Wednesday, 22 January 2014
No, I DON’T hate the town council!
WITH no football due to the weather and no engagements to cover for the View on Saturday (a very unusual occurrence), we decided to pop over to The Harbour Inn at Axmouth for a leisurely lunch.
Daughter Francesca and her boyfriend Rob Larcombe, who runs our production department, joined us. During the meal I could see that Francesca had picked up on a conversation at an adjoining table, as all good reporters should. Being a long-term tinnitus sufferer I only have 80 per cent hearing in one ear, one of the reasons why I rarely cover a public meeting these days, so I was oblivious to what was being said.
Francesca recognised one of the party on the adjoining table as a former school colleague but they clearly had no idea who we were. They were discussing Lyme Regis Town Council and commented on the arguments between councillors.
Then one of their party chipped in with: “I like that Philip Evans’ column. He’s very outspoken but he clearly hates the council.”
I thought, “Here we go, they're probably going to give me some stick”. I’ve got used to it over the years but sometimes it can be embarrassing for my family.
But on this occasion I got off lightly and both tables continued to enjoy an excellent lunch. It was a good example, however, of how concerned people are over the behaviour of certain councillors.
Over the Christmas period I caught up with a few old friends for a festive tipple or two and inevitably the conversation got round to this column’s relationship with our elected representatives.
I told them I was thinking of cutting the gang of five a bit of slack in the coming months but to a man they thought this would be a big mistake. “Who will challenge them?” they asked.
In fact, one of my great friends whose family have strong connections with local government in the town, castigated me for being too fair.
“The trouble is,” he opined, “you are too polite to them and always try to balance your criticism with something positive about them.”
We had to agree to disagree on this, not for the first time.
I have been conscious that my comments could well inflame some of the animosities that exist in the council chamber but I believe it is the role of any local newspaper worth its salt to hold elected representatives to account, especially when so much of the decision-making seems to happen behind closed doors.
To try to inject some balance into our coverage - and in a rare poacher turned gamekeeper moment - I offered the town council their own monthly column to use as they saw fit, to promote any initiatives which needed publicity, to profile staff and, if necessary, to counteract any criticism from this column.
I thought it was a bit of a no brainer really but what do you know, they rejected the idea. I have now offered that column to Chris Boothroyd, who wrote two brilliant pieces for the View last year. He’s the man who virtually single-handedly raised £200,000 to equip the Jubilee Pavilion and co-ordinates the volunteers who man the information desk and was then treated appallingly by the council.
This column will be handed over to Chris once a month as from February. He has been given a free reign over content and he has agreed to donate his fee to Amnesty International.
So back to the claim that I “hate” the town council. This is not the case. Having been a councillor and former mayor, I appreciate just how much effort goes into running the town and, as I have said on several occasions in this column, they make more good decisions than bad and that is reflected in our coverage.
However, the events of the past few months have seen the actions of a few councillors cross the Rubicon when it comes to acceptable behaviour. And they know it.
Lack of space and a desire not to gloat about the ills of others prevent me from listing them all. But I have covered Lyme council on and off for 40 years and more. Former journalist and councillor David Cozens got a longer stretch and we both agree that there has been a significant decline in the standard of debate and, more worryingly, a complete absence of respect among of those with differing views.
But as one of the new councillors told me not long after being elected - “Pip, you have to remember you are yesterday’s man”.
REGULAR readers of this newspaper will be aware that our group of weekly titles in West Dorset, East Devon and South Somerset (15 in all) have adopted a charity for the next two years (see page 16).
Using our marketing power in distributing more than 42,000 papers every week, we are attempting to raise £10,000 for the Rotary-backed charity, Water Survival Box.
In recent week’s freelance journalist Geoff Baker has been featuring the work of the charity in some very hard-hitting articles and we have made a splendid start, having already raised £2,000 plus in two months.
Readers and local firms have already given generous support and my staff are planning a series of varied events over the next few weeks.
Next up is a very unusual fundraising idea cooked up by our accounts manager, Anita Routley, who’s always up for a challenge.
Over the weekend of February 15/16th Anita is attempting to visit every one of the 270 tube stations in London in 48 hours.
A special feature on Anita’s mission and other events that we will be involved in over the coming months, and how you can give your support, will appear in next week’s View From.