Dorset Council is to take action over the ‘staggering’ number of complaints made to it about the conduct of Shaftesbury town councillors, writes Richard Thomas.
This follows a special meeting of Dorset Council’s audit and governance committee last week that heard there had been more complaints made against Shaftesbury councillors than the whole of the rest of Dorset’s 160 town and parish councils put together.
Figures in a report to the committee, which is responsible for monitoring the conduct of local councillors in Dorset, stated there had been a total of 51 complaints about Shaftesbury town councillors in the last 18 months, including 14 to Dorset Police.
They amounted to well over half – 65 per cent – of the total of 78 complaints made against all Dorset’s councils between April 2020 and the end of 2021.
The report showed there were no complaints at all against Gillingham or Sturminster Newton councillors during the same period.
Only two other Dorset councils – Portland and Weymouth – made double figures, with ten complaints each.
The report’s author Antony Bygrave, Dorset Council’s senior complaints officer, said: ‘Significant resources have been spent in investigating many complaints emanating from one organisation [Shaftesbury Town Council] – many of which do not result in any substantive findings.
‘Where there have been complaints upheld, this has had little change in overall behaviours. Clearly this does not constitute good value for money for local taxpayers.
‘Whilst it is not possible to put a financial value on this, it is clear that this is officer time that could be spent more productively.’
Commenting on what he called ‘the staggering number’ of complaints, Sherborne councillor Robin Legg reminded the committee that there had been problems at Shaftesbury council for many years, with issues regularly making it into local press reports.
He asked if any attempt had been made to contact the council over their problems to ask: ‘What is the problem here?’
He added: ‘I probably shouldn’t be saying this but there is something odd about Shaftesbury Town Council. They always seem to be at each other’s throats.’
Councillors agreed with the recommendation from Jonathan Mair, Dorset Council’s director of legal and democratic services and its monitoring officer, responsible for dealing with councillors’ conduct, that in future the council took ‘a more robust approach’ to dealing with the many complaints from Shaftesbury.
This could include ignoring some complaints entirely, he said. Later he added that he believed the Dorset Association of Parish and Town Councils [DAPTC] could play ‘an important role’ by adopting ‘new and enhanced training for councillors.
‘Adopting an approach of learning from complaints enables us to pass on information about themes so that DAPTC can tailor training to address these,’ he said.
He did not say when that training might be provided but Gillingham News understands enhanced training for Shaftesbury councillors has been under consideration by DAPTC for more than a year.
Gillingham News understands the complaints in Shaftesbury have come from as many as six present and past town councillors. Shaftesbury council has 12 councillors including two who are also county councillors.
In an official statement issued after last week’s meeting Mr Mair said: ‘Dorset Council condemns all forms of abusive or discriminatory behaviour. In the last three years, complaints have been made in two instances about town councillors who, in a personal capacity, made racist comments on social media. Such comments are wholly unacceptable.
‘In Dorset we have 160 town and parish councils and some 1,400 councillors. All councils in Dorset have agreed codes of conduct setting out how councillors must behave when acting in their official capacity
‘In addition to being hard-working volunteers, the vast majority of town and parish councillors demonstrate the highest standards of conduct. We have robust arrangements for monitoring these codes of conduct and a strength of our arrangements is the involvement of independent people who review complaints about councillors.
‘As in other walks of life, sometimes the behaviour of a small minority of councillors does fall below the standards expected of them. Nationally the law limits the sanctions that can be imposed on councillors who do not behave in accordance with the codes of conduct and this is something about which the Committee on Standards in Public Life has commented to Government.
‘The law only permits us to take action about the poor behaviour of councillors when they are acting in that role. We cannot impose sanctions for things that are said or done when a councillor is ‘off duty’.”
In a later statement this week he said he would be ‘reviewing’ Dorset Council’s arrangements for what assessing complaints about Shaftesbury Town Councillors should be’ with committee chairman Councillor Matthew Hall.
‘The important thing to do is to try to prevent complaints from happening in the first place,’ he said.
Commenting to Gillingham News on the complaints made to the police about Shaftesbury councillors, Dorset Police said: ‘In the past eight years Dorset Police has investigated 14 cases relating to Shaftesbury Town Council, a number of which but not all relate to alleged offences under the Localism Act.
‘Complaints were made via the local authority [Dorset Council] as well as directly to Dorset Police. No further police action was taken in relation to all of the matters reported.
‘While we cannot go into the specifics of each report, every case reported to us is the subject of a proportionate review and investigation in order to establish whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution.’