The No Recording recording

In December last year, the Tory administration at West Lancashire borough council tried to stop me recording and tweeting a council meeting at which they were discussing an expensive council-buildings refurbishment.

Town hall refurbishments are controversial at the moment, as you can imagine. People do not think councils should be spending money on their own digs while they’re telling everybody else to put up with service cuts, etc. Proposed town hall refurbishments generate plenty of heated chat.

Anyway – this week, at a full council meeting, West Lancs council will hear a report called “Recording council, cabinet and committee meetings and use of mobile phones and other social media devices.” This report recommends that the council bans the informal recording of meetings unless a formal request to record is made and the meeting in question agrees.

Getting back to me – the report says that this all came about because:

…” at a meeting of the Council on 15 December 2010, an incident occurred when a member of the public at the back of the council chamber was holding her mobile phone up in the air, which led several councillors to raise the issue with the chief executive as to whether she was recording the meeting. As the smooth running of the meeting was affected, the chief executive asked her to refrain from texting, phoning or recording, but it was agreed to report back on these issues.”

The buggers. I’d sue their rightwing butts off, except that such an action would waste public time and money. I, at least, have standards. For the record (ho ho), I waved nothing in the air at that meeting. It was a council meeting, not a Bieber gig. I had no reason to hold my phone up in the air – not least because I didn’t use my phone to record the meeting.

The truth is that the smooth running of the meeting was affected by the opposition’s anger at the council’s plan to refurbish council buildings while the rest of the world endures austerity. Now, these appalling people want to add a rule to the council constitution that will make publicising service cuts even harder. Can’t understand the paranoia, myself – either at West Lancs, or at other councils that take this closed-doors approach. It’s not like recordings would reflect a different reality from meeting minutes, or anything awful like that. Councillors are entirely trustworthy, always. Everything’s completely above board.

I particularly liked this line in the report: “the constitution currently does not permit the recording of meetings and the ability to do this is in the gift of the council.” Says it all, really. Recording and sharing council business and decisions with other members of the public is not a right, but a “gift” that the council may or may not favour you with. Bollocks to that. Big Society indeed.

The full council agenda is here. The recordings report is Item 21.

My “Banned Recording” recording

Perhaps not quite as thrilling as the title of this post would have you believe… but this is the recording of the December West Lancashire borough council meeting that WL Tories told me to drop.

The chief executive stopped the meeting about halfway through to tell me to stop recording and tweeting.

The argument about my recording and tweeting starts at the beginning of the first clip below.

Councillors debate the recording issue for about a minute, then return to the discussion they were having about the refurbishment of council buildings.

Labour leader Paul Cotterill picks the recording issue up again at 6:56. Councillor David O’Toole, who made the complaint about the recording – and the dangers of members of the public editing recordings unprofessionally – is heard from towards the end.

Clip 1 (10 mins)

This second recording is an unedited version of the entire meeting.

Full (102 minutes)

A small resistance to be sure, but one I wanted to see through. Next West Lancashire council meeting is in a couple of weeks.

Big society: in Skelmersdale’s dreams

Hazel Scully

Hazel Scully

Last week, I went to Skelmersdale to talk about David Cameron’s ‘big society’ ideas with council tenants Ted and Hazel Scully, and Sandra Porter. I spent time with them last year as well.

Cameron’s ‘big society’ concept is as hard to grasp as it is to buy into. It’s centered on the notions that people will volunteer to provide public services in place of the state and that residents should drive local council spending and direction.

Phrases like ‘community empowerment’ and ‘people power’ guff through big society rhetoric. There are already training courses (complete with hefty price tags) for government and third-sector officers who, presumably, can’t picture big society themselves.

The thing is – none of it matters a damn. Neither ‘community empowerment’ nor ‘people power’ will make it past rhetoric under Cameron’s administration. The realities of Tory rule in local government are vicious service cuts and a chilling detachment from people who need public services. There is no engagement. There is no consultation with poorer communities. Funding is cut and services eliminated without a word of discussion with service users and providers.

We’ve focused on this for several years at the Tory Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnet councils. Let’s spend some time now in Skelmersdale – a working-class town in the Conservative West Lancashire borough:


Skelmersdale is a small (pop 38,000), Labour-voting new town that was built in the early 1960s to rehouse families from Liverpool estates.

Skem’s sprawling green fields and bright new estates drew the young families crowd in droves: Skem local Theresa Mackin, for example, made the move from Liverpool 44 years ago ‘because it was green, and I got a house [instead of a flat].’

‘We felt like films stars, to have this new house when we just got married,’ says Barry Nolan, a plumber and local councillor who moved from Bootle to Skem in 1966.

Ted and Hazel Scully, and Sandra Porter were also impressed. Ted worked as a builder when he and Hazel moved to the Firbeck and Findon estate in Skem 35 years ago. He and Hazel had young children, and they liked Skem’s green fields and sense of community. There were new schools for the kids and a decent standard of living for a family on a builder’s wage.

They also believed that council tenancy was synonymous with security.

Alas – all that has changed.

For the past three years, Firbeck and Findon tenants have been battling council plans to demolish their homes. Their Tory-led borough council wants to demolish the Firbeck and Findon estate, build plush apartments for private sale in its place and move tenants like the Scullies and Porter to homes on less lucrative land (Firbeck and Findon is right next to Skem town centre and the green (if presently unkempt) banks of the River Tawd).

The tenants first heard of the plans in 2007, when they got letters from the council alerting them to the forthcoming demolition. Not a single councillor came to tell them about the plans in person. No meetings with residents – some of whom had lived in their homes for nearly 40 years – were scheduled. Hazel Scully describes the news as “a complete shock. We hadn’t heard anything from the council.” (My own calls to West Lancashire Conservatives have gone unreturned for a year).

It was up to residents to defend their homes. Scully sniggers when we talk about community empowerment: for her, empowerment has meant spending her retirement acquiring an in-depth knowledge of council operations.

She and Porter have written a stack of letters, taken petitions around town, joined tenants’ groups and learned how to bail up councillors and St Modwen’s senior managers (St Modwen’s is the council’s private housing development partner) at meetings, in the street and/or whenever their paths sync. They’ve learned to read council files, shadow key political players and patrol their estate for anyone who looks like they’re planning to swing a wrecking-ball.

‘The council said – don’t worry, bulldozers aren’t coming over the hill in the morning… but nobody believes the council,’ Scully says.

Indeed. Here’s Hazel Scully on community empowerment (she starts with a few words on tenants’ concerns about George Osborne’s spending review):

Early in August 2010, David Cameron scared a whole strata when he said secure council tenancy was no longer a right.

I thought about this a lot as I walked around Skem. The likes of Hazel Scully and Sandra Porter don’t see council tenancy – or lifelong council tenancy – as a right, exactly. They see council tenancy as a deal. Continue reading

Standing by

View of Skem

View of Skem from Tawd valley park

Three months ago, we went to West Lancashire town Skelmersdale to talk to council tenants about their fight to stay in flats that were due for demolition. Here we are in February, and nothing much has changed:

Skelmersdale council tenants on the Firbeck and Findon estate still don’t know if their homes will be demolished as part of Tory West Lancashire borough council plans to upgrade rundown Skelmersdale town centre.

As readers of the November article will know, the council believed that the upgrade should include a wholesale flattening of Firbeck and Findon estate, and a replacing of it, and its working class occupants, with plush new apartments for private sale to the better heeled. Firbeck and Findon residents would be dispatched to outlying West Lancashire estates where, presumably, they’d better complement the tone.

‘We’ve heard nothing [since November],’ longtime Firbeck and Findon tenant Hazel Scully says. ‘It’s nearly three and a half years [since the council announced its plans to demolish the estate] that we’ve been waiting [for a final decision on demolition]. There are old people who have lived here for years. There are disabled people here. Nobody knows what is going to happen to their homes. It’s a terrible way to live.’

Back in November, the council told us that it couldn’t make a final decision about demolishing Firbeck and Findon until government decided whether to grant Tesco and Everton FC permission to build a new retail centre and stadium in nearby Kirkby. The Skem regeneration project (and its attending Firbeck and Fendon demolition) was unlikely to go ahead if the Kirkby one did: Skem town centre development partner St Modwen’s said it would it would back out of the Skem plans if Kirkby got the go ahead, because a retail and private-apartments-for-sale centre in Skem would not be able to compete with the Kirkby one. Alas for Skem, regeneration based on retail is the only game in town.

The thing is – the government rejected the Tesco and Everton bid late in November 2010, but the council still hasn’t decided whether the Skem development should go ahead, or if Firbeck and Findon will be destroyed.

Scully isn’t hopeful.

Firstly, it seems likely that Tesco and/or Everton – encouraged by local MPs – will resubmit their Kirby proposal, if they haven’t already. ‘If that happens, we don’t know what will happen to the Skem development project.’

Secondly, people in high places are behaving as though the Firbeck and Findon estate has already gone. Basic cosmetic upgrade works that were planned for Firbeck and Findon are not included in the council’s capital programme (the Skem town centre project, which includes the destruction of Firbeck and Findon, is on the programme for 2010-2011), and Scully says that council leader Ian Grant was heard to say that there was ‘no point spending money on Firbeck and Findon for cosmetic purposes if the estate was to be demolished.’

Apparently, Labour councillor Bob Pendleton asked Ian Grant – in no pleasant terms – to clarify that comment at a recent scrutiny meeting, and got nowhere (more on this soon).

For now, all Scully and Firbeck and Findon residents have is a verbal promise from Tory councillors Val Hopley (cabinet member for housing) and (deputy leader) Adrian Owens that they will be told the fate of their homes before anyone else.

‘We don’t want to find out in a newspaper, or a newsletter,’ Scully says. ‘But they [the council cabinet] have closed up. They won’t give us any information.’ She has only one option – to stay in the cabinet’s ear until the information comes through.

Bare market

Hazel Scully

Hazel Scully

Long time Skelmersdale council housing tenant Hazel Scully is pleased that West Lancashire borough council is planning a facelift for run-down Skelmersdale town centre – there’ll be a new high street, shops, cinema, library, sports centre, swimming pool, housing, and a lovely landscaped park to replace the spooky weedfest along the River Tawd that presently serves as Skelmersdale’s main municipal space.

It is just a pity, says Scully bitterly, that she won’t have much chance to enjoy the improvements.

She and everybody else who lives on the town-centre Firbeck and Findon estates will be removed from view as part of the upgrade. The council wants to demolish the estates, shift the occupants elsewhere in the borough, and build homes for private sale in place of Firbeck and Findon. Continue reading

Cost effective

Murder scene on New Church Farm

A front door on New Church Farm

Gathered round a broken gate on one of the secluded pathways that link New Church Farm estate’s 600 houses are plumber Barry Nolan and housing benefits officer Neil Furey.

Both have lived on this estate for years. Both are also members of the committed, if notoriously messy, Labour group at West Lancashire borough council. Furey is young, a father of two, a socialist, and a churchgoer. He was elected to council in 2008.

Nolan is older, a father of three married daughters, and a still-optimistic veteran of years of Labour and council politics. He’s been a party member for decades and a councillor for two terms, but appears to be at peace.

Anyway – the New Church Farm estate. Built in 1961, New Church Farm was among Skelmersdale new town’s earliest, and most desirable – a roomy spread of 600 brick houses set a short, countrified walk from the then-pleasant banks of the River Tawd. Continue reading