In support of ‘absentee’ county councillor: the other side of the story

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It must now be clear to even occasional readers of The Clarion that this community e-newspaper has real concerns for local democracy.
At the same time, there are always at least two sides to every story.
Our continued coverage of the absentee Northumberland County councillor Roderick Lawrie, member for Norham and Islandshires, who has lived and worked since late 2018 on the Isle of Man during which time he has attended only one full NCC meeting and one meeting of North Northumberland Local Area, has presented the only version so far available. Indeed, so one-sided through lack of balancing comment has our reportage been that the story is in danger of being seen as a campaign for Cllr Lawrie’s removal.
It is not. It is an expression of concern that a dozen or so north Northumberland parish councils and their constituents are currently effectively unrepresented at county level.
The Clarion, as we said in our most recent coverage (CLICK HERE) attempted three weeks ago to speak to Cllr Lawrie and has invited comment on the situation from county Conservative leader Peter Jackson and Berwick Conservative MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan. Without success.
I therefore emailed representatives of the dozen parish councils involved to seek their views; this is what I wrote:
I edit and publish the community e-newsletter The Clarion and since I last managed to speak to Cllr Lawrie In December when he promised to resign http://www.voiceofthenorth.net/scandal-of-the-wont-quit-cant-quit-county-councillor/ the NCC representative for Norham and Islandshires appears to have attended only one full council meeting and one North Northumberland Local Area meeting.
“I wrote to Cllr Lawrie, to the leader of the NCC Conservative Group and to our MP, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, two weeks ago, so far without meaningful response.
“Might I therefore ask:
1 Has your parish council seen him at a meeting? If so, when?
2 Has your parish council successfully contacted him? If so, when?
3 Have you inquired or complained to NCC about lack of representation?
4 How does your PC feel about being ‘represented’ by a councillor who lives and works on the Isle of Man?
“Any other comments?
“If you wish I will refer only to “a spokesperson for ‘******** Parish Council’ rather than name individual. Please indicate a preference.
“This is not a media witch hunt; it is important that the council’s and the electorate within Norham and Islandshires are properly represented. This does not appear to be happening.
“Thanks for any help you can give.”
As I said at the start of this editorial, there is always more than one side to every story. Although the majority of those emailed are yet to respond, one parish council representative has replied with an account which, in all fairness, I have decided to publish in full. Even though no such request was made, I have redacted all details which might identify the individual or his/her council.
I
refer to your email on Councillor Lawrie
“I write as clerk to
******Parish Council. I express only my personal comments/opinions and do not speak for any member of my council. As clerk I am apolitical.
“On checking our parish minutes I can say that Councillor Lawrie has attended at least one parish council meeting since his election [in 2016]. The records also show that his predecessor attended one of six meetings held in the 13 months before he left office. In fairness much of the business discussed at parish council meetings makes it difficult for a county councillor to contribute.
“As clerk, I have successfully contacted Councillor Lawrie on numerous occasions by email and telephone. I find him helpful and supportive. He responds in good time and has helped me as a new clerk deal with officials at county hall on a variety of matters.
“I personally have not complained to NCC about lack of representation and have been given no instructions to do so. I refer to my answer in point 2 and re-emphasise that Councillor Lawrie’s availability and help to me must benefit my council whose business I am dealing with.
“As stated earlier, I cannot speak for the parish council or its individual councillors. I will put your email to them so that they can decide if they wish to give an individual or collective response.
I repeat that these are my personal comments and do not purport to speak for any member of * Parish Council.”

This welcome response — and I hope there will be others — raises points as well as answers them.
• Is it necessarily wrong for a councillor to live and work hundreds of miles away from the constituency he represents?
• Is such scant attendance at council meetings as Cllr Lawrie’s record shows — even combined with occasional emails and telephone calls — sufficiently worthy of the allowances a county councillor receives?
We will be in a better position to judge when the remainder of parish responses — and maybe explanations from our MP, NCC Leader and Cllr Lawrie himself — have been received.
Watch this space.

STILL THERE: County Councillor Roderick Lawrie

3 COMMENTS

  1. It is good to see sensible, balanced articles in this publication. The national
    Media could do well to follow the example.
    It does seem to me, as a former District and Town Councillor, and candidate for County Council (not yet elected) that it is hard to be an effective local representative without good knowledge of the area you seek to represent.
    Being physically present in the area all the time is probably not essential. Modern communication should allow the public to interact with Cllrs remotely.
    At NCC level, where the basic allowance is £12,000 per year ie £1000 a month or £ 250 a week (£50 a working day) there is, I believe, at least a “moral” obligation to provide an adequate level of commitment to and participation in the work of the council and in the interests of the electors.
    There is still a 19th century assumption that the only way to participate in decision making meetings is to be in the room.
    Businesses are using tele-conferences and virtual meetings to reduce travel costs and wasted travel time. So maybe there is scope for similar developments in local government.
    There are some Cllrs who, while regular attendees at meetings, never appear in the minutes to have said anything or have much local profile except at election time.
    The first past the post voting system with “safe seats” is hardly fit for purpose.
    I think the onus is on Cllr Lawrie to explain how he thinks he can fulfil his obligations.
    I am pleased to see you providing the opportunity for him and his group leader to justify the situation.
    Their reply is eagerly awaited.

  2. Blinking heck! £12,00 a year for rabbiting on about the drains and the rubbish!
    And you don’t even have to live in the county, or know much about what is going on!
    Of course, Mr Lawrie is much too honest to be pulling down those expenses.
    But isn’t it time he let someone else on to the gravy train!!

  3. I have tried to be silent on this matter [writes former LibDem county councillor Dougie Watkin, who was defeated by Cllr Lawrie and retains an ambition to win back his seat] but I think the relative point here is that the Councillor doesn’t attend meetings because of personal tax implications, choosing not to pay and contribute to servIces in his ward or indeed this country. He is not alone in this: a former head of the Conservative Party did this for many years until his situation became public. Councillor Lawrie simply is following the example set by those in the upper echolons of his party.
    Part of the great sense of service as a Councillor is having the ability to help, on a one to one basis, residents who find they have no one else to turn. In an emergency, while not having the power to solve all problems, residents just having the backing of their local councillor gain some peace of mind . In a rural area like ours (over 200 square miles) having a feel for the difficult problems that this raises, particularly with an offshore community as part of the ward, being able to communicate with those with no access to IT, phone or vehicles can be problematical but necessary, particularly during inclement weather, it is not unreasonable for electors to expect ,under normal circumstances their Councillor to be available. That way, many difficult problems can be easily and quickly solved by the Councillor — IF they are available! — Dougie Watkin.

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