So it was the ‘last day of school’ on Thursday as councillors gathered for the final Cumbria County Council meeting of their four year term.
Similar to ceasefires at Christmas, the last get together of all 84 councillors before the May elections tends to see swords kept in scabbards and an atmosphere of mutual bonhomie prevail.
Independent councillor Alan Toole shared a packet of biscuits with Lib Dem Neil Hughes who passed them along the line to the Tories.
They could have been Jammy Dodgers, I can’t be certain, but it’s unlikely in these times of austerity. The council’s been on Smart Price Rich Tea since 2010.
SQUASHED TOMATOES AND STU
At end-of-term meetings like this, everyone likes to thank everyone for everything they’ve ever done.
Stoic council leader Stewart “Kim” Young set the tone, praising the chamber for its “support” and “forbearance”.
Bringing a tear to a glass eye, Stewart intoned: “We haven’t always been in agreement but I have never doubted the sincerity and integrity of all of the members of the council in seeking to represent their constituents to the best of their ability…
“I wish all those members standing in the forthcoming elections good luck.
“Well, obviously, I wish some members more luck than others,” he piped up.
Stewart even found time to congratulate the Tory half of the chamber – wishing Tony Markley – the Silloth foghorn – a happy birthday.
As Tony’s face creased into a broad smile, Stewart quipped: “But we won’t be singing Happy Birthday.”
SKOOLS OUT FOR CLARE
One of the names leaving local politics at the elections is big-hearted Clare Feeney-Johnson, from Kendal.
The portfolio holder for education is stepping down to learn how to
(*Those big yellow zig-zags – who keeps leaving them everywhere?)
If you don’t know her, CFJ was the original ‘have-a-go’ housewife.
12 years back, she stepped up to the community plate when the auld grey town was short of an inspirational mum.
Clare was one of those non political animals who doesn’t really give a stuff which party does stuff for the town as long as it gets done.
Now she’s sacking it all off because she’s fed up with voters whingeing.
And she’s right.
In 2013, over 260,000 people in Cumbria didn’t vote in the county council elections.
Yet compare that to how many unload on Facebook whenever they don’t get what they want?
Clare told the council chamber that during her time, the number of schools in Cumbria judged “good or outstanding” had gone from 86% to er, 89%.
Quite what this had to do with Clare was left hanging.
“I have enjoyed working with some fabulous people in childrens services and all the hard work and commitment they give,” said Clare, absent mindedly forgetting all those CQC reports.
THE GAMES ROOM
The Lib Dems’ Ian Stewart is going nowhere though. Ian has held the health portfolio for four years and it’s done him the WORLD of good.
He’s shed some timber, cut back on the vino and even had his hair shorn so close to the wood it has shaved 10 years off him.
From his pre-election pulpit, he enthused wildly about the Cumbria Schools Games.
“This shows what this county council can do!” boomed Ian, in full evangelicalism mode.
I could almost see him throwing an imaginary javelin towards Peter Thornton.
HIGHWAY TO HELL
Maryport Labour councillor Keith Little likes to drop his aitches.
Unfortunately, Keith is portfolio ‘older for ‘iways.
At Thursday’s meeting, Keith told the chamber that the county council roadpersons have won a massive award.
“It’s for all their ‘ard work,’ enthused Keith, in a stripy tie.
A shiny trophy on the civic mantelpiece never does any harm at voting time.
By the way, I’m sure you’ve all heard of this award. It’s an Oscar in highways circles.
Winner of “Band 3 in the Highways Maintenance Incentive Assessment,” said Keith.
(Like it was the most natural award title in the world)
It means: “Cumbria’s ‘ighways service has reached the ‘ighest performing level’ possible,” said Keith.
There’s a prize also.
It’s equivalent to £250,000 of highways maintenance cash this year, which will grow to £4M more a year by 2020, said Keith.
The way the Government gives the money out is like, dead straightforward and not at all confusing.
Here’s the easy-to-explain graphic…
You see, the trick is…you take with one hand and you give with the other.
Funnily enough, £4 million is about what the council has to pay to its former highways contractor Amey after their high court legal tussle last year…
To be fair, “big Keith” has held the “Portfolio From Hell” over these last four years.
It’s been a nightmare brief, especially after the 2015 December floods.
Imagine waking up one morning to the news that every bridge you’re personally responsible for is either gone or under water.
If you don’t like Mondays, try Keith’s boots on for size.
Especially Monday 7th December 2015.
Only the other week, Keith was jumping out of bed at 4am. Which is when some people in Maryport are just getting in.
He had to be over in Eden for the first train through as the Settle-to-Carlisle re-opened.
“There was a ‘yuge amount of press interest,’ said Keith.
TWENTY YEARS TO LIFE
A number of councillors received awards for their 20 years of consecutive service.
That means they’ve been elected every four years for the last 20.
Among the ‘lifers’ was school masterly Roger Bingham (Lower Kentdale), one of the original inmates from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Lord Roger is standing for the Tories again next month from Ackenthwaite near Milnthorpe.
Roger likes to fish slap people’s faces with his encyclopaedic command of local history.
He raised a Haddock during a gruesome presentation on public health.
“I, I, I was going to ask about tuberculosis which was the scourge of this area once,” explained Roger.
“We had more TB sanatoriums than anywhere else..”
(Stunned ignorance in the chamber)
Roger’s upbringing in a “medical household” has served him well.
“In the past, if you were poor, you were thin,” he observed.
“Nowadays if you are socially deprived you are fat.”
Feeling the room shrink, he spluttered: “Quite commonly anyhow.”
Roger wanted to know if any work had been done on the correlation between poor fortunes and poor diet.
It doesn’t sound like any has.
A Labour member tells me by text: “I like Roger best of the Tories. He’s always good company but sometimes he really sparkles.”
IF YOU’RE HAPPY AND YOU KNOW IT
During the presentation prizegiving, I noticed that a lot of councillors on the Labour benches clapped the Tory recipients and vice versa.
Not Carlisle trades union hardman Alan McGuckin, who resembles a DCI from The Flying Squad.
All simmering 1970s menace.
Alan struggled to put his hands together for either side.
Refusing to clap is a form of legitimate direct action against the bourgeoisie in the endless struggle to overthrow global capitalism and all its supporters.
Especially when you’ve a smart phone to look at, comrades.
When it comes to health in Cumbria, things are so bad we have a Scotsman lecturing us about it.
Step forward, silk-tied smoothie Colin Cox, whose voice has all the makings of a Sean Connery “Scoattish” drawl.
As soon as Colin started giving his presentation, everyone shtarted coughing and shneezing.
During a lecture about clostrium difficile, he whispered: “I’ll let you into a little secret, ash long as you promise not to tell anyboadie.
“I’m told by facilities management staff that the amount of shoap and hand towels used in the ladiesh toilets in the Parkhouse building in Carlisle, is conshiderably lower than you would expect from the number of people using the building…”
(It was a lovely image to take us into lunch)
Labour’s Dr. Gillian Troughton, a silent participant in proceedings thus far, heard this remark and jolted into life like she had just been defibbed.
“If you don’t wash your hands you are wasting the time of all of us who do because you touch the door on the way out as do we,” she shouted at the room
(If ye dinnae eat ye meat, ye cannae have any pudding!)
With the elections due next month, there was a number of “fail-to-shows” at the meeting.
Mostly by councillors no longer seeking re-election.
I counted 20 uncollected name-plates on the desk outside the chamber. Some had forgotten to take theirs in when they sat down.
Those that did miss the meeting did not miss much.
Absentees included outgoing Tory grandee Norman Clarkson and Ambleside’s Heidi Halliday, another escapee from the Westmorland Branch Davidians.
At 10.22am, with the swagger of a man who owns land, Tory young gun Tom Wentworth-Waites strolled into the council chamber and sat down.
Cool as you like.
Wentworth-Waites brings to mind a 19th century Jane Austen villain with his country squire attire and cultivated black beard.
Either that or a young lorry driver from Bradford.
With a huge kerfuffle, Labour’s stoutly Lord Liddle, in a pink tie, flustered into the chamber 40 minutes late, wearing a Khaki suit.
He brings to mind late actor Richard Griffiths who played “Uncle Monty” in Withnail & I and was famous for his funny lines, eg
“As a youth, I used to weep in Butcher’s shops.”
“Indeed I often wonder where Norman is now. Probably wintering with his mother in Guildford. A cat, rain, Vim under the sink, and both bars on. But old now, there is no true beauty without decay.”
JIM’S BLAND’S AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAM-JUMPER
Bland by name – not by dress sense.
Lyth Valley Tory and leather-handed farmer, Jim Bland, had donned the most “mesmerising” old jumper for the day.
I’m not sure which decade it was from but it was chunky-knit and heavily patterned.
A hypnotic swirl of colours. Reminiscent of those 1990s ‘Magic Eye’ posters.
I was transfixed by the jumper’s oranges and maroons…all blending into yellow squares.
I was reminded of a stair carpet we once had in the 70s.
Over the last four years, the council has pleaded poverty at every turn having had to cut £800 gazillion-trillion quid from the municipal budget.
The trouble is, not many residents have noticed any difference.
The Press Bench has been left in no doubt that all this blood-letting is down to the big bad Tories in central government.
Yet back in 2015, the Labour and Lib Dem group running the show, quietly managed to find £10 million down the back of the council sofa.
So they immediately voted to spend it all on the very necessary job of building a whopping great new HQ for themselves and hundreds of council staff.
Cumbria House opened last year and very nice it is too. It’s all swipe screens and airport security-tastic.
A bit too much glass for a property on Botchergate, if the truth be told.
The logic for all this was that the council’s sprawling estate of 22-odd other buildings dotted across Carlisle was burning too much tax-payers’ cash in times of austerity.
It now transpires that this string of buildings managed to rack up a £30 million “maintenance backlog liability.”
Why the council’s estate was ever permitted to mushroom on this scale, no-one seemed to remember.
BOOMTIME ON BOTCHERGATE?
Bizarrely, Lib Demmer Stan Collins, of St Aveley, was desperate to know all about the “successes” of the new council headquarters.
Fellow Lib Dem Pat Bell, holder of the council purse-strings, was only to happy to oblige.
Thanking Stan for bringing this subject up, Pat began to carefully read a pre-prepared answer.
She declared that six months after moving in, the new building had sparked a “business boom” on Botchergate, which is an elegant city centre street crammed with experimental theatre groups and vegan kebab shops.
Council staff have also given “very positive feedback” about their “new working environment,” Pat insisted.
It’s “open plan design” makes the rooms more “conducive to greater team-working,” she said, slipping into management-bollocks.
Staff are using the stairs instead of lifts and some are cycling more.
What’s more, she said, building to a crescendo, the offices are “airy, bright and welcoming.”
Even the toilets are gender-neutral and flush themselves with rainwater.
Ten million quid well borrowed…
Hawkshead’s David Fletcher is hobbling about on crutches at the mo but still managed to make it to the meeting.
This injury may have distracted David as he rose to get to the heart of the matter.
“Yeah, just one, er, er, question, er, it’s just in general, er, with regard to sort of..new development of care homes and residential buildings. I was at DCR last week and er, some of the questions, was, er, even though a lot of the building designs were, er, very efficient, er, one of the er, issues that was fetched up was the use and actual placement of er…er solar panels to er, these buildings which er,. actually fetched an income into the er, actual er, county. And the main issues that were picked up on was should it er, who’s, who should actually pay for the….should it be something the developers put forward as part of the building design? Or should the er, county actually put it forward in the er sort of design brief?”
Council leader Stewart Young looked blankly at chairman Geoff Cook.
“Sorry chair, I’m a little bemused as to what the question was and who it was directed at?”
We can’t leave a meeting of the council without mentioning Tory leader James Airey who has been out lambing in the hot sun.
He mischievously managed to resurrect the 2014 ding dong about the council bringing in “parking meters”.
Mr. Airey turned to council leader Stewart Young and said: “The big question I am being asked on the doorsteps around Cumbria is would a Conservative administration be considering putting parking meters in or trying to bring back on-street parking charges?
“I can give a straight answer on that — absolutely not. We wouldn’t consider it whatsoever. What’s your answer?”
Mr. Young got to his feet.
“Yes, the administration and the previous administration you were part of looked at introducing a fairly modest amount of charging for on-street parking,” said Stewart.
“It was met with concerted opposition and those proposals ultimately were withdrawn on two occasions.
“Whether future administrations return to those proposals is a matter for them. You’ve answered the question on the doorstep by saying your administration won’t be introducing charges. It would be more honest of you to explain to the public what you would cut instead?”
Sometimes it’s like Wimbledon with these two.
Welcomed to her first meeting of the last sitting of the council, was new council chief executive Katherine Fairclough, who will be paid £140,000-a-year like the old one.
Lady Fairclough is a tall, elegant, type from leafy Cheshire. Looks like she could drive an Audi and enjoy solo-climbing in Tuscany. Not your regular town hall boss.
She had a tan she didn’t get in Wigan and an outfit you can’t buy in Dotty P’s.
Early in the proceedings, council chairman Geoff Cook turned to her and asked: “Does the chief executive have anything to say?”
“I don’t,” said Lady K gently into her microphone.
“Okay,” said Mr. Cook.
Start as you mean to go on!