Talks to solve rift between Southend councillors and officers

The chief executive of Southend council has been asked to launch an investigation into why fierce arguments have erupted between elected councillors and council employees.

Members of the council’s standards committee promised to review the rift “democratically, diplomatically and diligently” during a meeting on Thursday night when they urged the chief executive to look at the issue.

Independent councillor Brian Ayling, who is a member of the committee, explained the problems are preventing councillors from representing residents and even impacting their chances of re-election.

“Since I got elected, council officers seem to run the council and their attitude seems to be that councillors are a nuisance,” he said.

“We are here to represent residents. If we can’t action things that need to be actioned then we are not doing our job. The structure within the council is not professional enough and it is causing people to lose faith in councillors.

“The system just feeds into the frustrations people have with politicians.

“We are at sharp end of the stick while officers are reasonably protected. They aren’t out there meeting the people that have the problems.”

He said chief executive Alison Griffin has been asked to contact councillors and officers and encourage them to speak to the standards committee over the next three to six months for a “free expression of concern”.

He continued: “The chief executive should be writing to every council officer saying please feel free to voice concerns, anonymously if they wish to, to the standards committee who will look at the comments and recommendations that are put forward.

“There will be a similar approach for councillors to express their concerns so that we can have an open and honest debate on what could be wrong.”

After gathering the feedback, it will feed into a review of existing council guidelines over how councillors and officers conduct themselves around each other.

The refreshed protocol will then go to a scrutiny committee before going straight to a full council meeting, bypassing the cabinet. Mr Ayling said the cabinet would not discuss it because it is “too important to be politicised”.

One councillor who previously voiced criticisms about officers is Conservative councillor Mark Flewitt who said he felt “quite positive” by the potential review, but admitted the comments will likely lead to “some discomfort” before they can be resolved.

Councillor Stephen Aylen (Ind) said the idea was just “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic”.

He said: “The problem is the standards committee is not independent as there are councillors on it. It is not impartial because it is made up of other councillors.

“What if the complaints are against the members of the committee? This is a system that won’t work.”

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter