‘Climate Of Fear’ In Scilly Discussed In Heart Question Time

“Terrible things have happened in the islands in the last few months and they must be stopped.”

That was the view of Tim Guthrie, a panellist on the citizen voice group, Heart of Scilly‘s Question Time session last night.

98 locals attended the 90-minute meeting in a two-thirds full Town Hall.

MP Andrew George, Council Director of Finance Peter Lawrence-Roberts, Heart’s Adrian Davis and Pat Hayden also answered pre-submitted questions in the session, which was moderated by Maureen Stuttaford.

Adrian explained that Heart won’t now be a political party but a collection of locals with similar goals and he hoped that more islanders would stand for election to the Council in May.

From Radio Scilly

Peter Lawrence-Roberts talks to Keri Jones

That pleased Andrew George who felt that the idea of a party should be “advanced with care.”

Patrick Brown asked whether a party system would be more effective as members would act with “one voice” but some attendees argued that party political groups were not part of Scilly life and shouldn’t be.

Adrian felt that the group has achieved a great deal as Councillors are now talking about locals’ concerns. He said it has been hard running a democratic group and not everyone approved of the petition requesting the suspension of the Chief Executive.

It wasn’t a Heart campaign and he wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t involved in it.

Despite requests to stay away from discussing individuals, the Council Chief Executive was the subject of many questions and comments.

 

Scrutiny of Chief Executive

 

Carmen Stevens wanted to know whether Philip Hygate’s performance could be scrutinised by an outside agency. Peter Lawrence said he was being assessed by members twice a year, but Councillors could decide to bring in an independent to do it.

We asked Peter whether he felt the Chief Executive of the Council should have attended as many of the issues raised appeared to be about him. He said he didn’t feel that was necessary, as long as someone was representing the Council and listening to people’s views.

But Peter said he was sure Philip would be interested to hear what has happened and he would be reporting back to him, “even the difficult issues.”

Strong views about the ‘climate of fear’ in the islands were shared. One attendee claimed that more locals than you would expect have been ‘paid off’ with legal settlements.

Tim Guthrie quoted the phrase, ‘power corrupts’ to illustrate his concerns

Todd Stevens told the panel that islanders lived in fear of retribution if they upset Chief Officers. He felt this could mean a loss of Council contracts, employment or a failure to gain planning consent.

Peter said this worried him. He said anyone should be able to disagree with any Chief Officer, and in his experience, they do. He said that’s right and proper and part of democracy.

If there are people who feel like this, “and clearly there are” he said he’d be happy to talk to them and try to deal with it.

And if locals don’t feel they can talk with him they could go to the auditor if it is a financial matter or the Local Government Ombudsman.

Peter says he was aware that some locals were unhappy but was surprised at the strength of feeling.

He said, “If I’ve learnt nothing else this evening, I’ve got a real measure of the strength of that feeling and can work towards doing something about it.”

Peter added that the real achievements of the Council get lost because of the negative feelings in the community.

Andrew George was pleased that Peter was taking it seriously. The MP said it wasn’t a new theme and he felt that a mainland perception that island life was idyllic wasn’t necessarily so.

He said many people had raised concerns with him about a ‘climate of fear’ on many different occasions and it was, “more plausible on Scilly than in a large local authority.”

Stuart Moore questioned how islanders could object to Council officers’ actions, when the Ombudsman sent correspondence back to the senior staff who were the subject of the complaint.

Specific and general Council staffing issues were also raised.

Nigel Hudson felt the Chief Fire Officer shouldn’t command a high salary for one day a week. He felt the role could be fulfilled on one day a year.

Richard Chiverton asked whether the Council actually needed 240 staff. Peter said there were 137 full-time equivalents which brought a heckle from Pat Hicks who said that there were only 20 staff 20 years ago.

Peter said the Chief Fire Officer had his pay set on a national scale and many Town Hall roles were statutory. He added that most Council staff work hard and that brought a laugh from the audience.

 

‘Tail Wagging The Dog’

 

A general theme of ‘the tail wagging the dog,’ suggesting senior staff set policy in the Council, was suggested by some attendees.

Peter Lawrence-Roberts said that Councillors should set policy and staff make decisions. Andrew added that he didn’t expect members to micromanage but a number of locals referred to Chairman Mike Hicks’ comments that he didn’t always hear what was going on until it was reported on Radio Scilly.

There’s a clear message that senior Council staff need to engage with and communicate with the community better.

Peter said he’s than man the locals can go to if they want to share concerns and he’s happy to meet them away from the Town Hall. He said he doesn’t have specific examples or cases and that’s where they need to start.

But Barnselie Ward pointed out that he had been here for 79 years and Peter had been in Scilly for 5 years. Barneslie said he had never seen Peter before.

The MP suggested that a working party of Councillors and non-Councillors could help the Council identify ways in which concerns may be addressed. And one idea was to have an external body provide this.

Juliet May asked questions about school governance. She wanted to know whether staff governors flagged up any concerns in board meetings prior to the head teachers’ suspension. Nobody could answer that.

Peter was asked about the Council’s process for addressing inappropriate use of a laptop. He said there was a set process which allowed the accused to consult unions and answer allegations.

We asked Peter whether he attended the meeting just because Council Chief Officers were worried about their own positions as locals were angry. One term that has been coined on social networking, referring to the revolt in Arab countries by citizens, is the “Scilly Spring.”

Peter said he was invited along and very pleased to accept the invitation, and feels the coining of that term illustrates the strength of the feeling.

Heart’s Adrian Davis said he was pleased with how the session went. He said he wanted to encourage more dialogue with the Council and said he’s grateful for the work the Councillors do. But he said some of the problems are due to a lack of discussion and a full understanding behind some of the issues.

He said he still feels there is a deep underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Heart will continue to hold meetings like the one last night. Councillor surgeries, to solicit feedback, were also suggested.

 



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