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Some of the fiercest criticisms of council actions relate to the Country Park, where the risk of a landslip exists.

Some of the fiercest criticisms of Council actions relate to the Country Park, where the risk of further landslips exists.

Council moves to sideline critics

Lodging a complaint with your local authority when you feel they have acted wrongfully or inappropriately is surely a democratic right. And one which has been exercised by local residents in response to a series of Council mishandlings, most notably the Rocklands scandal in the Country Park. It is therefore depressing, if not entirely unexpected, to see that in the face of often well-researched and thorough criticisms of their actions Hastings Borough Council has opted to sideline troublesome complainants by labelling them as ‘vexatious and vociferous’. Bernard McGinley lodges his own complaint about the bunker mentality being increasingly adopted in the Town Hall.

At a meeting of the HBC Cabinet on 6 June, the council’s proposals for a ‘refreshed Corporate Complaints Policy (including an unreasonable and unreasonably persistent complaints policy)’ were adopted unanimously.

Complaints and complainants will be monitored using software called Firmstep, though Thoughtcrime might be more accurate. The system has gone from being a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool to a cloud-based Customer Experience Platform (‘requires no specialist coding skills, is quick to implement and has no upfront investment costs, a cost-effective way to accelerate channel shift and automate service delivery’).

Something up was indicated when the HBC discussion paper was so inexact.

  • Wards Affected:  ‘None’ — instead of ‘All’
  • Policy Implications:  Local People’s Views, ‘No’ — not even for local potential persistent complainants, now supposedly proliferating
  • Policy Implications:  Crime and Fear of Crime, ‘No’ — yet in paragraph 8, reference is made to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (and an injunction obtained by Cheshire West and Chester Council that bears no comparison with any known HBC situation)
  • The references to ‘a scatter-gun approach’ are peculiar (and see also urgency below)
  • The proposal for ‘acknowledgements only’ disregards HBC’s extensive history of non-response.

What rights do the ruled have anyway? Disappointingly, the discussion was purely a bureaucratic one. No-one saw any issues beyond administrative ones, with the partial exception of Cllr Lee. He thought that the decision to marginalise taxpaying residents should be signed off by members rather than officers whose salary those residents paid. Strangely, Cllr Poole thought that this would be ‘politicisation’ and was not acceptable. (The view from the gallery was that it is politicising to be ostracised – especially by functionaries – and that is what is not acceptable.)

No-one in Cabinet asked or wondered why letters of complaint had suddenly shot up since 2014. Was it an outbreak of mass unreasonableness in the citizenry? Or did the Council’s lamentable record at Rocklands Caravan Park have anything to do with it?

No-one mentioned the dimension of urgency — as when HBC are about to risk permanent damage to the Country Park. If approval of the current Rocklands trees case (HS/TP/16/00089) is issued (or phoned), the diggers could be in promptly. Tree removal will affect drainage, and further landslips could result. The site and Ecclesbourne Glen are therefore at risk — because HBC have not shown sufficient care and attention in looking after our Country Park. (This includes selling off Little Warren Cottage. Tree-screening there? Oops, all gone. The visitor centre at Fairlight is over-budget before even being built? Sorry about that, Chief.)

No-one at Cabinet acknowledged that there have been mistakes in the past, or mentioned the Bahcheli Report (which chronicles some of these failures), or said “Lessons have been learnt.”

Throughout the discussion, members and officers pretended the problem was external. Why deal with causes when you can implement some palliatives?

The new complaints system can be seen as an extension of the avoidance of accountability. In March the Council invoked delegated powers to decide the Rocklands trees case instead of taking it to the planning committee, and – as mentioned above – a decision is still awaited.

No-one at the meeting pointed out that with respect to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, section 14 makes it very clear that it is requests – not requesters – that are vexatious. Identity doesn’t matter.

Cllr Cartwright endorsed the centralised system on the grounds of ‘improvements and efficiencies.’ He previously championed this in a letter to the local newspaper in April 2014 complete with the heartsinking sentence: “This will make the council more open and transparent.” The proposal was seconded by Cllr Forward who fully supported it. Bovine acceptance followed.

Meanwhile the Local Government Ombudsman has upheld one complaint against Hastings Borough Council about Rocklands, and another is being considered. These matters only go to the Ombudsman if the Council itself is unable to resolve the complaint.  Unresolved complaints tend to lead to the ‘lengthy complex letters’ that HBC regards as unreasonable.

The supposed ‘scatter-gun’ method of complaining to HBC rose steeply in 2014 almost certainly because the number of complainants did. Many hundreds of people complained about each of these cases:

  • HS/FA/12/00952  The central ‘Bunker’ case, where the HBC planners’ formal report on the Rocklands submission stated, “The Application follows refusal HS/FA/12/00471 for the same proposal” [refused just months previously].
  • HS/FA/14/00406  Retrospective permission sought regarding the Bunker. Refused June 2014.
  • HS/FA/14/01036  Retention of holiday let building and access ramp. Relocation of solar panels. Refused March 2015.

The Bunker went to appeal, and the hearing was in April 2016. The planning inspector’s decision on the Bunker – essentially to allow it – was announced on the morning after this Cabinet meeting on vociferous complaints. So now the Bunker stands as a monument to HBC’s vast carelessness (or worse) and its dubious use of delegated powers (following refusal for ‘the same proposal’) whereby the Bunker was given the go-ahead by planning officers without scrutiny by the planning committee.

The use of delegated powers is an instance of the evasion of accountability or responsibility. Now this complaints policy follows in a similar vein.  With chutzpah, the basis for the complaints decision recommendation was “to ensure that public resources are not used inappropriately.” Given the record of the HBC planning department, this is laughable.

So what will happen to complainants judged to be ‘vexatious and vociferous’? They will be placed on a register or blacklist (not the Council’s word) and subject to various possible restrictions, such as limited access to relevant officials, use of only one medium of contact (e.g. telephone, email), refusal by the Council to register and process further complaints about a matter already raised, and the blocking of all emails.

And who will decide how long such blacklisting will last? With calculated fake ambiguity, Paragraph 17 of Appendix A of the Report states:

    The Corporate Director will decide if it is appropriate to lift restrictions after the specified time.

This is what footballers used to know as sine die — indefinitely suspended. It reflects a mean and authoritarian mindset in Aquila House.

Those residents most concerned about controversial practices will be those denied access to an explanation of what is going on. This is a shabby form of democracy. Has there really been an outbreak of time-wasting and trouble-making to justify this?  (In addition, not all comments on Council practices are actually complaints: some are requests for information such as the policy or legal bases for certain dubious actions. It would be a convenient misrepresentation to treat them as complaints.)

Any resident of this Borough who feels that the Council should do more to protect assets such as Hastings Country Park (or the Archery Ground, Speckled Wood, the Convent, etc) should continue to write to HBC to tell them so. There are many other reasons to contact people who were elected to represent you.

In the old adage: don’t grumble — complain.

Posted 11:38 Monday, Jun 13, 2016 In: Home Ground

9 Comments

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  1. David Hancock

    I fear that all the expectations of improved competence that were attached to the new Planning Manager, have been unfounded.

    Comment by David Hancock — Thursday, Jun 16, 2016 @ 09:18

  2. Andy Ammo

    Goodbye Andy, but I’d say the comments are reasonable and moderate.  Hastings Borough Council’s stewardship of our Country Park has been abysmal.  More damage is threatened.  More landslip is threatened.  The response to just criticism is secrecy and bullying.

    Why has Rocklands got away with so much this century?  How many site inspections of the caravan park have HBC made since records began?  Why are the caravans still closer together than the safety regs allow?

    The HBC cabinet paper for 6 June mentioned the Prevention of Harassment Act to help get their ‘refreshed policy’ through, and cited a case [Cheshire West and Chester Council v Pickthall (2015)] that has no relevance.  Have Sussex Police been called in to investigate threats of violence against HBC staff or members?  

    HBC have lots of explaining to do.

    Comment by Andy Ammo — Thursday, Jun 16, 2016 @ 08:35

  3. Andy Lee

    COMPLAINT – As from now I have banned myself from reading HOME GROUND articles and comments because it seems to have become a forum for a rant rather than providing a balanced presentation of the issues for people keen to form a considered view. Thank you and goodbye.

    Comment by Andy Lee — Thursday, Jun 16, 2016 @ 06:50

  4. Stewart Rayment

    Socialism in one borough… what do you expect?

    Comment by Stewart Rayment — Wednesday, Jun 15, 2016 @ 22:58

  5. Heritage

    So the doyens of HBC feeling the heat and the pressure of mounting discontent on how they have handled controversial issues in the borough have decided the time is up for us. For the “Common Man” to express his views to say where the council have got it wrong. And to protest on how things being conducted by The Establishment is now out of order. Next I can see them issuing their own form of ASBO’s against those who they consider have fallen foul of their conditions with this “Firmstep” system monitored by some Orwellian software programme to weed out those insurgents. Perhaps another name befitting might be “Goosestep” resonating the Nazi era where those who voiced disagreement with the regime would get a visit from the Gestapo. Extreme as I sound this is a knee jerk reaction to a worried council who cannot deal with the volume of complaints that are citing accurate facts, issues and faults.

    W are now expected to “Conform” with their new council policy. yet do they not realise one of the things about conformity is the non-conformity it breeds. The noisy protesting, the rebelliousness and the determination to fight it.

    Major issues such as Rocklands as one example among several others had not become such a fiasco with HBC’s staggering ineptness to deal with it in a professional, transparent and democratic process is why they have taken this latest course of action.

    Sadly the councillors the public vote for have no Moral Compass to stand up against the officers. They have no intention of listening and standing up for their constituents. Just toe the line do what the party politics tells them they must do and of course not cross paths with those in the Town Hall or Aquila House.

    On ending my sermon – Bernard a great piece of journalism here

    Comment by Heritage — Wednesday, Jun 15, 2016 @ 19:42

  6. barney

    The heat has got too hot in HBC’s kitchen and their solution is to close the door. Sorted. That is what this is all about.

    Comment by barney — Wednesday, Jun 15, 2016 @ 17:34

  7. Chris Hurrell

    Excellent article.

    These measure will make it even more difficult to hold HBC accountable for its many mistakes. HBC now have further powers to dismiss complainants (either campaign groups or individuals) as vexatious and effectively blacklist them. Rather than address the many organisational and managerial issues that HBC have they have decided to deal with the symptoms rather than the causes. HBC prefer to blame the public for daring to question and criticise the actions of our unelected and unaccountable officers rather than address their own failings.

    Nothing has changed since the Rocklands debacle it is business as usual and all supported by our councillors who have completely failed to hold our officers to account.

    HBC went through the facade of commissioning the Bahcheli review of Rocklands – a non independent whitewash. The few recommendations made by the report were paraded at Cabinet and put into an “improvement” plan. Sadly neither the recommendations nor the improvement plan have been implemented by HBC.

    HBC commissioned several independent reports into the landslip. HBC have ignored the recommendations of these and have done nothing to address and resolve the causes of the landslip. HBC stall claim the landslip is natural and ignore the effects of Rocklands infrastructural works. HBC have misinformed Natural England and now claim incorrectly that Natural England will not allow any remedial works in the Glen. This is all spin and lies.

    HBC commissioned an independent report into the caravan site licence after 20 years of failing to inspect the site. HBC have completely ignored all recommendations of this report and are in the process of drafting a new site licence despite the fact that the site breaches many licence rules on safety and spacing. HBC continue to lie and spin about the fact that caravans breach spacing rules and refuse an independent re-measurement of the site.

    HBC routinely abuse the freedom of information act and withhold information that should be in the public domain. Most requests for information are refused as vexatious or commercially confidential. SEG believe this is to hide the facts of the Rocklands debacle from the public.

    The SEG campaign group has been stigmatised and many false allegations made against it. Councillors have jeered and hissed at our name in council meetings and have accused us of threatening behaviour, trespass, death threats and posting dog excrement through the post. All allegations are unsubstantiated and no evidence has been provided.

    Senior members of the Labour party(East Branch secretary, GMC and EC member) have accused us of running a hate campaign, posting racist and anti-islamic comments, running a hate campaign and being tory thugs.All lies.

    This latest attempt to stifle democratic accountability is a continuation of the HBC policy to cover up and prevent any open and transparent debate on Rocklands.

    I believe that democracy itself is under threat in this town. Since the death of John Hodges there is not a single ruling councillor interested in protecting the Country Park or democratic accountability.

    Mugsborough is alive and well.

    Comment by Chris Hurrell — Tuesday, Jun 14, 2016 @ 16:59

  8. Michael Madden

    A really good article Bernard outlining HBCs attitude to democracy. They are an Orwellian bunch and this is a battle for free speech that must be continued.

    The HBC council uses doublespeak and I for one, am undoubtedly on their blacklist, yet I am a semi-retired 62 yr old man with no criminal record but I am being treated like a terrorist just because I finally cracked on one occasion in sheer fury at their lies and denials. I could no longer bear to hear their lies while also hearing that they think they are “socialists”. Nevertheless, a strong and democratic council leader would have been able to take my criticism and come back with an articulate denial if he felt I was wrong. But Mr Chowney acted like a member of the Soviet era Stasi instead.

    All of the SEG committee (of which I am not a member) are touching sixty and yet some of them have been called “yobs”, even though they were never remotely rude until it became clear that they had to call a spade a spade. They never used “scatter gun” tactics, just clear and concise if rather long documents that HBC have ignored. Chris has steered a fine and largely polite campaign and even you Bernard will now be labelled “vexatious” and they will try to silence you. At the same time they will continue to act as if nothing ever really happened in the Glen. They have only ever mentioned the landslip once in over two years in any of their councillors reports.

    I believe this is against our human rights. What this amounts to is that the bravest, the very people who have shown that they care most about justice and the natural beauty around them have been labelled a quasi terrorist group by members of a party who hold up a banner for Robert Tressell, who had exactly the same battles with his council.

    Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would meet a bunch like this lot and especially coming out of the Labour Party.

    There will be no point complaining about their complaints’ procedure through the means they have left open to us (i.e. their complaints procedure). But they have given us no choice but to try to clear our names in other ways at the same time as exposing them for what they really are, for the sake of democracy and freedom of speech.

    Thanks again for your article – I am sure I speak for all 1400 members of SEG when I say this.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Tuesday, Jun 14, 2016 @ 08:58

  9. s.goodhand

    Thankyou Bernard you spoke for all of us 1300

    Comment by s.goodhand — Monday, Jun 13, 2016 @ 18:16

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