion that the Waitrose scheme should be preferred, because the elderly and disabled would find the experience of a ride on an electric bus to the Waitrose store “the highlight of their week”. Of course, in terms of planning law and policy, Cllr Jones’s opinion of what the elderly and disabled might or might not enjoy is entirely irrelevant to the determination of two controversial planning applications. (It is hardly – for those of you in the know – a “material consideration”.) But, we have all experienced this kind of thing before with planning committees.Gagged1


Then, however, I wondered how I would feel if I were (even) older than I am or disabled, or both. I would certainly find her statement pretty offensive. Paul and Wendy Norman of Sheringham evidently did. They made a formal complaint against Cllr Jones to the NNDC standards committee, alleging a failure on her part to “treat others with respect” as the NNDC members code of conduct requires.


The complaint was investigated, and having been subjected to the filter system, proceeded this month to a full hearing by the NNDC standards committee. It was rejected. At that point, while I sympathised greatly with Mr and Mrs Norman, I did not anticipate bad dreams. But then Norman Lamb, the usually widely respected Lib Dem MP for North Norfolk, aired his own views on these events in an article in the EDP entitled “It’s like the Thought Police have gone into overdrive”.


Mr Lamb’s thrust, if I may put it that way, was that this comment “given in good faith as part of a contribution to this local debate” did not justify the time and expenditure on the part of NNDC that it involved. In short, it should never have been entertained.


Let us look at a few facts. All local authorities are obliged to impose a code of conduct on their members. The requirement “to treat others with respect” is uniform. In 2009-2010, the NNDC standards committee received a total of fifty-three conduct complaints. Of those, twenty-five alleged a failure to treat others with respect. That, alone, should tell Mr Lamb something.


Local councillors occupy a privileged position in our communities. Sadly, in the case of a few, that brings with it an unjustified sense of self-importance. This is occasionally manifested by flippant, off-the-cuff- remarks that may not be intended deliberately to offend but, in fact, do so. That is simply not acceptable to many members of the public, as this episode illustrates. One incredibly humbling comment posted on the EDP website by a disabled reader is evidence enough of that fact.


I am terribly sorry for Mr and Mrs Norman, who undoubtedly now feel that they have done something wrong and consider that they are being punished. They have done nothing wrong. Their complaint survived a rigorous filter process, before reaching a formal hearing, and that speaks for itself. This is an example of a retrospective attempt to gag them.


But, dear readers, there is worse to come! With virtually no publicity, NNDC at the same time issued to all parish councils within its area a document entitled “Policy on Unreasonably Persistent Complainants” with the recommendation that it be adopted. In fact, one parish council has apparently already adopted the policy “without much discussion”. Individuals can be designated under this policy as “unreasonably persistent complainants” and can be made subject to official sanctions.


I have found it impossible, so far, to trace a copy of this document on the NNDC website, but it probably emanates from guidance issued by the Local Government Ombudsman (“LGO”). What, I hear you ask - isn’t that the same LGO that has a dismal record of upholding complaints against local authorities? I know of no other. And why is a complainant usually persistent?  This is frequently because his or her complaint has not been dealt with properly, e.g. no reasons given for dismissing it, or it has been ignored altogether.


And so we come back to my dream, and gagging, for this is what it is about. Local authorities owe their residents a duty to act constitutionally and within the law. When they fail in this respect, those residents must have an unrestricted right to pursue whatever is the appropriate complaints procedure without hindrance from the authority in question, and without being designated as an offender. Will I have bad dreams tonight?


John Martin, Norfolk


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