Councillor Call for Action (Standing Item)
To consider the “Attleborough Town Council Financial Governance and Transparency” as received by Councillors Oliver and Ashby.
Councillors Tyrer, Ellis and Grave from Attleborough Town Council were in attendance this item. Councillors Taylor and Dale were present as both Town and District Councillors.
The Chairman introduced the item that he and Councillor Ashby had brought to the Commission. There had been a series of issues that had been affecting the Town Council and its residents of late.
Town Councils were covered by different set of rules compared to District and County Councils in that they were not covered by the Local Government Ombudsman which meant it was more restrictive in the ability to have complaints considered by an independent body. Breckland Council had no formal powers over the Town Council, however, as a Scrutiny Commission, it had the ability to scrutinise any matter that pertained to the lives and wellbeing of the residents of Breckland.
The Chairman explained the background of this matter which included how the residents of Attleborough were unhappy with a number of incidents that had occurred recently within the Town Council. In March 2020, a Parish Meeting had been held where 200 residents had attended and had unanimously passed a request for two parish polls; the first had asked for the resignation of all Town Councillors and the second had asked for the Town Council to carry out an investigation of the internal processes.
Councillor Ashby added that it was extremely regrettable that Councillor Oliver and himself were required to take this course of action and was disappointed that there had not been a representative from the office of the Town Council present. He was grateful to the representatives from the Town Council who were in attendance as was keen to ask a number of questions as a result of the current confusion within the local residents of Attleborough. He continued to receive a great deal of correspondence from residents who sought clarity from what was happening within the town.
Councillor Tyrer explained that there was currently an investigation committee within Attleborough that were looking at how the Town Council had come to the position they found themselves in. He explained that he had been elected as Deputy Mayor last May, but during his tenure had not been consulted with by the Mayor or the Town Clerk on any issues within the Town Council. He felt there had been a complete lack of communication with significant dysfunctionality of which there could be a reason but he had not been made aware.
Councillor Ellis added that he too had not always received correspondence until very late but would be expected to vote on matters when he had little time to digest the information. He was also aware that the public were still not receiving any correspondence.
Councillor Grave stated that he had only been on the Town Council for one year. He felt there had been grumbling issues over the last year that had become significantly worse as time progressed. He felt that communication within the Town Council was poor and no-one wanted to explain what the issues were.
Councillor Dale felt disappointed that the people elected to sit on Attleborough Town Council, to do the best for the town were continually bickering amongst themselves. She hoped that the Investigation Committee would bring about a resolution to the issue and be able to move on.
Councillor Taylor agreed that there was a serious problem within the Town Council of which many people were aware. Regular emails sent to the Town Council from residents and businesses, including Freedom of Information requests would go unanswered or unsatisfactory responses would be received.
The Chairman raised awareness to the following issues:
· the invitation from the Commission to the Town Council to represent itself had not been made available to the Town Councillors. The response to say that the Council would not be attending was not approved by Town Councillors.
· A meeting of the full council had been cancelled with 2 minutes notice.
· Issues around the transparency of the legal fees.
· Residents had put in FOI requests and the deadline to receive a response within 20 working days had not been met.
· Members of the public had lodged complaints with the Town Council that had not been dealt with through the proper process.
Councillor Wickerson asked what powers Breckland Council had to take action against Attleborough Town Council. The Chairman confirmed that Breckland Council had no powers to sanction Attleborough Town Council, although it would have the ability to write letters, represent the views of residents, call people to give evidence and the ability to bring items to awareness through scrutiny.
Councillor Atterwill suggested the Town Councillors purchased the Local Council Administration book. He informed Members that a Town meeting could be called by two councillors or six parishioners, which would be a mechanism to hold debate. With regard to the Town Council’s finance, there should be an internal audit being carried out and asked if the audit was being conducted by an independent person. The Town Council would need to sign off the accounts and would therefore have the opportunity to challenge any concern in respect of the finances. There was also a mechanism in place to use disciplinary action against staff who denied access to information which should be carried out using the Town Councils disciplinary procedures. There was also the code of conduct route that would allow Councillors to make complaints against other councillors. He asked if the Norfolk Association of Local Councils had been invited to support, especially in the form of support for mediation.
Councillor Tyrer agreed that whilst there were mechanisms in place, they were being ignored. Mediation had been offered by Breckland Council’s Monitoring Officer but the Town Council had chosen to ignore it.
Councillor Ashby asked Councillor Tyrer for clarity in that he was aware that Councillor Tyrer had been stripped of his title of Deputy Mayor and Chairman of Attleborough Neighbourhood Plan Committee but despite looking on the Town Council’s website, no information had been found that suggested the decision had been reversed. Councillor Tyrer said he had been aware that legal advice had been sought and the Town Council had been advised that the decision to remove him from these positions was unlawful. Attleborough Town Council had therefore reversed their decision at a meeting in June, however no effort had been made to communicate an apology to him or to the residents. Councillor Kybird asked if the decision not to have mediation was a decision of full council. He had not been able to find the standing orders on the Town Council’s website. In addition, he informed Members that under the financial regulations the Council was only able to spend up to the accrued budget and not beyond, therefore, individuals could be personally liable and the auditor would be able to surcharge.
Councillor Turner spoke as a past Parish Councillor, Town Councillor and a qualified town clerk, and not as the Chairman of Breckland Council. She was aware of parish councils working together to support each other during the crisis but she was also aware that several town councils had not provided any support. Councillors had to make the strategic decisions of the council and the Officers were employed to deliver the service, based on the governance set out.
Councillor Jermy felt that councillors should have faith in the process in the way decisions were made and felt disappointed that such processes had not been followed. He felt that Breckland Council could put together some form of training for town and parish councillors. Additionally, he suggested that if there was evidence that rules were not being applied, he felt that Breckland Council should intervene and address these issues, particularly as it affected the residents of Breckland.
Councillor Taylor thanked everyone for the information and advice and agreed that there could be further training made available for the Town Councillors. She pointed out that mediation had been discussed informally but it had not been progressed.
The Chairman asked t Members to consider bringing this matter back to the Commission in September; this would allow time for the Town Councillors to consider the information and advice shared.
The Legal Services Manager advised that the Norfolk Association of Local Councils (NALC) also offered training courses and would be able to assist the Town Council. She reminded Members that Breckland Council had very limited powers in what could be done.
It was AGREED that this matter would be further discussed at the O&SC meeting in September.