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Issue 327 – IfF push for change causes friction on new town council

DESPITE promising to work together, the new political make-up of Frome Town Council met early friction and disagreement over how committees are run, at their first meeting, the Annual Town Council meeting, on Wednesday 18th May.

At the meeting, Councillor Nick White, one of the new members for the Independents for Frome (IfF), was appointed mayor of Frome. Both the new mayor and the outgoing mayor, cllr Helen Sprawson-White (Liberal Democrat) made speeches expressing their desire for the new town council to work together for the good of Frome.
However, an early push for change from the IfF resulted in a highly charged discussion between councillors on the new council.
The IfF councillors came in with a plan to change the structure of the town council’s committees. Despite strong protest from the re-elected Liberal Democrat councillors, a motion to suspend the current committee structure until a new committee structure is agreed (with separate arrangements for the planning committee), was passed.
This now means that the current committee structures have been suspended. The chief executive of the town council has delegated authority, in consultation with the chairman of the council, to deal with day to day decisions in the interim period. The IfF say they will produce a proposal of the set-up of the new committee structure by the next meeting, which will be held on 22nd June.
In the heated discussion preceding the decision, cllr Helen Sprawson-White begg-ed the new administration to wait at least three months for new councillors to find their feet on the council and use the time to understand how the town council’s committee structure works.
However, IfF councillor Toby Eliot counter argued that the IfF group had been elected on the promise of change and that an outdated committee structure would prevent any real change.
IfF councillors argued that while they may not have experience on Frome Town Council, some of their members have previous experience of planning systems and experience on other town councils. In reply, the re-elected councillors declared that Frome Town Council was unique and asked IfF councillors how they could make a judgement on committees they had not worked on. They also accused the IfF councillors of creating a “closed town council door” while the committees were being redone.
Cllr Claire Hudson, Lib Dem member said, “My issue is not your desire to make change, it’s how you’re doing it.”
After the motion was passed cllr Helen Sprawson-White said she was disgusted at “block voting” tactics from the IfF. “I’m dumbfounded you can sit there and say you’re independents when clearly you’re not,” she said. Cllr Helen Starkie, IfF, retorted that it was disappointing if councillors did not believe it was possible for 10 individuals to agree on an issue.
Changes for how planning applications are dealt with have also been put forward, and at the meeting, four councillors were appointed to make decisions on planning applications as an interim measure for the planning committee.
After the meeting IfF councillor Peter Macfadyen commented, “IfF stood on a platform of change and in order to deliver that change we have to take urgent action.
“We have to have a more effective way of executing the Council’s business before we start dealing with issues.
“The motion passed on Wednesday 18th continues the state of affairs that has been in place during the election campaign. The chief executive, consulting with the mayor and deputy, will have powers to make day-to-day decisions about the running of the council. No major strategic decisions will be taken until a formal decision-making structure is in place. This suspension of the committees lasts only until the next full council meeting in June when a new structure will either be approved or rejected by the full Council.
“If rejected, the old committee structure will be reinstated. With the exception of Planning (for which we have installed an interim committee), there were no planned meetings in this period anyway – so the suspension does not prevent any decision-making.”

ENDS
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IfF councillor Peter Macfadyen:

There has been some concern about the suspension of the Town Council’s committee structure at the Town Council Meeting. IfF stood on a platform of change and in order to deliver that change we have to take urgent action. Below we explain why the current, short-term suspension of the Committee structure is vital.

We need to change the way the Council works…

The current committee structure is outdated and outmoded. There are too many layers and issues get shoehorned into committees and sub-committees that may not be best placed to deal with them. We need a system that allows councillors to make fast, positive decisions based on sound advice and expertise from within the community. We also need a system that allows Frome residents to see clearly how any one decision is made.

The current system has remained in place for a number of years. The last council talked about changing the structure it but once you are working within a structure it becomes self perpetuating and almost impossible to change. We have to have a more effective way of executing the Council’s business before we start dealing with issues.

…and we need to change it NOW!

We had wanted to have something to put before the whole Council at the first meeting. However, because the meeting had was required to be held less than two weeks after the election we were unable to have a fully drafted plan with all the legalities checked and to have consulted with our fellow councillors before the first meeting. The intervening time will allow us to have a fully drafted set of proposals to take to the full Council and to consult with others.

Moreover, we did not wish to continue normal practice in which – at the first council meeting – councillors who do not know each other, or each other’s skills, are elected to committees they without understanding their remit!

In the meantime…

The motion passed on Wednesday 18th continues the state of affairs that has been in place during the election campaign. The Chief Executive, consulting with the Mayor and Deputy, will have powers to make day-to-day decisions about the running of the council. No major strategic decisions will be taken until a formal decision-making structure is in place. This suspension of the committees lasts only until the next full Council meeting in June when a new structure will either be approved or rejected by the full Council. If rejected(,) the old committee structure will be reinstated. With the exception of Planning (for which we have installed an interim committee), there were no planned meetings in this period anyway – so the suspension does not stop prevent any decision-making.

After the June 22nd Town Council Meeting…

We can’t give you all the details of the new structure because they have yet to be finalised and we want to consult with our non-IfF colleagues. However, we intend there to be fewer committees, fewer layers of decision making and more single issue groups that are time bound and will give recommendations to the council’s new committees (in the current structure these are called Working Groups). We will be looking for more involvement of non-councillors on these working groups drawing on the rich expertise of the Town.

Finally

Please bear with us. We’ve got a lot we want to achieve but we can’t achieve it under the current system. The benefits of the new system will not be immediately obvious but will take time to emerge. We promised the people of Frome change and we fully intend to deliver.

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