Agenda item

Leader's Statement


The Leader opened his statement by saying that he had indicated at the Extraordinary Scrutiny Meeting on 21 October 2021 that he would use his statement to reflect on the significance for all of us involved in politics of the dreadful murder of the MP for Southend West Sir David Amess the previous Friday.

Since then, he noticed a motion had been put to this Council, so he had edited down some of the things he had wanted to say.

The Leader said violent attacks on elected representatives had become far too commonplace, and nobody should pretend that all had been well meaning bliss in the past.   He said that Members would recall that in 1841 Parliament spent much time debating the violent intimidation and bribery of that year’s elections. However, he considered there had been a transparent increase in toxicity in the last decade in this country.  He said that there was nothing disrespectful about saying to opponents, I profoundly disagree with your point of view, these are my reasons and here is the evidence to back-up my point of view. Indeed, this was respectful in the sense that it was taking those with different opinions seriously but it was unacceptable to have the degree of simple hatred that had made our politics toxic, hatred that was deliberately spread as widely as possible.  The Leader stated that it was said that social media was the culprit, but social media took much of its lead from our mainstream media, which over a period of time had used the promotion of hate as a devise to achieve the political aims of the newspaper proprietors.

The Leader asked whether SBC’s house was in order and said that if he followed the question through, and stressed that he did not have any particular members or events in mind.   However he considered that Members needed to look at themselves and to this end the Standards Committee led by Councillor Hannah Perkin would be looking at the way the Council demonstrated respect for each other.  The Leader added that nobody wanted to eschew robust political debate, and to do that would question the whole point of electing Members, but the Council needed to debate more around principle and performance and less on personalities.

The Leader said that as he had mentioned before, Members in their groups might like to consider the future of local government, though there was no clear picture of what that might be.

The Leader stated that major capital funding was going to Mayors in city regions of the country and we naturally asked, with colleagues, what about us in the shire counties?  We had infrastructure needs too, especially a county like Kent. The Leader said that early indications from government were not entirely palatable and we had been told about County deals, of Mayors and devolution.  He considered that some County Council Leaders had been quite excited about that but not he thought the Leader of Kent County Council.  The Leader considered that there might now be some flexibility around what a County deal might mean and that there had recently been a meeting of Kent Leaders and Chief Executives where he had stressed the primacy of keeping district councils, which had performed so well for the government during the pandemic, at the same time as districts and County Councils working together on obviously shared strategic issues. This he thought was the majority view in Kent but there was a minority with an over exuberant passion to create single tier Unitaries in Kent, and for all he knew there may be enthusiasts on this Council too.

The Leader said that the rather nuanced approach, of working together in the existing local Government structure, had been put to Government but it remained to be seen whether it met the ministerial agenda.  Mr. Gove had said at the Conservative Conference that there were “more Mayors coming”.

The Leader said that there was another aspect to this unclear situation that they needed to be conscious of at local level. The Government talked about devolution being part of the County deal/Mayor offer.  However, the Council had to be acutely aware that devolution could mean Local Government officers carrying out more functions on behalf of Government but from central directives not from decision making by locally elected Members.

The Leader said it was an agenda that Members needed to be aware of, but he acknowledged that the terms of discussion were far from clear.

The Leader stated that one of the inevitable restraints on local Councillors were the financial limitations that all Councils experienced.  He said that long-term reductions in funding plus the ongoing impact of the pandemic left the Council and others facing tough decisions on its core budget.  The Leader added that it had been the aim of the current administration to offset the poverty of its revenue budget with beneficial use of one-off funds, but that was limited, and one-off meant one-off.  The Leader said that he had shared the challenges the Council faced with the Cabinet Advisory Committee on two occasions and anticipated bringing a summative position to Members as soon as possible.

The Leader reported that one of the administration’s objectives had been to increase the supply of affordable housing in the borough.  The Leader said this had been happening through the planning system but the Council had now reached a signal stage in the setting-up of the Council’s own inhouse Housing Company.  The Leader said that the company was incorporated in April 2021 and since then design and feasibility work had been carried out and had now reached an advanced stage. The Company aimed to submit a Planning application in the New Year. There would be challenges with costs in the construction industry rising by 15% and with labour shortages but it was essential that delivery of homes took place.

The Leader concluded that he hoped that the whole Council would join him in celebrating the success of local organisations in accessing funds from the Community Renewal Fund, with bids being supported by a local panel of the two local MPs, local businesses, the Council’s Regeneration Director and himself.

In response, the Leader of the main opposition group thanked the Leader for his statement and for allowing him sight of it before the meeting.  He congratulated  the success of local organisations in accessing funds from the Community Renewal Fund and stated that it was good for them, for Swale and for local residents.  The Leader of the main opposition group congratulated the role of all of the districts in Kent in the fight against Covid-19 and the outstanding job that officers at Swale had done in supporting the Council during that very difficult time.  The Leader of the main opposition group welcomed the news that Councillor Perkin would be leading the Standards Committee looking at the way the Council demonstrated respect for each other and asked that they also explore the occasions when they did not. 

The Leader of the main opposition group drew attention to an article in the Guardian newspaper that announced that there had been a four-fold increase in death threats in the last decade to politicians, teachers, doctors and others in the public eye.  He then read out an extract from a book written by Sir David Amess in which he referred to the murder of Jo Cox MP. 

“The murder of Jo Cox was still totally unexpected.  She had been an MP for a very short time, having been elected in May 2015.  She was approaching the library where her constituency surgery was to be held, when she was attacked and killed in the most barbaric fashion imaginable.  This event took place during the 2016 EU Referendum Campaign and had a galvanising effect on the campaign, the general public and embers themselves.  My colleague Mark Francois alerted me to the attack, at which time he was unaware that Jo had actually died.  She was a young woman with a family going about her duties as we all do, completely unaware of the threat that she faced.  While it is often said that good can come out of someone’s death, it is difficult to see what good can come from this senseless murder.  Nevertheless, it is to be commended that the Jo Cox Foundation has been established to combat loneliness.

There can be no doubt that as a result of these heightened security concerns most Members have modified or change the way they interact with the general public.  The Commons authorities have taken threats very seriously ad have issued guidance for the safety and security of not only Members, but their families.  This includes security in their own home.  I myself have over the years experienced nuisance from the odd member of the general public at my own property  we regularly check our locks and many others have CCTV cameras installed but probably the most significant change has been with constituency surgeries.

The British tradition has always been that Members of Parliament regularly make themselves available for constituents to meet them face to face at their surgeries.  Now advice has been given to be more careful when accepting appointments.  We are advised to never see people alone, we must be extra careful when opening post and we must ensure that our offices are properly safe and secure.  In short, these increasing attacks have rather spoilt the great British tradition of the people openly meeting their elected politicians.”

The Mayor invited other Members to respond and comments made included:

·         To allow the Leader of the Independent First group to give official responses at future Council meetings.  The Leader of the main opposition group stated that it was already in the Constitution to allow this;

·         Members had a responsibility to ensure that words could not stoke the fires of hatred and Members should stop and think of the implications of their words as well as actions;

·         with regard to the future of Local Government, which direction did the Leader think Swale was looking East towards east Kent, West towards Medway or South towards Maidstone?; and

·         referred to a previous Local Government review on unitary authorities and stated that the Council had councillor, business and resident agreement that SBC should be a unitary authority, however the Government Commission recommended that they should not.  It had been a political decision which was wrong, each area should have been able to decide themselves.


In response the Leader thanked the Leader of the main opposition group for supporting the Local Renewal Fund.  All five successful bids were important and leant towards skills and employment, and he stated that top of the administrations priority list was East Kent colleges and he would like their input into Swale to be greater in offering more vocational training into Swale. 

In response to a question about which direction Swale looked to in regard to local government, the Leader stated that in his view the Council looked to Swale retaining its integrity and not unitary authorities.