Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is the Cabinet Member for Tourism and Culture on Rother District Council.
In 2015, a petition, launched by the Independents, for a community governance review of Bexhill-on-Sea was signed by the required 4,000 (ten per cent) of local electors. The initial aim of the petition was to consider the creation of an area committee for Bexhill. It was apparent that there was ostensibly more to it – the Independents wanting executive power in a Conservative majority council.
A governance review was conducted and the Governance Review Steering Group decided that various governance options, including no change and the parishing of part or all of Bexhill, should be considered. Following the due consultation process, the decision is to be made next week at full Council. The subject of Bexhill governance is a really important decision which includes the creation of an additional layer of government, additional elections, and the potential to establish an additional tax raising body, at a time when we all need to continue pulling our belts in.
The true Independents have not quite got what they bargained for. The governance review has given the Labour Party, through the pressure group Democracy4Bexhill, and backed by Momentum with its seditious, stealthy tactics, an opportunity to hijack the consultation and campaign for a town council, albeit that the review is a consultation, not a referendum.
Momentum has been inadvertently ‘helped’ by some of the Liberal Democrat and Independent opposition councillors jumping on the band wagon and actively campaigning for a town council – disappointing as all councillors were advised not to campaign for any option during the review consultation process in order to ensure transparency and fairness. One such councillor was even an Independent member of the impartial Steering Group, and subsequently discovered to be Chairman of the pressure group, Democracy4Bexhill.
Initially, Rother District Council received a pitiful response to the first stage of the consultation (around 900 responses from 44,000 population) considering that around 4,000 had signed the original petition. It was decided that, due to the low level of interest, taxpayers money (£14,000) should not be spent on leafleting individual homes for the second stage of the consultation process.
In both stages, due process was followed: the Council used a broad range of consultation methods including an on-line portal for comments, letters and emails, community engagement activities, attendance at community meetings, all of which were promoted through the Council’s dedicated consultation webpage, by direct invitation, media releases, elected Members, posters and leaflets distributed across the district and social media.
This decision not to spend taxpayers money to leaflet did not go down too well with the opposition, Democracy4Bexhill – nor Momentum. Seizing its opportunity for political mischief making, Democracy4Bexhill has been actively campaigning for a town council in the usual Momentum type manner – and councillors have been bombarded with mildly intimidating and threatening letters and emails from various ‘residents’ and Democracy4Bexhill.
“You were elected by the people do what they desire – they chose to vote for you to represent them on Rother council because they trusted you to work for the good of the residents in this part of the country…
“You have a duty to vote for the Town Council because that is what the majority of people voted for and you should respect their wishes….’
“I will be attending …… to watch the meeting next week and will watch carefully to see which of our representatives try to influence the outcome in any other way than that which the people have asked for..”
Not surprisingly, a considerably better response was received from the second stage (around 9,000), the majority expressing a preference for a town council. Other options, such as that of an area committee or parish councils, were not promoted.
At a time when there is financial uncertainty as to the future regarding Brexit and there remains a necessity to pull our belts in, I would question whether the costs associated with an additional layer of government, additional elections, and the potential to establish an additional tax raising body, is appropriate in the near future. After all, what can a town council give Bexhill that the District Council does not already give? Unlike Rye and Battle, small towns within Rother District which have town councils, Bexhill is home to the spiritual and administrative premises of the Council.
I am strongly in favour of devolution and localism and wholly take on board the benefits of town and parish councils for communities. I have, of course, been reminded repeatedly in rather patronising communication from Democracy4Bexhill that I “may or may not be aware that the Conservative Party supports the formation of town councils”.
Bexhill, home to 44,000 residents has different needs within the town. For example, Sidley is very deprived and somewhat different to Little Common which is different in turn to the Town Centre. ‘It may be challenging to have one town council when the needs are so different’ (Sussex Police response to consultation).
One resident who contacted me felt that a town council would take out party politics from this local tier of government and help bring the community together. However, there are already many competing civic groups including the Town Forum, Charter Trustees, and the Town Centre Steering Group. These are led by people with differing agendas and so I do not believe having a Town Council will take party politics out of Bexhill.
To have a Town Council in Bexhill would be an additional layer of government which would somewhat duplicate what Rother District Council and these civic groups can and already provide. Perhaps parishing Bexhill into smaller parishes would provide residents with stronger, more inclusive communities and sense of place for each parish, with their divergent needs.
But parishing has been stated by Democracy4Bexhill as a “divide and rule” idea and far too expensive. If money was the issue, surely the idea of an additional layer of government and the expense which that entails would not have been entertained in the first place. I have duly reached the conclusion that in reality, the issue is not about localism, it is about exercising the executive power that the campaigners do not have. The Labour Party has no elected district councillor’s at RDC and there are a few disgruntled Independents and Lib Dems.
Whilst I understand why many residents in Bexhill may want a town council, I wonder whether enough residents are aware of the effort their dedicated and elected representatives are making on their behalf – Bexhill already has a number of elected representatives at Rother District Council who make huge commitment in volunteering their efforts and skills.
In reality, the majority of people are generally only interested in their local authority when things go wrong. One of the arguments put forward by Democracy4Bexhill for the necessity of a town council for Bexhill is that rural councillors, who are not elected by Bexhill residents, get to decide and vote on decisions about Bexhill and can ‘outvote’ Bexhill councillors. As a rural member, I do indeed focus on my ward, but I am also a councillor for the District and I am passionate to ensure, to coin a well known phrase, that we are for the many, not the few. We are all committed to the District.
Lastly, what about the silent majority of more than 30,000 residents who did not respond to the consultation? Do we assume that they did not vote because they are content with the current governance arrangements? I see my role as an elected representative as working hard for voters, providing leadership, exercising my judgement (having listened to the arguments and understanding issues set against a wider context) and being an advocate for all the people I represent.
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” declared Edmund Burke in his speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774
I therefore have a duty to consider all options that are put to the Council and come to a decision. Having said that, and whilst all options warrant due consideration, I am concerned that revolutionary socialist Momentum is on a seditious, stealthy path in Bexhill, as it has been in Hastings.
We should all be concerned.