The Sketch: Cumbria County Council

THIS is a year of change for Cumbria County Council. Its purpose-built HQ, situated next door to The Samaritans in Carlisle, is filling up, the new chief executive starts in March and a new council takes over in May.

All 84 seats are up for election.

Don’t Betton It

Robert Betton, a compact Independent councillor for Carlisle, got the biggest jeer at today’s meeting.

Mr. Betton is one of the most vocal critics of the council’s ceaseless generosity with the public’s money. He is particularly harsh on the council when it votes to spend it on itself.

But Robert, who has called for councillors to take pay cuts and for the high wages of senior executives to come down, has completely lost his voice.

Poisoned by the coffee?

“Happy New Year!” grinned one of his political opponents.

During roll call, Robert could only gesticulate wildly at his throat. Later he mewed a question of the chief constable.

It was painful to listen to, his voice sounds so sore.

A Minute’s Silence

Wherever they might die in the world, the county council always remembers its fallen and it is one of the institution’s most endearing qualities.

A minute’s silence was held for former county councillor, Des Youngman, who represented the concrete jungles of Hesket and Kirkoswald for the Conservatives.

He decided this ward was not quite rural enough, so he stood for Alston and East Fellside – Cumbrian bear country.

The silence for him was immaculately observed.

But the meeting was marred by four different ring tones going off in various sections of the chamber.

There are some strange ringtones in the council chamber.

Always judge a man by his ringtone, says I.

The council chamber’s ageing sound system is also failing, although this may not be entirely bad news.

The stop-start microphone dropped out so many times during a very serious presentation by chief constable Jerry Graham, that minds were cast back to Norman Collier.

Drift Wood

Current chief executive Diane Wood is retiring in March from the £140 grand-a-year top job.

In three years, I think I’ve heard her say exactly 50 words in earshot of the Press.

The chief constable praised Mrs. Wood’s “calm, professional” attitude, and “passion for public services”.

It’s fair to say Diane has consistently projected an outward appearance of inner calmness. A useful quality at CCC.

Her approach to meetings is to very calmly and very slowly spotlight the room – turning her head from side to side, scanning the chamber.

Like a display hawk in a shopping centre eyeing the fingers of toddlers.

Beware The Arrives Of March

Katherine Fairclough becomes the new boss of the county council on 1st March and joins from leafy Warrington Borough Council in Cheshire.

Ms. Fairclough spent the morning sitting in the gods of the County Hall in Kendal, watching her own coronation.

She was positioned high up in the public gallery where you can look down on all the councillors.

It’s a position many town hall chief executives are familiar with.

Big things are expected of Mrs. F who is tipped to bring some pizazz to Cumbria House. (That’s pizazz, not pizzas.)

By all accounts, she dazzled at a ‘trial by vol au vent’ session in Carlisle just before Christmas.

20-odd people applied for the job (as in 20 different people, not 20 odd people.)

The headhunters hired to find her, “engaged” over 160 people. (pay per click).

Mrs. Fairclough was off the charts in the job spec and coasted the psychometric tests.

Does this mean she’s not insane?

Give it time.

She was once named a few years back in a “Town Hall Rich List” by the taxpayers’ alliance, and gets a pay jump by joining CCC, going from £118,000 to £140,000.

Or, as it’s probably known in the trade:

‘A new challenge on my corporate journey going forward’

Stewart Younger?

Council leader Stewart Young (Lab) has had his hair shorn very close to the sides and is looking noticeably trimmer.

Was he given a Fit-Bit for Christmas and has clocked up the miles eagerly pounding the posh pavements of Copeland?

Stewart gave the new chief executive a wave up in the gallery.

He deadpanned that he hoped she had not been put off by what she had seen and heard at the meeting.

(Impossible, she probably didn’t hear half of it because of the crackly mics).

Stewart told the council chamber to approve Mrs. Fairclough’s appointment.

“I’m just hoping you vote the right way otherwise, she’ll have had a wasted journey,” he said.

They all did.

There was a universal “agreed” across the chamber as the warm waft of lunch began to drift in from the kitchens.

Stewart had earlier managed to disarm ‘Big’ Tony Markley from Silloth.

Tony frequently projects his voice like he is addressing someone on the other side of the Solway Firth.

“Didn’t you once tell me an app was something you had after your lunch?” quipped Stewart.

Big Tone cracked a smile.

James Makes Hay

Tory battering ram James Airey was in hospital a few weeks back but it has not mellowed him.

During questions, he suggested there had been a “set-up” in the running order and that someone had “leaked” his question to spike his guns.

The scandal.

Several times he argued with chairman, Geoff Cook (Lib Dems), who tried to halt James’ broadside.

It was noticed that Councillor Cook sometimes involuntarily shakes his head in disagreement when the opposition speaks.

Farmer James rides over the administration like a tractor in a hay meadow.

He bitterly criticised the decision to hand back “£104,000” to the Government that the county council had, apparently, been awarded for bus services.

James said the administration should apologise “to the people of Cumbria.”

This is something James often suggests and he knows its something it never does.

But it always make a good intro.

He blasted: “It’s pretty unknown for grant money to be returned to government. Even the Department of Transport is shocked about this. I get sick of the administration whining about cuts and then returning huge amounts of money.”

Labour’s Keith Little replied: “Thank you James it’s nice to see you back and well…and you know I really mean that.”

Lord Rodney Of Absentonia

Stan Collins (Lib Dems) is in a thick neck brace, so the mind is left to wildly speculate, although I hope he gets better.

Let’s hope it’s unconnected to last summer’s Staveley outrage, when the council suggested it might get round to fixing the main road sometime north of the year 2040.

Lib demmer Neil Hughes spoke only to correct the minutes.

Like a proof-reader pleased by a mistake, he pointed out that the minutes had omitted Rod Liddle’s ‘Lord’ title.

The Lib Dems: Standing Up For Undervalued Peers!

Lord Liddle said nothing for once. But he couldn’t because he wasn’t even at the meeting.

Bigger fish?

The Lib Dem with the most to say was cabinet member Ian Stewart, the cultured bon vivant of Arnside.

Ian had obviously been sold a hospital pass by fellow cabinet member Barry Doughty.

Barry couldn’t make the meeting so Ian was forced to semi-apologise on his behalf.

The complaint goes that the county council’s funky new digital calendar for councillors doesn’t, er, work in Cumbria.

Er, certainly not on all phones or devices. Just switch off and then switch back on again.

All hail the digital transformation!

Tory Liz Mallinson was visibly distressed with her ‘phone anxiety’.

It transpires that Ian also roughs it in a wifi ‘not spot’ as well.

He had no sympathy.

“I’ve got the same problem Liz. So what I’ve done is take responsibility myself. I’ve spent £2 and bought a filo-fax refill…

“Other products are available,” he trilled.

Liz reckons some councillors won’t have a clue what’s going on.

(Insert punchline here.)

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