On Wednesday night, immediately following a Cabinet meeting that witnessed the collapse of the Tories regeneration plans in Wickford, we had the farce of Council meeting to decide if Basildon should apply to the Queen to become a Borough
The result was a foregone conclusion.
All but one Tory councillor was present, all three Liberal Democrats were there, but Labour decided not to turn up – despite saying they opposed it in the paper.
Quite how Labour councillors opposed this by taking a decision not to be there to vote against is completely beyond me. It wasn’t something that happened by accident – work over-running or a train arriving late, for instance. This was a decision not to be present.
It was a complete and utter abdication of political responsibility in two regards.
Firstly, it was an abdication of responsibility in their capacity as official opposition, failing to represent the many thousands of residents who have an opposite view to the Conservative administration. Secondly, it was an abdication of responsibility in their capacity as elected representatives. Their constituents expect them to represent their views. On Basildon and borough status, any comment they made in the paper is worthless as they singularly failed to follow up that stated opposition with votes.
Did Labour really oppose it? Or were they simply too divided that they thought it better not to turn up at all? We will never know as they abdicated their elected responsibilities: there are no votes to record their views.
The Conservatives argued that borough status would enhance the status of the district and with enhanced status would come investment. They explained that there is currently confusion when the “chain gang” get together [the other mayors] as Basildon is one of only two councils local to us with a Chairman. To be honest, I think that most people these days think of a very different “chain gang” when it comes to politicians…
Most importantly, the Tories believe Borough status would allow them to recognise people of importance and grant them “Freedom of the Borough”. They made an emotive and compelling case, based on the Royal Anglian Regiment and the fact that, in the Leader of the Tory group’s words, they had missed a trick by not having borough status so they could grant “Freedom of the Borough”. They also said that they would spend no money on signage as all the signs say Basildon Council and they wouldn’t buy regalia or cars etc.
I was against the application. So were my colleagues. And we were there to make our points and vote against it.
For my part, I don’t have a principled objection to being Basildon Borough. However, politicians have never been regarded with so much contempt in modern times as they are now. There is a justified and deep-seated cynicism out there about the motivation of politicians and anything that appears to be self-serving, even when it is not, should be very carefully scrutinised.
I believe that the sight of politicians talking about whether they are called a “Mayor” or a “Chairman”, and whether or not they need to have regalia etc, is one that sits uncomfortably when so many businesses are going to the wall, as families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and when there is so much uncertainty out there about jobs and recovery.
And whilst deciding not to spend on new signs and stationery etc is the right decision, it does prompt the question, what’s the point? As far as the world out there is concerned, there is going to be very little visible difference. Basildon Council will be Basildon Council – Borough or District.
Part of me also thinks that this need to be like other Councils shows a spectacular lack of confidence. Basildon has a lot to be proud of, both in terms of its community and in terms of its national leadership in local government terms. We shouldn’t feel an obsessive need to be like other places, when one of Basildon’s strengths is that it is not. Conservatives don’t seem to be able to cope with being different and develop an entirely unnecessary inferiority complex. To my mind, the people we represent want us to simply get on and do the job.
Finally, on the business of offering distinguished individuals and organisations “Freedom of the Borough”, the Tories did indeed miss a trick.
It is perfectly in order for a District Council to offer “Freedom of the District”. They might have erroneously believed that that is a privilege that only a district with the status of city, borough or royal borough can confer.
However, they would be quite wrong.
Last year, Uttlesford saw the 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) parade through the town. Uttlesford decided it wanted to honour its soldiers for their service.
Uttlesford is a District Council and so doesn’t qualify under Section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972 to offer “Freedom of the Borough” or “Freedom of the District”. However, they did identify that the general power of well-being contained in Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 was broad enough to entitle them to grant the regiment freedom of entry. Accordingly, Uttlesford District Council resolved the following:
- That members grant the 33rd Engineer Regiment freedom to enter the district of Uttlesford with the right to march through the streets of the district with due ceremony, bayonets fixed, colours flying and bands playing in appreciation of the services rendered to the country by its members in hazardous deployments throughout the world.
- That the Council presents the regiment with a sealed illuminated scroll/ceremonial casket to mark the grant of freedom of entry.
- That the freedom of entry be formally presented to the Regiment by the Chairman of the Council at a special outdoor ceremony on a date to be arranged or at the annual Council meeting on 12th May.
So it was that, on Sunday 14 June 2009, soldiers from 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) marched through Uttlesford and were awarded the “Freedom of the District”.
Why didn’t this happen for the Royal Anglian Regiment when they marched through Basildon Town Centre on St George’s Day, 23 April 2009?
Not because Basildon is a District.
But because the Conservatives missed a trick.
In his summing up, Cllr Ball said that the reason they are applying for Borough status now is because it shows community leadership. If it is the right thing to do, you lead.
For me, though, and knowing what we do about Uttlesford, it’s hard to see Wednesday night as anything other than an exercise in politicians wanting fancier titles.
I agree that if it is the right thing to do you should lead.
What a shame that leadership didn’t mirror Uttlesford’s, with the Royal Anglian Regiment being granted the “Freedom of the District”.