Full report: town council's U-turn on management of their residential properties - and on rent increases
The scene was set during questions from the public at the opening of the full town council meeting (November 2.) Five members of the Marlborough Area Poverty Action Group asked for information about the council's decision (voted through in September) to employ a commercial agent to manage council-owned residential properties - and raise the rents, some by as much as 40 per cent.
One of the questions was from Sylvia Card (who is also vice chair of the Devizes Labour Party.) She asked why the agenda item on these changes was scheduled for the closed, private part of the meeting. That matter arose later during a series of very tetchy exchanges between the two sides of what can be called for short the 'residential rental policies' issue.
A sign that this was to getting a bit on the ugly side - personal and fractious - came when Councillor Stewart Dobson asked a 'member's question': "Will Councillor Ross confirm that the council always aspires to achieve best value for money in all financial matters under its control." Councillor Ross, who is chair of the Finance and Policy Committee, said he declined to answer.
There was then a long and confusing (or perhaps confused?) debate on whether the 'residential rental policies' agenda item should be heard - at least part of it - in public. It was finally agreed that the part of the item rescinding the September decisions should be in public.
At this Councillor Marian Hannaford-Dobson stood up and declared she was withdrawing from the meeting because 'the auditor may scrutinise this item'. Her husband, Councillor Stewart Dobson, followed suit. But he quoted one of the seven 'Nolan principles of public life' - the one on 'Integrity'. [For avoidance of doubt the seven are listed below.]
This annoyed some councillors who thought that waving the flag of 'integrity' implied some unspecified criticism of themselves. Councillor Lisa Farrell addressed Councillor Dobson: "I feel very offended by that - I am really offended by what you've just said." Councillor Fogg agreed with her saying he felt 'insulted'.
Councillor Alec Light also withdrew. The Special Motion was then put by Councillor Mervyn Hall. This rescinded the decisions made on 'residential rental policies' in September.
The U-turn involved in the resolution included: the Council continuing to act as a private landlord, managing the properties in house, accepting the Carter Jonas rent review, and ruling that if a property became vacant a rent will be set 'having regard to both the market conditions and the social needs of the community'. It was signed by Councillors Hall, Dow, Lam, Castle, Loosmore, Kirk-Wilson, Farrell and Fogg.
A lengthy debate followed. Councillor Noel Barrett-Morton (chair of the Property Committee): "This council has demonstrated its lack of experience in managing property - now we must move on." The Mayor wanted an outside agent to take over to relieve the council's staff of the burden and take personalities out of the situation.
Two councillors - Dow and Fogg - thought that when it comes to letting properties 'good value' lies as much in 'good tenants' as in 'good monetary value'.
Councillor Richard Allen judged that "We have been abysmal in managing our properties - partly because we don't have the in house expertise." He warned that councillors should "Think very carefully how they implement what they wish for." But he added "There really are some pressing needs in this town - if we do go down the route of providing social housing."
Summing up before the motion was carried Councillor Hall said: "We're taking a step back to give us more time to consider our policies." Someone might have added '...and their effect on our tenants.'
THE SEVEN 'NOLAN PRINCIPLES OF PUBLIC LIFE':
1. Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
2. Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
3. Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
4. Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
5. Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
6. Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
7. Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.