I intend to make this my first and last Chairman’s report. There is a full Council election next May, 2019 and if I decide to stand again for Council, I will only do it knowing that I won’t continue as Chairman. I will have done 18 months in the role and I think it will be healthier for the Council to have a more frequent change in the Chairman than there has been in the past.
We have had a turbulent year. Cllr Fielding was appointed Chairman last May after the resignation of Christopher Lowder. One of the first things that the new Chairman did was to NOT sign a governance form for audit purposes because he couldn’t be sure that correct processes had been followed in the past. This was a courageous act and I think proved to be highly significant. Geoff worked extremely hard as both Chairman and as the lead Councillor for the Lengthsman scheme. We are very grateful for the time and effort that was put in for the benefit of the Parish. He and Jeremy Phillips worked as an excellent team.
The NDP went to referendum last summer and was voted in by a large majority. The NDP is our policy document and we refer to it every time we are asked to comment on planning matters. I personally had some issues with the NDP consultation and voted against it, but it went through the democratic process and Council will ensure that this document is adhered to.
In August 2017 the finance working group were made aware of some significant PAYE issues relating to Mrs Barnett, the then Clerk. At an investigatory meeting at the HALC offices, the Herefordshire Association of Local Councils, Mrs Barnett resigned. If she hadn’t resigned, then the issues discovered would have been taken to full Council and the Council would then have made the decision if disciplinary procedures should be commenced. 5 weeks after her resignation Cllr Fielding received a Solicitor’s letter as Mrs Barnett was claiming Constructive Dismissal against CPC. The situation was explained to full Council in a confidential session in October 2017—a very long and difficult meeting, which I was not at. At that meeting appointments were made to sit on the interview panel to appoint a new Clerk. After the meeting a member of the Employment Working Group complained that he was not on the interview panel and he asked for the previous decision to be overturned. An extraordinary meeting was called at the end of October to look into this, but the meeting didn’t happen as I believe proper notices hadn’t been put up advertising the meeting. That event was the start of seven rapid resignations, leaving the Council inquorate. I was told that the plan of the co-ordinated resignations was to bring down the whole Council so that everyone would have to stand for election again.
However, four of us did not resign and Herefordshire Council allocated four Ward Councillors to make us quorate. We were left unable to write cheques as Mrs Barnett was a mandatory signatory. We couldn’t change the bank mandate until we held a quorate meeting. We owed Jeremy the Lengthsman £1,500. We potentially were uninsured. The insurance was crucial as it not only covers the playing fields but also covers employment disputes. We had no Clerk.
What did the four of us achieve in the 3 months before the elections? We paid our debts, we maintained our insurance, we commissioned a new website, we employed a wonderful new Clerk who started work on 1st January 2018, and we kept the show on the road dealing with planning matters as they presented. We also defended the Mary Barnett case. Initially Mrs Barnett wanted to go to ACAS and asked for £20,000-00 and an apology. We discovered more facts about the financial situation and we took legal advice. The insurance cover was not initiated until the appropriate forms were submitted to the Employment Tribunal in January, so the initial legal costs of £3,850-00 were the Parish Councils. Insurance cover is only granted if the Solicitors feel there is a 51% chance of winning, and fortunately they granted cover. If there had been NO Parish Council, then potentially £20,000 would have been paid to Mrs Barnett from Parish Council reserves as there would have been nobody to defend the case.
Earlier this month Mrs Barnett had all her claims against the Council dismissed by the Tribunal and the judgement can be found on our website under recent posts. We will have an outstanding bill of about £1,400-00 to HMRC for unpaid tax.
We had a contested election in January and the 11 vacancies have been filled. 3 of the 4 councillors who resigned in November were re-elected. The election cost the Parish £3,620-00.
Our new Clerk, Helen Tinson, started work and was working towards full CiLCA qualification. She was excellent. She was aware of the issues in Cradley but she was not prepared for the level of hostility from 2 Councillors who were re-elected, from ex-Councillors, and from the fictitious Simon Alexander of the Cradley Enquirer. The level of scrutiny lead to her having to take hours answering emails and questions as people were constantly looking for mistakes. She resigned after only 10 weeks and we have had no Clerk since then. Two of our temporary Clerk’s covering meetings have said that they would not come to work here, something that we as a Council need to acknowledge and address. The atmosphere has to change. We have an advert out for a new Clerk and I hope that when we appoint the newly appointed person is welcomed and looked after by all the Community. I will continue as acting Clerk for the time being.
We welcomed some new faces to the table after the January elections. These new Councillors have been magnificent in taking up roles in the Working Groups and learning about Parish Council procedures. There is a general lack of trust still so everything is very bureaucratic, but this will improve with time. Good governance is crucial to making good decisions. We also need to remember to agree to disagree. If the vote goes against you then you live with it, as long as the process has been fair.
We have just employed a new Lengthsman. Richard Clarke comes with excellent references and I am sure will do a great job. Please let us know via the Clerk’s email if there are things you would like him to do.
With having no Clerk and no Lengthsman for many months we have saved a considerable amount of money. The Finance working group will look at this next week and bring some proposals to Council. There may be funds available for some interesting projects such as to pay for the repair of the faces of the Parish Clock on Cradley Church tower. There may be funds to relay and drain the football pitch at Chapel Lane. This was poorly done a few years ago. We have been donated funds for a second community access defibrillator to be sited at the Surgery: fantastic work by a team of fund raisers. Fund-raising has just started for a defibrillator for Storridge. We are soon to apply for our name to be changed to Cradley and Storridge Parish Council.
So, in summary, it has been a very difficult year but there have been some achievments. For the sake of the community things must get better.
Thank you for coming and listening.