Torbay Council’s verbal punch-up leaves clerk in tears

It’s all kicking off in Torbay

Fierce row about who should be on committee

[If anyone can track down the Zoom recording, please drop Owl a link].

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter 

A Torbay Council meeting desended into disarray this week as councillors took an hour to decide not to have a vote.

Along the way, they created a procedural row that left one clerk too upset to continue with their duties.

In a meeting which had echoes of the famous ‘Jackie Weaver’ incident at Handforth Parish Council that went viral earlier this year, Torbay members engaged in a fierce hour-long debate over who could or could not be a member of a new group set up to scrutinise the council’s efforts at addressing its housing crisis. 

The argument arose over a disagreement over how politically balanced the committee should be.

Councillors had been sent an email inviting them to join the committee, but problems began when the response turned out better than expected.  Normally, scrutiny panels struggle to attract enough councillors to join up, but with housing being such a key issue in the Bay, many councillors were eager to take part. 

This meant that an agenda listed three Liberal Democrats, two independents and seven Conservative councillors as members. 

Fearing that the panel would be politically unbalanced (the overall council is run by a coalition of Lib Dems and independents, although the Conservatives have the largest number of councillors), Lib Dem overview and scrutiny co-ordinator Margaret Douglas-Dunbar (Clifton with Maidenway) held discussions and told group leaders to put forward a limited number of candidates of their choosing. 

The measure was meant to create a political balance reflecting the makeup of the council with three Liberal Democrat nominees, three Conservative nominees and two independents. The move was rejected by the Conservatives, who felt it was an unfair attempt to move the goalposts and that it would give their members too little input into the scrutiny process. Leader of the Conservative group councillor David Thomas (Preston), said the request was sent too late and did not put forward any nominees. 

Panel chairwoman Councillor Hazel Foster (Conservative) attempted to start the meeting with a vote to ratify the membership as printed on the agenda. Liberal Democrats were up in arms, arguing that such a move should not go ahead, given the request to form a politically balanced council.

A vote was started by Cllr Foster but was quickly interrupted when Councillor Mandy Darling (Liberal Democrat, Tormohun) questioned the democratic process saying: “I don’t recognise this and I will not be a part of this.”

It was to set the tone of a fierce back-and-forth between councillors which quickly spiralled out of control.  Chris Lewis (Conservative, Preston) said: “If this went public people would be amazed that we’re arguing about this. All members want to do the best for our community in Torbay.”

At one point, a council clerk, who is not allowed to be involved in political debates, was put in the crossfire when she was asked to weigh in. After being placed in an impossible position, the clerk became visibly distressed and was granted permission to step out of the meeting. 

The moment sparked even more bitterness. When Councillor Foster attempted again to proceed with the vote, Cllr Karen Kennedy (Independent Group, Churston with Galmpton), who wanted the meeting to be reconvened, was furious. She said: “I think it’s totally and utterly unacceptable to put a member of the council staff in a situation like this where they clearly are very very upset.

“This is out of order and it’s close to bullying and harassment. I don’t agree with what’s going on at all. It’s unfair, it’s unkind.”

Council chief executive Anne-Marie Bond was eventually drafted into the meeting, held over Zoom, to help councillors reach a consensus.

As the hour mark approached it was decided the meeting could carry on without a panel and that group leaders would agree on the make-up of the scrutiny panel before the next meeting.

Only then did invited guests finally get to discuss the housing crisis, but by then the subject had been largely overshadowed.

It’s thought more than 1,400 households are awaiting affordable accommodation in the Bay, with demand quickly outstripping any new supply. Earlier this month, the council rented all 47 rooms of The Richmond Hotel in Torquay to provide a ‘circuit breaker’ for some of its housing pressures. 

In August, the council’s leadership split opinion in its coalition when said it would not directly provide housing to Afghan refugees because of the Bay’s accommodation shortage. It subsequently launched a campaign trying to encourage landlords to provide homes but still says it won’t provide council homes to refugees fleeing the Taliban.

Torbay Council has yet to release the footage of the Zoom meeting, but is expected to do so as it generally publishes all public meetings after a few days.