APART FROM THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE I ever received in a lifetime in journalism – “Always use five blacks (carbon copies) and never shag a colleague” – two other golden rules of the editor’s craft stand out as inviolate: Never Start A Campaign You Can’t Win; and Stop Flogging A Dead Horse.
The first always struck me as cowardice; the second, on the other hand, is pure common sense. The last thing a newsman wants is to see his audience whittled away by boredom, however worthy the subject.
Two weeks ago, I was on the point of allowing the nearly-dead horse I’d been flogging for eight months to limp away without further harm to hide or hair. I had been concerned that Roderick Lawrie, elected as Northumberland County Councillor to represent the twelve parish councils and constituents of Norham and Islandshires, no longer worked or lived in the county (he has moved to the Isle of Man) and attended few meetings of either the full NCC, the North Area Local Council or the parish councils he represents.
As a county councillor he is entitled to claim a minimum £12,000 p.a. plus allowances. Contacting him by phone or email, I was told off the record and later discovered for myself, was difficult.
When I eventually did speak to him, he told me: “I have no choice but to resign.” Since that December 2018 interview. . . nothing. Except, that is, for The Clarion’s dogged determination to get some answers. To save my spatulated twin typing fingers further damage CLICK HERE for the most recent update: an email to all of Cllr Lawrie’s parish councils and the speedy response from one parish clerk which, usefully, provided an ‘other side’ to balance my story.
I sense that you are tiring of this oft-reprised diatribe, so I will cut to the chase: responses from parish councils began to come in. Typical was this one: “Horncliffe Parish Council do not wish to make any comment.” Most council chairmen would not speak on the record.
An honourable exception was Tillside parish council, whose ‘territory’ stretches along the River Till from Tillmouth to Chatton, requiring the attentions of two county councillors: Lawrie from Norham and Islandshires and Anthony Murray from Wooler.
Parish clerk Isabel Hunter replied on behalf of her councillors: “Councillor Lawrie did attend one of our meetings a couple of years ago, but we have not had any contact since then.
“Although the overlap between Tillside Parish and Councillor Lawrie’s patch is relatively small, we would still welcome the occasional attendance and input from him. Our other county councillor, Anthony Murray, attends most of our meetings which we find very useful.”
A spokesman for Ancroft PC was even more forthright: “Cllr R Lawrie hasn’t attended our Parish Council meetings since October 2017, councillors feel they are certainly not getting what he originally promised.
“We feel disadvantaged compared with other parish councils which receive proper representation from their County Councillor.”
That was the beginning of the breakthrough: then two councils, Lowick and Ford, while not commenting, pointed me in the direction of their websites where minutes of monthly or bi-monthly meetings were available and on the public record. And that discovery, dear and patient reader, explained to this lame-brain editor why no one would speak and took me back to my years in the USA: the reason was pork barrel politics!
Reviled as corrupt even by Americans but at the same time allowed to prevail, pork barrelling is defined as “the allocation of spending for projects specifically designed to bring money or benefit to an elected representative’s constituents”. Instutionalised and allowable bribery, in other words.
There, plain as day in Ford PC’s minutes of September 2017, was this entry: “Cllr. Lawrie, at his first [and only] meeting, explained that he is allotted £15,000 per year to distribute between the 13 parishes within his constituency. He has decided that the fairest way would be to give each Parish £1,000 per year for the next four years to be used for the good of the Parish and allowing the Parish Council to decide where the money should go.”
Hence the reluctant silence. What sensible council chairman working on an income of, for example £850 p.a. (Ford) and £1,500 p.a. (Lowick), would wish to step out of the receiving line when its county councillor, absent or not, is offering an additional minimum £1,000?
Further perusal of the minutes of Ford parish council uncovered the following entries:
Councillors agreed that the Annual Parish Meeting should be held on 10th July prior to the bi-monthly meeting and that County Councillor Roderick Lawrie should be invited to attend.
Apparently, he did not
Councillors discussed the lack of contact between the County Councillor and the PC and agreed that this was a concern.
Apologies for absence – Chairman reported that Cllr. Lawrie had emailed his apologies and had offered financial assistance from his councillor’s kitty should there be any capital purchases the PC were considering. Councillors were concerned that Cllr. Lawrie can still be a county councillor even though he doesn’t live in the UK and that he was not involved in the local parish councils in his constituency.
A few miles along the road at Lowick, the situation of lack of contact with Cllr Lawrie drew similar minuted remarks:
The Chairman welcomed new County Councillor R Lawrie [who] offered to put forward a request for the village speed limit to be lowered to 20mph.
Apologies for absence from Cllr Lawrie. No information has been received from him with regard to help from the County Council regarding legal fees and a 20mph speed limit.
No response from Cllr Lawrie with regard to the speed limit. through the village.
Agreed that Cllr Lawrie’s offer of £2,000 from his fund should be put towards the cost of [restoring] the Lowick Pinfold [historical monument, an ancient pen for stray animals].
Chairman Huddart said he was very disappointed with the lack of guidance and communication from R Lawrie; all councillors agreed with this sentiment. It was agreed that JA Huddart write to Northumberland CC [Conservative leader, Peter Jackson] to express the council’s concerns at this lack of guidance and ask for help in contacting R Lawrie as currently the parish council is receiving very little feedback from NCC
JA Huddart has received no reply from Councillor P Jackson to his email regarding R Lawrie
No response from Councillor Jackson to JA Huddart’s email with regarding lack of input from Cllr Lawrie
In view of the fact that North Northumberland Area Committee meetings [of which Cllr Lawrie is a member] clash with Lowick PC meetings it was agreed to change the PC meetings to the second Thursday of the month from September in the hope that this would enable Cllr Lawrie to attend future PC meetings.
Councillors expressed regret that Councillor Lawrie was not at the meeting and had not sent apologies, despite the date being changed.
Once again no apologies from Cllr R Lawrie, who did not attend the meeting
The Pinfold – the original Pinfold on the Common was demolished in 1952 as it had become dangerous. Planning permission is not necessary to build something similar in its place just a statement of permitted development. JA Huddart circulated a letter which he proposed to send to local landowners asking them for stone suitable to rebuild the structure
JA Huddart understands that Cllr Lawrie no longer lives in the area
Plans are progressing on the Pinfold. Chairman still trying to secure money promised by Cllr Lawrie a year ago
The Chairman has written to the Leader of the County Council on more than one occasion to ask about the position of Cllr Lawrie, but is yet to receive a reply to any of his emails. Mr Lawrie did not attend any Parish Council meetings in the last year.
THE EDITOR WRITES: That, as they say, is the story of an eight-month-long saga so far. A simple tale of local un-democracy, of a county councillor who rarely attends meetings be they full council, local area or parish; who is virtually uncontactable and whose absence not only from meetings but from the county has been raised several times with NCC and Conservative group Leader Peter Jackson. Without reply.
But that is another story. . . watch this space.