The Tories on Shropshire Council made a formal complaint against me because I told you that they were not telling you all that is happening with Ludlow Assembly Rooms. A press release was issued saying that £1.3m additional funding had been made available to complete the refurbishment. That was excellent news. But the sting in the tail was that the proposed transfer of LAR to Ludlow was to be cut from 125 years to three years. And by the way, Shropshire Council saw the £1.3m as a loan.
I knew full well I would get a code of conduct complaint for telling you that. It duly arrived. Other councillors were astounded that it had been filed by as many as three cabinet members. Leader Peter Nutting. His deputy Steve Charmley. And the lead for culture and waste Lezley Picton.
I have now responded and I am not giving any ground whatsoever. I acted in the public interest. We are not China or Russia.
My response to the code of conduct complaint
The strength of democracy lies in honest debate and critical challenge. It is founded on open and honest publication and discussion of the issues of the day.
On 19 December 2019, Shropshire Council issued a press release which said that an extra £1.3m would put into the Ludlow Assembly Rooms refurbishment. It said: “Following the completion of the work Shropshire Council has agreed to transfer the building as a Community Asset Transfer (CAT) to the Ludlow Assembly Rooms.”
Steve Charmley, the deputy of the council, made no mention of the intention to reduce the CAT to three years. Or the intention to negotiate full or part repayment of the £1.3m. The press release was a lie by omission of vital facts.
I have made a commitment to be an open and communicative councillor. I tell it as it is from my perspective. I saw my role as publishing the information on LAR as a part of my duties as a councillor. The public were not being told the entire truth. They weren’t being made aware of the sting in the tail of £1.3m funding or reducing the CAT from 125 years to just three.
I did not publish the confidential paper but I accept that I published the essence of the recommendations that are most damaging to Ludlow. It is my job, along with my follow councillors, to defend Ludlow to the hilt.
I was fully aware that a code of conduct complaint could be submitted by the dominant political powers in Shirehall. That to my mind was a risk worth taking.
I acted in the public interest. Both Shropshire Council’s code of conduct and legislation allow a public interest defence on release of information marked confidential. The financial data I published was already in the public domain.
I was given the option of proceeding with this complaint or withdrawing my blog post. This is 2020. Withdrawing a blog post does not delete it from the public record. My blog is threaded into social media and mainstream media networks. It has had 25k views so far this year. The county’s media pick up anything I publish within minutes. Sometimes they use the material but whether they do or not is their business not mine.
I would not withdraw the blog post on principle. What is said is said. We are not a totalitarian state. We have a right to speak out. Freedom of speech is central to our democracy.
I don’t mind in the least if people challenge me. Nutting, Charmley and Picton could have challenged by commenting on my blog post. They could have written an article and I would have published that. They could have used the conventional media. Peter Nutting did say I was talking “tosh” to BBC Radio Shropshire but that was the limit of the response. The political leaders prefer to exercise their power behind the scenes.
I accept I will get disciplined by the council on this. It is worth that to promote the cause of democracy and the openness that must underpin our democratic future. I will accept any punishment dealt out. And I will go back to the electorate to ask whether they support Shropshire Council taking on procedures that China and Russia would be proud of.
I have a right to speak in the best interests of my ward constituents and for Ludlow as a whole. I have exercised that right. I am proud to have done so.
This response will be published on my blog as soon as I send it [legal officer]. Openness. Transparency. Nothing hidden on confidential papers. We spend public money. We should be 100% publicly accountable. I will defend that until the electorate of Ludlow North no longer wish me to defend them and our town.