IN a long career in journalism I’ve covered local government from the smallest parish meetings in Devon to the first time the BNP won a seat on Tower Hamlets Council in East London, a story that made all the national papers.
I hate to think how many hours I have sat on the press bench at local council meetings. It’s probably thousands.
With the demise of so many local papers, reporters are a rare sight at council meetings.
In recent times, in a bid to ensure the public knows what goes on at their town hall, the BBC agreed to the financing of what is known as Local Democracy Reporters who are assigned to regional newspapers, but with a brief to provide their reports to all media, including outlets such as LymeOnline.
This works to a degree but the Local Democracy Reporters work at county and district level in this part of Dorset and don’t attend the parish and town councils that govern small towns. That is the home of real community journalism and much of what happens goes unreported.
Not in Lyme Regis, however. We attend every council meeting (by Zoom or otherwise) and I defy anyone to find a town as small as Lyme that gets a more comprehensive coverage of its council affairs.
It won’t surprise you that there are occasions when some councillors wish we were not there to report their more controversial utterances.
Actually, an unexpected benefit of lockdown for the press is reporters being able to sit in on meetings conducted by Zoom and record proceedings which enables us to cover two meetings at once. Uplyme and Lyme councils often clash.
Most councillors can’t wait to return to the days when they met in public but there is a train of thought that advocates more meetings via video links because it may encourage more council tax payers to take a greater interest in local affairs, and it may even encourage more youngsters to seek election.
I must admit that not all meetings are so entertaining as Handforth Parish Council, when the chairman and vice-chairman were thrown out of the Zoom meeting after an astonishing display of anger and insults, by an official of Cheshire Local Councils Association, Jackie Weaver, who had been brought in to sort out the village’s dysfunctional council.
The video of this extraordinary clash went viral with Jackie Weaver becoming an overnight sensation.
Just watching the indignation of those she was banning from the meeting became compulsive viewing for people like me who have witnessed many instances of bad behaviour from those who should know better.
Just imagine how many are going to try and register on Zoom at future meetings of Handforth Parish Council, and it will be interesting to see if the irate members who have made such a fool of themselves will recover their decorum.
Lyme’s had its fair share of fiery meetings
The former borough council in Lyme had a reputation for fiery meetings long before I started covering them in the 1960s. Such was the council reputation that very often four or five reporters would attend the meetings, including the Bridport News (no Lyme edition is those days), Pulman’s Weekly News, the Dorset Echo and the Western Morning News.
Today LymeOnline is the sole occupier of the press bench.
It’s written in the folklore of Lyme council that back in the day, probably in the early sixties when there was a huge argument in town about whether Lyme should become part of East Devon, that the macebearer Goosey Gollop was asked to eject Mrs Cracknell from the meeting.
As Mr Gollop stepped forward, Mrs Cracknell, the type of lady not to be trifled with, threatened to hit him with her handbag so he thought better of it a took a step back.
As readers of this column well know, there have been a few skirmishes in the council chamber in recent years. On two occasions in recent times, town clerk John Wright had to warn councillors that their behaviour was in danger of bringing the council into disrepute. That was quite a brave thing to do since the councillors are his boss.
Our current crop of councillors are nowhere where near so stroppy as some of their predecessors, although one or two do have their moments from time to time. Of course, it makes good copy for us and we are often accused of stirring the pot, but we record every meeting and some of them make very uncomfortable listening.
It’s a long time since I have witnessed such appalling behaviour as we saw when the meeting of Handforth Parish Council went viral. It was, of course, hugely amusing as bigoted middle-aged men ranted and raved at officer Jackie Weaver but she handled them brilliantly.
This was hardly a good example to show to would-be councillors at a time when the National Association of Local Councils are trying to encourage more people to become involved in local government.
I am not pretending for one moment that Lyme council ever acts in such a disturbing manner as Handforth Parish Council, but I do know three or four people who have considered standing for election to Lyme Regis Town Council but have thought twice about it due to the personal feuds that dominate council proceedings from time to time. One of those has had previous experience of serving on a council which controls a much bigger parish than Lyme.
Don’t let spats put you off standing for council
Lyme may be going to the polls in May to fill a vacancy caused by former councillor Leon Howe, who lost his seat after going six months without attending a meeting. It left me wondering whether Leon, one of the youngest councillors in the history of the council, may well have been put off by some of these clashes. I hope that was not the case.
In fact there may be two vacancies becoming available, as I have it on good authority that one other councillor may well be standing down at the same time.
I hope those thinking of putting themselves forward for election will not be put off by the continual clashes in the Guildhall.
I have written before about the necessity of councillors to pull together to get Lyme through these difficult days and forget about point scoring. They can continue their personal battles when this is over in the usual cut and thrust of council debate.
At a council meeting held by video conferencing this week, Nigel Ball, a regular attender at meetings who often speaks during the public forum, took up this issue of councillors “having a go at each other”, saying they should have respect for each other’s views.
He told them bluntly: “You were elected to get on with Lyme’s business, not gain points from each other.”
Later in the meeting, after further clashes, Mr Ball interrupted the proceedings by saying: “It’s started again. Stop it, everybody.”
I can assure you Mr Ball is not the only person who follows council affairs that thinks like this.
The Lyme council has done well to gets its reserves back to a very healthy level and it is expected that the town will have a good summer with rumours that holiday lets are running out fast in July and August.
Is it too much to ask councillors to take note of what Mr Ball is saying until all this is behind us?
Ho, ho, ho – it’s Jack Vincent
Such memories came flooding back following the death of Margaret Vincent, who I described as the “last grand landlady of Lyme”.
I was accorded the privilege by Margaret’s family of delivering the eulogy at her funeral when numbers were restricted to just 15.
Because so few were able to attend due to the lockdown restrictions, we agreed to publish the eulogy on the LymeOnline website where it was seen by those who would have packed the parish church.
Margaret was the public face of the Pilot. She was the one who made a grand entrance – and boy, did she know how to make an entrance – every evening where she ruled the waves in the back bar dressed to the nines.
But it was her husband, jovial Jack Vincent, who called the shots.
Jack was not a man to court publicity – that was Margaret’s domain. Apart from a couple of holidays out of season every year, Jack rarely stepped outside the Pilot.
He was an astute businessman and was not one for touring around the other pubs, even when it was less busy. But the other landlords often called on Jack, the guv’nor of Lyme’s pub life.
Jack had a wicked sense of humour and was often the originator of many practical jokes, especially on his fellow landlords and some of his more, how shall we say, trying clientele.
Margaret was always trying to fix me up with dates, some of whom were not the prettiest girls in town. He got great pleasure in watching me try to worm my way out of the arrangements Margaret had already made.
I had never seen a photo of Jack so I am indebted to a former customer at the Pilot, Lord of The Manor of Axminster, Jim Rowe, for this one of Jack sharing a joke behind the bar.
Jack welcomed us all with the immortal “Ho, Ho, Ho”. Happy days.