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Archive for the tag “Town Council Elections”

Home – the place where doing life isn’t always easy

As I wrote this piece, we were about to head off on a road trip to catch up with all the relatives who, since we moved up north four and a half years ago, we don’t see often enough. For me this involved ‘going home’ to visit my nearest and dearest – although I’ve not lived in Suffolk for some 30 years. The concept of home is a funny old thing. Youngsters ‘fly the nest’ but are still expected to return on high days and holidays – with bonus visits when their smalls need washing. Elderly folk are often ‘put in a home’ – as if by giving the name we can conjure up the concrete reality of something that is in a sense a concept. But home is more than a name or a concept. And, for many of us we have several places that call out to us and, when we visit, feel like a sort of homecoming. Home is bricks and mortar, people, a particular place, or a particular way of doing things. And perhaps ‘doing’ is, rather surprisingly, the keyword. Home tends to be where we do life – or have done life at any given time – with all that entails.

Home: more than bricks and mortar, more than a feeling - and always a work in progress.

Home: more than bricks and mortar, more than a feeling – and always a work in progress.

We feel lucky to call Berwick home. But, in some ways, our fourth year here was the toughest. I guess there’s a transition that takes place when you uproot to somewhere new. And part of that is accepting normality over novelty. Which includes the realisation that it is us who must visit elderly (and not so elderly) relatives and friends rather than awaiting the influx of delighted and delightful visitors who, after that first year, tend to get on with their lives where they are (of course!). Which is exactly what we are doing here – and that is not always easy.

So. 2014. The Husband – despite my better judgement – became a town councillor. He had a desire to work with the many groups doing exciting things around Berwick. However, in amongst crusades for transparency (of course everyone wants it) and endless (and what seems to me pointless) mudslinging this has been nigh-on impossible. There is something deeply depressing about on-going disputes. You just have to cast your eye around the world to catch sight of what happens when people become ever more entrenched in their positions and views – often the original dispute or idea is lost in the mists of time. The most important thing becomes that their ‘right’ (whatever it happens to be at the time) is acknowledged and adopted as the correct right, whatever that takes and whatever the collateral damage. “Ah!” you may say, “that’s politics. Your husband was naïve”. Fair point. But Berwick Guildhall is not the House of Commons – it is a local council peopled by local volunteers who thought they might be able to contribute something locally. So, yes, it has been grim to experience the blast of politics at its worst and extremely sad to see the personal impact it’s had on many councillors. I can only imagine how it must feel to be a member of staff. I urge those who have an axe to grind, or feel that they have been let down by the town council, to stand for the council and make a difference when the opportunity arises.

Berwick Guildhall. Not the House of Commons.

Berwick Guildhall. Not the House of Commons.

There were, of course, many jolly and uplifting happenings in 2014. One was my first and last foray into musical theatre. I thought: how hard can it be to sing a solo on stage? Turns out, very. The great thing is that, in a town like Berwick, there are loads of people who are happy to help you out. I am extremely grateful to them and look forward to Berwick Operatic’s 2015 show in March: Wizard of Oz. After all, and despite it all, there really is no place like home. Happy New Year.

How hard can it be to sing live on stage?

How hard can it be to sing live on stage?

(A version of this article was first published in The Berwick Advertiser)

Berwick’s Mayoral Vote: my account

Here in Berwick there’s quite a furore over the re-election of Isobel Hunter as Mayor rather than last year’s Deputy Mayor, Georgina Hill. It is unusual for the Deputy Mayor not to succeed the Mayor. I was at the town council meeting on Monday night. It was not a pleasant meeting.

Before the vote, Councillor Lang, my husband, suggested the council stick with the Mayor they have for a year as Ms Hill is currently involved in a dispute with a council employee involving serious allegations on both sides and currently under independent investigation. Hopefully in a year’s time this will be settled. Councillor Lang suggested that, should Ms Hill be elected, she would be the employee’s line manager. This, Councillor Lang said according to legal advice he had taken, could be seen as constructive dismissal of the employee and potentially lead to a costly claim against the council. Understandably, this led to a heated response from Ms Hill, including claims that several Councillors had complaints lodged against them by the same employee. Mayor Isobel Hunter said that she had received advice from NALC (The National Association of Local Councils) which suggested it would be unwise to support Ms Hill under the current circumstances.

The vote took place and Isobel Hunter was voted in as Mayor by 8 votes to Ms Hill’s 7. Councillor John Stephenson was voted in as Deputy Mayor over Councillor Ivor Dixon. I was surprised that no one nominated Ms Hill to remain as Deputy Mayor as it seemed to me Councillors may have been happy to keep the status quo for a year had they been given the opportunity. A number of vocal supporters of Ms Hill made their presence felt shouting and calling out throughout proceedings. Others spoke when invited to do so and were eloquent in their support and praise of Ms Hill. Many (12 to 16) followed Ms Hill out when she left after the vote and subsequent discussion, and before the rest of the council business took place.

Pushing aside rhetoric and posturing, the question the council faced was: Would it be wise to appoint someone who is currently in the midst of an independent employment investigation with an employee as that employee’s line manager? Unusual, uncomfortable, embarrassing and difficult as this was for all parties, it was a question that feels as if it had to be aired. In the event, the council erred on the side of caution. By a hair’s breadth.

Democracy gets my vote of confidence

You can’t dabble in politics. Either you enter the battleground ready for bruising debates and accusations of how wrong you are, or you opt to sit in the garden with a knotted hanky on your head. I am of the latter persuasion. So it was with some trepidation that I supported The Husband in his decision to stand for the town council recently.

Some of us stayed in the garden.

Some of us stayed in the garden.

Of course, Northumberland County Council largely holds the purse strings and power for what goes on in Berwick. The town council tries to get the best deal for the town under challenging conditions whilst juggling things like allotments and dog poo (not literally). The Husband had no personal or political axe to grind but a sense that he’d never felt so at home in a community. So, with a desire to work with the many groups doing exciting things around Berwick, he stood as an independent candidate for the council in Castle Ward.

Joe Poster

Being a WAG has been fascinating and humbling. Castle Ward had six candidates jostling for three seats (most Berwick wards install councillors unopposed).The Husband produced a leaflet and set about introducing himself to Berwick by lacerating his knuckles on some 1500 letter boxes. We developed new respect for postmen and women. The election process was confused by the fact that the county council elections were taking place at the same time. Unsurprisingly, many found it hard to separate the two events.

The vote count took place a day after the election in an Alnwick Sports Centre. The Husband and I arrived not too sure what to expect. It was just like on the telly! Clusters of coffee-fuelled, tired, anxious or bored people stood around the hall. At the centre was a latticework of wooden tables with flags indicating constituencies such as, Norham and Islandshires. Behind them people beavered away flipping through piles of slips with rubber thimbles on their fingers.

One of the first people we saw was Gavin Jones, elected moments before as Lib Dem county councillor for Berwick North. He and his wife, Gail, sat almost forlornly at the side of the hall, like an audience after the show has departed. We shook hands and congratulated. I spotted Sir Alan Beith in an anxious huddle. A disputed ballot paper for Amble West with Warkworth was causing high drama. Finally it was declared valid. The Tories triumphed over the Lib Dems by one vote. Had it been a tie, a coin would have been flipped. Now that’s what I call democracy!

Finally the town council count began. It was thrilling! Candidates and their supporters gathered at the counting tables to ensure their votes were correctly recorded. Unlike the county council papers with just one X, Castle Ward had three votes per slip. Each was called out and logged by pencil on graph paper. We watched the bank of votes growing under each name. Five pairs of counters were hard at it – the word was, ‘It’s too close to call.’ And, with just 39 votes separating the top five candidates, it was phenomenally close. The Husband was overwhelmed by the support he received, torn between relief and disappointment at his fourth place, and humbled by the whole experience.

Vote-counting is, I think, something everyone should witness. It is wonderfully human and fallible and levelling. Rivals stand side-by-side waiting to celebrate graciously or carry disappointment stoically (or not!). It is a reminder that each vote is counted and each vote makes a difference. I guess the high proportion of no-votes is a measure of how disengaged or disempowered many feel. And, yes, moaning over a pint in the pub or from under a knotted hanky is enormously satisfying. However, my belief that voting (not abstaining) is the one opportunity we have to change how things are done has been restored.

A version of this article first was published in the Berwick Advertiser on June 6th 2013

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