Chilcot’s lessons for town and district councils

The Press coverage on the Chilcot Report into the Iraq invasion has generally been round the angle of whether Tony Blair is a war criminal or not.

That’s an issue by itself, but the broader message is a warning for those in power to take advice and follow due process.

Older readers might remember that Tony Blair was criticised while in power for his use of a “kitchen cabinet” — he relied on a small clique of advisors far more than he did on outsiders, the latter including all of Parliament and the experts in Whitehall.

Private Eye reported on this at the time and MP Clare Short claimed that a clique of unelected advisers (Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan, Andrew Adonis et al) dominated Government decision-making.

The Butler Review in 2014 criticised the Blair government’s “informality and circumscribed character … reducing the scope for informed political judgment.”

Chilcot found that Mr Blair accepted evidence without questioning. Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, should have given a detailed written report to the Cabinet, instead gave oral evidence and was not questioned.

Perhaps because of his promise to the US — “we will be with you, whatever” — Mr Blair and his coterie had decided on a course of action and pressed ahead regardless.

Going to war, and causing regime change and the deaths of tens of thousands, is on a different scale to anything locally but the principle is the same. Decisions should be made after advice is taken and, where necessary, heeded. As Dirty Harry nearly said, a councillor has to know his (or her) limitations.

Take Congleton Town Council and its loss of £20,000 on a digital display unit. The council appeared to show the same approach to decision making as Mr Blair, with decisions taken out of committee and not recorded, a lack of clarity over who had done what, and decisions apparently made by a “kitchen cabinet” of Tories determined to press ahead. No-one with any detailed knowledge was involved.

More money was wasted by Cheshire East Council at Lyme Green, where work was carried out on a waste transfer station without any scrutiny.

In that case the council had sought the help of experts but rejected the tender made by a private firm for waste collection and decided it could do better. Then it made no detailed assessment of the viability of the scheme, failed to give itself planning permission and did not follow EU rules.

Again, a small group of people appears to have made decisions outside the framework of decision-making that should have applied. The scheme cost taxpayers £1m.

More recently Sandbach Town Council has been in the news over the town hall and indoor market. Again, councillors tried to make important decisions without getting others involved and ignored the expert advice given in at least one report. Town councillors eventually admitted that the market hall public consultation could have been done better, something of an understatement, but a confession beyond most local authorities.

Obviously the biggest disaster is Cheshire East’s on-going inability to formulate a local plan. Neighbouring Cheshire West and Chester had its plan adopted more than 18 months ago but we still haven’t got one.

We have no real idea why Cheshire East Council has failed to come up with a local plan, because no one has ever admitted what went wrong, but we assume experts have not been listened to, and decisions have not been recorded, at least in the early days of the plan.

Rather like Mr Blair, Cheshire East apparently ignored experts — two planning experts sent up from London failed to knock the local plan into shape so we can only suppose their advice was not heeded — but the authority ignored its own experts anyway. When he rejected the local plan as unsound, planning inspector Stephen Pratt highlighted the lack of an assessment for housing for older people, yet on its website, presumably using data collected by experts, Cheshire East said it had the fastest growing ageing population in the North West.

A condensed version of the Chilcot Report should be prepared and sent out to every local council in the country highlighting the importance of informed decision making, made in public and properly recorded. Whether it’s the Prime Minister or the leader of a town council, decisions made without adhering to protocol or consulting people who know what they’re talking about carry the risk of going very wrong.


Talking of the local plan, Cheshire East has sent an updated version of it off for Mr Pratt’s perusal.

The fact is, the plan is shamefully late and should have been signed off 18 months ago.

When we slated the council a couple of years ago, Congleton’s own Coun Dave Brown wrote and complained, saying the plan would be finished that year.

He said: “The local plan… will be finished in 2014. (The) assertion that it (will take from) 2008 until 2015 to develop the local plan is plain wrong.”

He was in charge of the plan, so presumably either he or the person advising him believed this to be the case. Why he was wrong has never been explained.

But as Coun Brown said, we were indeed plain wrong: the plan wasn’t delayed until 2015, as we feared — it now looks like 2017.

Since Coun Brown stepped down from the local plan, Coun Ainsley Arnold has taken over and his version of the plan may be better. Let’s hope so. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and hope Mr Pratt accepts it.

But even Coun Arnold is doing his best to polish a turd (by which we mean the flawed process, not the plan itself, at least not its latest iteration), ignoring the shameful time it’s taken and saying via a Press release that it “must be one of the most consulted on local plans in the country”.

It would be — they’ve had to do it twice.


One thought on “Chilcot’s lessons for town and district councils”

  1. As always very well written Jem. With personal experience of the shambolic and disgraceful lack of professionalism and basic duty of care shown by Sandbach Town Council in ‘Marketgate’ I can only hope those in power take note. Recent IN/Out elections show those in power ignore the voice of the people at their peril.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s