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'Not our finest hour' - latest row calls council meeting culture into question

Adrian Williams

Adrian Williams

A meeting of the Royal Borough cabinet descended into chaos in a series of fiery exchanges last week – leading councillors to question the culture within the borough.

The row began at Thursday’s meeting when Councillor Stuart Carroll (Con, Boyn Hill) referenced a petition of more than 1,800 signatures to abandon plans to introduce parking charges at out-of-town locations, started by resident and former Liberal Democrat candidate Adam Bermange.

“This Adam chap going around launching political campaigns isn’t what people in Boyn Hill want,” he said.

This comment caused Cllr John Baldwin (Lib Dem, Belmont) to raise a point of order.

“Did I just hear the deputy of cabinet refer to a resident in a disrespectful way, naming him, naming the ward for which he spoke in an attempt to identify him?” Cllr Baldwin asked.

He asked the Royal Borough’s managing director, Duncan Sharkey, to comment – given that Cllr Baldwin was called out for a similar infraction himself in a previous meeting.

Council leader Andrew Johnson responded instead, threatening to boot Cllr Baldwin out of the meeting.

“Quite honestly, Baldwin, I don’t care much for your tone – I’ve seen you in action before against one of my cabinet members and it wasn’t pleasant,” he said.

Referring to Cllr Baldwin by his last name only angered him further and Cllr Baldwin was sceptical when Cllr Johnson apologised and insisted this was just a slip of the tongue.

During Cllr Baldwin's continued objections, Cllr Phil Haseler (Con, Cox Green), was heard to say ‘shut up’, causing tempers to flare even more.

Monitoring officer Emma Duncan stepped in to move the conversation along and Mr Sharkey confirmed that it was ‘never preferable’ to name individuals in council meetings who are not there to speak up for themselves.

Cllr Haseler apologised for his outburst at the end of the meeting, saying: “To be perfectly honest I was completely frustrated with Cllr Baldwin’s behaviour, having been subjected to his abusive and agress-ive nature in the past.”

The row was the latest in a series of angry exchanges to take place between councillors since meetings went online due to the pandemic.

It even made national headlines, as it mirrored a recent video of a similarly fractious meeting of Handforth Parish Council, which went viral across the country.

Cllr Johnson has since admitted on social media that the argument was ‘not our finest hour’ and apologised, while the leader of the opposition has called for ‘more civility’.

Cllr Johnson told the Advertiser: “It’s safe to say we all need to work together to raise the level of public discourse, particularly in terms of the occasional lapse in professionalism.

“The onus falls on all of us to collectively work to address the issue.”

Cllr Phil Haseler said that some meetings tend to attract ‘political grandstanding’.

“Everyone really needs to stop the political statements and think more about the residents and the borough,” he said.

Opposition leader Cllr Simon Werner (Lib Dem, Pinkneys Green) said he felt the problem was that not enough time was given over to airing opposition ideas and concerns.

He added: “We need to get more civility into the council – we’re going to disagree because we have different visions for the borough.”

Cllr Baldwin said that the accumulation of grievances has exacerbated the tensions that have always been a part of council meetings.

“There’s not a lot of trust, not a lot of goodwill, and a set of rules most people disobey whenever it suits them,” he said.

Cllr Lynne Jones, leader of the local independents, said she felt there needs to be more scrutiny within the administration, so that scrutiny does not become party political.

“Our scrutiny system is broken in the borough,” she said.

“If you’re the ruling party’s back bench you still need to challenge the decisions of the cabinet. But we’re not seeing any challenge at all from Conservatives. That’s not the culture and it’s very hard to challenge a culture of ten years.”

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