Loud belch disrupts heated Plymouth council meeting

Goings-on in Devon Council meetings get curiouser and curiouser! Owl

Edward Oldfield www.plymouthherald.co.uk 

The fallout from the resignation of eight members of the Conservative group on Plymouth City Council triggered a political clash at an online public meeting.

Conservatives accused the ruling Labour group of being anti-democratic, but the leadership hit back by accusing the Tories of arrogance and ignoring the law.

At one point the council’s Labour leader Tudor Evans called on Tory leader Nick Kelly to resign over the loss of support shown by the resignations from the Conservative group.

The special meeting of the Labour-controlled council on Monday evening was called to consider how seats on its committees should be shared out following the changes.

A report said that the places of former Tory group members should be filled by Labour councillors.

That was because non-aligned councillors cannot be given a committee seat if they are outside a political group, as set out by the law covering local government.

The report said that of the 57 seats on the council, 30 were held by members of the Labour group, equal to a majority of 52.6 per cent.

There were now 17 members of the Tory group, representing 29.8 per cent of the seats, and 10 Independents making up 10 per cent – the eight Conservatives who resigned plus two former Labour group members, Chaz Singh in the Drake ward, who resigned from the party, and Kevin Neill in Stoke, who has been suspended.

Conservatives claimed the proposal to remove the Independent Conservatives from committees was anti-democratic and would weaken scrutiny of the ruling Labour administration.

They called on the Labour group to give up seats to the Independents.

But after a half-hour debate, the proposals for the new committee membership set out in the report were approved, with the newly-independent Conservatives voting alongside the Labour group in favour.

Conservative councillor Glenn Jordan said the changes meant the places of the former Tory group members would go to Labour, giving the party more seats on the scrutiny panels which monitored the council’s work.

He asked: “How is that holding the executive to account? How is that holding Cabinet to account? It’s not.”

He said if the council wanted open and transparent debate the proposals should be rejected.

Conservative group leader Nick Kelly said he was disappointed that the meeting had been called just to discuss the item, when the time could have been better used to discuss the response to Covid-19.

He said it was “quite disturbing” and a waste of resources, as the decision could have waited until the next scheduled meeting of the full council on November 16.

Cllr Kelly said it was anti-democratic to deny the former Conservative group members a chance to serve on a committee.

Lord Mayor Chris Mavin said the law was clear about how committee seats had to be allocated, and the meeting was taking place because Cllr Kelly had not accepted the proposals set out in the report.

Conservative group deputy leader Patrick Nicholson accused the Lord Mayor of shutting down debate by limiting the number of contributions to the discussion, which Cllr Mavin denied.

The Lord Mayor, who chairs full council meetings, said the process for allocating committee seats was clear under the law and he wanted to make sure the council was not wasting time.

The Labour councillor said: “What I’m not prepared to do is to spend hours sitting here tonight listening to speaker after speaker after speaker saying the same thing, because there’s not much that can be said on this.”

The council’s Labour leader Tudor Evans rejected the suggestion from Cllr Kelly that the meeting could have been spent discussing coronavirus.

He said it was taking place because of the Conservative leader’s “arrogance” and unwillingness to accept the law, which dictated how the committee places had to be allocated.

Cllr Evans said the review of the committee structure had to take place after the resignation of Conservative group members citing an “atmosphere of bullying and intimidation”, a reference to comments by former Tory council leader Ian Bowyer.

The Labour leader said: “The reason we are here is because the council cannot continue to be over-represented on committees by Conservatives.”

He said Cllr Kelly had lost support, was not able to drive the council “from the back seat” or control his group “from a position of weakness” and should resign.

Cllr Nicholson responded to claims about the reason for the Tory resignations, saying he could reassure the council that there was not an atmosphere of bullying in the group, but there had been disagreement about approach.

He said: “We in the Conservative group do very much wish to hold the Labour authority to account to get better services for the people we represent throughout the city of Plymouth.”

The Conservative deputy leader said: “We’re not seeing a democratic city council.”

Cllr Nicholson said the Labour group could give up committee seats so the non-aligned councillors could have a role on committees outside meetings of the full council.

After half an hour of discussion, Labour’s Mary Aspinall proposed moving to a vote on the issue, seconded by Labour’s Sam Davey. That was approved, followed by a second vote which passed the recommendations for the new committee membership by 37 votes to 16.

The meeting held remotely over the internet using Microsoft Teams software was interrupted several times with councillors raising points of order. At one point during the first vote, a loud belch was picked up by a microphone, although the source was unclear.

Eight members of the Conservative group resigned over a week during October, citing concerns over the leadership following the election of Cllr Kelly in March.

The first two to go were former group leader and Eggbuckland councillor Ian Bowyer and Tony Carson, who represents Peverell.

That followed their suspension from the group for comments in a press release calling for a cut in the speed limit on the A38, due to concerns about safety and congestion.

Cllr Kelly denied a claim from Cllr Bowyer that there was a culture of “aggression and intimidation” in the group and said the press release had broken group rules and did not represent policy.

Cllr Bowyer’s Conservative colleagues in Eggbuckland, his wife Lynda and Heath Cook, were the next to leave, saying they had lost confidence in the leadership.

Andrea Johnson and Richard Ball, who represent Compton alongside Cllr Kelly, quit two days later citing “irreconcilable differences”.

Then came the resignations of Kathy Watkin, ward councillor for Plymstock Radford, and Plymstock Dunstone councillor Nigel Churchill.

Cllr Kelly responded to claims about the leadership by saying that he was supported by the majority of the Conservative group which operated in an “open and democratic way”, and he encouraged freedom of speech, wider group participation and the expression of all views.

He said: “Cllr Bowyer has simply not accepted, even six months on, that the majority of the group no longer wanted him as leader and his actions to many sadly reflect this.”

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