Judging by the short agenda, Full Council this month (Wednesday 18th September) was set to be a quick affair. However, with the Tory Council Leader Andrew Bowles calling it a ‘first’ that the council was to debate two motions (God forbid members should want to debate more than ONE thing!!!) and his inability to descend the debate into defensive and aggressive partisan debate, the council meeting went on for several hours.
Firstly, it is only right to note that two very good things were passed at this meeting. Members eventually unanimously passed a motion put forward by Labour Councillor for Chalkwell Ward Roger Truelove which pushes the council to do everything it can to block KCC Tories from throwing over 50 community groups out of the Phoenix House Community Centre. Secondly towards the end of the meeting a Community Covenant which binds the council to better assist those who have served and are serving in our Armed forces, in recognition of their service to the country was also passed unanimously.
In a passionate speech Roger Truelove slammed the Kent Tories for failing to realise there is no alternative community centre with suitable space and transport links. Cllr. Truelove rightly pointed out that we’d heard little from the Tory leadership on Swale Council except for the work of Cllr. Mike Whiting who has long argued the case alongside the Community Groups and Labour members that KCC cannot go ahead with closure. Members of the community groups who use Phoenix House were sat in the public gallery and gave Cllr. Truelove strong applause as he took his seat.
Tory Leader Andrew Bowles then rose, and in a typically defensive state he honed in on Cllr. Truelove’s criticism of his lack of leadership on this issue – Cllr. Bowles spoke disparagingly about the march organised by community groups from Phoenix House calling it merely a photo opportunity. Bowles also complained that nobody had told him about the march and said that the Phoenix House was at the fore of everything he was doing yet had not divulged any of this work on the issue and that he attended far too many meetings and events to relay them all to members in his leaders report. Bowles took his seat to jeering and booing from the public gallery.
Clearly shook by this reception, other Tories tried to reach cross-party compromise, and a welcome intervention by Cllr. Derek Conway achieved a motion that was passed unanimously. Valuable contributions were made by Cllrs. Mike Whiting, Mike Henderson and Adam Tolhurst. Cllr. Tolhurst correctly pointed out that Andrew Bowles would not have needed to have been invited to a march if a similar situation were to arise in Faversham – he’d be organising it. This motion laid bare deep divisions between Tories at County Hall and the Tories in Swale on the Phoenix House issue.
The second motion, put forward by Labour Group Leader Mike Haywood and Sheerness West Councillor Angela Harrison, called on the Council to lobby central government for more funding for Swale Clinical Commissioning Group.
The case was made through the speeches made by both that local health indicators were dire; highest rates of obesity in Kent, lowest life expectancy, almost half of deaths from cancer versus 1/3 for Medway and 1/4 in Thanet, high levels of smoking and a whole raft of local GP surgeries smashing past the optimum ratio of 1700 patients to one GP, with one having over 4000, another over 3000 and many more over 2000.
Tories stood one after another trying to fudge the issue – shirking the Council’s responsibility to lobby central Government – by simply saying there was no more money and that merger with other areas was to be pursued instead. Tory Cabinet member Ken Pugh, who had already been shown to be out of his depth with a response to a question put to him by Roger Truelove earlier in the evening, showed a poor grasp of the issue. Angela Harrison pointed out to members that this was rectifying a shortfall of over £3m identified by Swale CCG – it was not merely begging for more money but I call for a poor settlement to be corrected.
Tory members such as Lesley Ingham shocked me with her willingness to applaud Tory colleagues who, failing to grasp the severity of the health inequalities in Sittingbourne & Sheppey, made partisan attacks against the Labour Party on such a serious topic. Members such as Ted Wilcox demonstrated the total lack of understanding on issues such as health despite the fact the Council has a Cabinet portfolio holder for the topic. Labour Leader Mike Haywood made clear that Swale CCG was seeking political support for extra funding and was awaiting the outcome of the meeting to which Andrew Bowles simply laughed and retorted ‘but I met with them yesterday!’ implying that Cllr. Haywood was quoting his own figures and not those of the CCG.
Tory Councillor Lloyd Bowen moved an amendment to water the motion down to call for central government to merely ‘appraise’ the funding settlement, thus removing any requirement of the council to lobby and fight for local residents. The Swale Tories simply have an ideological opposition to lobbying for funding – as Labour Councillor Martin McCusker said to members, money does make a difference and other councils of all political persuasions as advocates of their local community lobby hard all the time and it would baffle other Tory council leaders that Swale Council’s Tory leadership appear always to object to lobbying.
Tory members, except Cllr. Anita Walker, voted unanimously to carry the amended motion – Labour members, Anita Walker and Cllr. Mike Henderson voted against the amended motion desiring to stick to the original motion. In his summing up, Cllr. Haywood lambasted Andrew Bowles for not caring about the health inequalities in Sittingbourne & Sheppey, which provoked Andrew Bowles to pounce to his feet demanding a retraction – Cllr. Haywood responded ‘I will not retract that, I will put it on our leaflets’. Indeed, it is right that the people of Swale know that the Tories who lead Swale Council are not only clueless and lacking vision, they are constantly failing residents by shirking their responsibility to lobby central Government as other local authorities do across the country.
Andrew Bowles claimed at this Full Council his aim was always to represent the whole of Swale – in reality that statement couldn’t be any further from the truth. The people of Swale have a stark choice: a Labour Group who will use all means possible to deliver for Swale, or a Tory Group who fail to deliver and dodge their duty to seek as much as possible for our residents.
Ashley Wise is Sittingbourne & Sheppey Labour Party’s Youth Officer