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Councillors need to take criticism more willingly

Mark Wallace Mark Wallace of The Taxpayers Alliance says that councils should welcome scrutiny from his organisation as a "key stakeholder."

The results of any election are always due to a myriad of different factors – particularly local elections. National party campaigns of course have an impact, as do general political scandals such as the current chaos over expenses, and local factors rightly come into play. One strong theme, though, is if that people want politicians who listen – more so than ever now that there is a general feeling the politicians have been taking the public for a ride.

This might seem obvious, but time and again examples crop up of councils and councillors who not only can’t take criticism or disagreement, but actively try to smear it or stamp it out. It is part of the TPA’s job to oppose wasteful and misguided policies, and to support greater accountability, so from time to time we naturally level criticism against a variety of councils. Many react well, putting their case in response or even changing their ways, but some simply lash out. Two such examples of worst practice have crossed my desk in recent days.

The first involves a figure many readers of ConHome’s Local Government blog may already be familiar with: Kensington and Chelsea’s Councillor Daniel Moylan.

Councillor Moylan and the TPA disagree about K&C’s costly shared spaces scheme – that is a matter of record that has been debated in detail previously and I won’t rehash here. However, regardless of your views one way or the other on that particular issue, Cllr Moylan’s recent behaviour is a pretty good example of how not to make the public or anyone else feel appreciated.

Instead of putting his case for the development plans in response to recent protests by the TPA, the West London Residents’ Association and national charity Guide Dogs for the Blind, Cllr Moylan lashed our. Staggeringly, he accused Guide Dogs for the Blind of sending fake blind people to the protests. Understandably, the charity were outraged at the suggestion that they would ever do such a thing – and Cllr Moylan’s bizarre ranting ended up in the Evening Standard. Not a PR victory, to say the least.

Another example of the wrong way to go about things is East Herts District Council. The TPA are currently engaged in a nationwide campaign to reform and beef up the Independent Remuneration Panels, bodies that have a non-binding say on councillors’ allowances. As part of that, where vacancies on the Panels come up we publicise them to pro-active taxpayers in the relevant area.

Any sensible council would welcome the idea that TPA supporters were taking an interest in scrutinising the council – indeed if a council believes it is doing the right things, then it has nothing to fear from scrutiny from anyone. For that matter, the TPA is surely a “key stakeholder”, to use the cringeworthy jargon of the public sector.

Some councils we have spoken to about their IRP recruitment process have welcomed the attention and have been very helpful – others have been amazed that after years of struggling to find people, the TPA’s supporters are actively keen to get involved. Not so East Herts District Council.

As soon as they found out that we had blogged about their IRP on our website, they suspended the application process on the grounds that we had publicised the process without their permission. Amazingly, they then restarted the process by writing to the shortlisted candidates with a new questionnaire that could have been written by Joe McCarthy, rather than an East Herts pen-pusher.

Its questions include:

“Are you or have you ever been a supporter of the TaxPayers’ Alliance?”

“Have you ever viewed information on the TaxPayers’ Alliance website?”

This is clearly an attempt to root out TPA supporters rather than welcome them – but it has had the opposite effect. More members of the shortlist, who hadn’t previously heard of us, have now joined the campaign and EHDC have ended up looking pretty silly.

There is an important lesson here – and one indeed that Gordon Brown could probably benefit from, too. If criticism is raised of your ideas or your policies, respond on that basis, don’t simply try to rubbish the people involved or ban them from the debate. As Derek Draper and Damien McBride found out, in the modern media age the days of centralised, top-down domination of the agenda are over. Smears and shouting no longer offer a way to win an argument.


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