One angry man and fifty-five bored residents

 by Martin Belam, 11 September 2004

On Monday I spent a very depressing evening at the latest Walthamstow West Community Council meeting - not least because it started with the observation of a minute's silence for the victim of a murder at Wood Street Station, just down the road from where we live.

The main business of the night was the third attempt for the community to spend its' budget. After a lengthy intro into the voting process, the chair conducted a test vote into how people had arrived at the meeting - the results of that themselves were a bit of a shock to me.

  • Car 29
  • Walk 19
  • Bus 11
  • Cycle 2
  • Train 0

Although the chair pointed out that there was a slight majority in favour of greener forms of transport, I was astonished that so many people had used their cars to attend the meeting - these really are very local councils. The McEntee School is on two bus routes, and within five minutes walking distance of another four.

The budget vote was a painful process, and there was also a fundamental flaw in the mathematics of the democratic process they were trying to apply. There was also a lot of comment that the people attending this particular meeting had been given no opportunity to input into what we were voting on. A quick show of hands revealed that although the attendence had risen from 21 at the last meeting to around 55 at this, virtually nobody who had been at the previous meeting had come again. This kind of churn rate in the people attending must be of concern to the local councillors. It apparently doesn't happen in all the areas of Waltham Forest - and the North Chingford region regularly gets around 400 residents attending.

The initial vote was to determine the order in which the funds should be allocated, and residents were able to choose four options in order of preference from a list of seven. The individual items were taken in turn, and the community was then asked how much they wished to allocate to this item, with the option of voting 'none'. It wasn't a workable system. As every item was taken in turn, the number of people who had not supported it initially always outweighed the number of people who had. So items that had gained 14% of the initial vote and were placed third or fourth on the list of priorities, were subsequently voted down. Given that the most popular item, providing replacement bedding for a local homeless shelter, only gained 25% of the vote, it would have technically been possible for every single item to be subsequently voted down.

An additional element of farce was added by the fact that the legally binding power to spend the money remains with the local councillors, who are only advised by the public vote. So items that were nominated too late for the order papers, like more benches for Walthamstow town centre, or the upkeep of a CCTV camera on Empress Avenue were subject to a completely different vote to gauge the level of interest of the community. It will subsequently be up to the councillors' discretion how they choose to split the funds.

The other vote of the evening was to appoint the Chair and Vice Chair, which bought out into the open a running feud between two of the people at the meeting, Kevin Lord and Karen Bellamy. They stood against each other for the position of chair. Each candidate was given two minutes to state their case, and as he was standing for re-election the regular Chair departed the stage for the duration of the vote. The Acting Chair of the meeting asked Kevin Lord to make his case. "I'll speak last" he stated bluntly. The Acting Chair acquiesed and instead called up Karen to speak. She spoke about how she would seek to increase the funding for the Community Council, how she already works for an association in Higham Hill with a bigger budget which has been successful in gaining funding and in driving down crime, and how she wanted a Community Council that wasn't about individual wards but was about Walthamstow as a whole. Next the current Chair, Philip Herlihy, put his case for re-election - as an ordinary joe with no political axe to grind, he wanted the Community Council to be a place to discuss real local issues. Finally Mr Lord strode to the microphone.

Kevin Lord is an outspoken resident, well known on the local politics scene - he is very anti the establishment and the status quo, and as part of his hustings speech stated that "I don't want to stand as Chair, but I don't like to see vested interests". It was his stated belief that Karen only wanted to stand as Chair for personal gain. This attack caused uproar. One of her friends stormed out shouting "It's disgusting", but then hung around at the back so she could rush back in just in time to vote. The Acting Chair tried to clarify with Mr Lord whether he was standing, or whether he had just withdrawn his nomination. More shouting ensued.

In the end the current chair, Philip Herlihy, was re-elected for another 12 months.

Then came the vote for Vice Chair. As she had been unsuccessful in her first attempt at election, Karen was invited to stand for this role. So was Kevin. Karen then said she would not stand if he was standing. Then some residents begged her to stand. The Acting Chair invited them up to speak, and again allowed Kevin Lord to speak last. As he launched another attack on Karen and the local councillors, alleging "secret meetings" decided everything, the room descended into chaos. Even the Councillors were trying to shout him down. The vote was finally made - and Karen Bellamy was voted in to warm applause - although Mr Lord had managed to attract a surprising 12 votes, beating the third candidate, Mrs Poulson, into last place.

I felt sorry for Mrs Poulson. She's a well known local resident who has served the community in many capacities since she moved here in the 1970s. Her hustings speech was an example of old school civic politics, listing her achievements, the organisations she has belonged to, and the community work she currently does. No politics and nothing personal. She finished with an exhortation that she didn't see why she should stop doing things just because she was getting older - everyone laughed because she must be in her seventies at least!

It was frustrating though to see one self-confessed "awkward sod" bring the meeting into chaos - and to see the way in which Karen Bellamy's friend was so keen to retort in kind. I didn't expect to hear cries of "if he wants to make it personal we'll take it outside" ringing out across the hall, with even the local councillors drawn into the squabbling. For the 45 or so people attending a Community Council meeting for the first time, all they saw was an hour of a hideously complicated yet ultimately non-binding voting process, five minutes of community debate, and a bitter self-obsessed squabble over who should hold the microphone at the next meeting. I can't see many of them coming back again. "Waste of time" one resident shouted out. I had to agree.

Ultimately the biggest disappointment was that due to the length of time it took to get the voting done, and the necessity of finishing by voting in the new chair, we didn't get more than five minutes of time for community debate - and that was entirely taken up by...well, guess what...the rantings of one Mr Lord, who spent so long asking questions about Walthamstow Market that the officer who was present to comment on the town centre developments didn't have time to contribute. In fact by far the most useful thing in the meeting was the opportunity for campaigners for the restoration of the EMD Cinema on Hoe Street to publicise their latest petition, which already has 750 signatures, and the fact that the council were giving away anti-graffiti kits to any resident who wanted to take one.

Maybe it will be better on November 17th - but I can't say I am altogether optimistic.


sounds a bit like student union politics...

A colourful and thoughtful account of a colourful evening. I have to say I didn't find it depressing at all, although I was certainly dismayed that the "voting" items all but squeezed-out a chance for people to raise general issues this time. My own view is that the general "Community Forum" is the most important element of these meetings, because it seems to be the only public opportunity for "ordinary" people to exchange views and concerns with each other, and with Council members and officers. But what's an "ordinary" person, given the diversity of origin and outlook hereabouts?

I believe the chair's role is twofold - to give everyone (ordinary or remarkable!) an equal chance to participate, and also to see that issues raised get at least a considered response from the Town Hall. The latter's fairly easy, thanks to a committed group of officers in the CC team, but it's been harder than I expected to make these meetings both fair and effective. I'm certainly still learning - learning what makes a relevant, workable and engaging agenda, and of course learning when an intervention adds value rather than just noise. As for the agonising that went into devising a fair voting system...don't ask.

I believe in Community Councils. At the very least they present an opportunity to learn what's going on and to ask Councillors and officers to give an account of themselves. There will be occasional hiccups and histrionics of course, but the meetings can only reflect the people who turn up and participate. As the balance of people attending becomes more representative it becomes harder for "hobbyists" to prevail. So, make a note of the next meeting (November 17th 2004, Chapel End Junior School, Roberts Road). Unless something major blows up, there will be an opportunity to thrash out what's happening to our market.

I should point out that Edith Poulsen is pushing 90, is deeply political and has more nous than the rest of us in that room put together. Kevin Lord believes all us councillors and council staff are corrupt - his conspiracy theories are the main turnoff of these meetings.

funny. was thinking the same thing. Then I changed my mind and decided it just summed up everything that was wrong with politics in general.

Why did I not often get involved with student politics? because it generally spent far too much time on the pointless crap.

Still I did more than most students - I put in a motion about networking student rooms to try and change student union policy on it. It was doomed because of the SU president who decided that if you weren't going to get free access to the internet, it was bad (something which was blatently not going to happen) and thus did an idiolical rant for most of the meeting, boring most of the people there and making sure all his best mates were around to vote for him.

Funnily enough, Durham now has most of its rooms networked and students have to pay a connection fee. He just delayed the inevitable for five years.

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