The report below is the report the Editor received from Mercury.
The report below was reduced down for publishing in Phonebox Magazine
By looking at the two reports and listening to the full council meeting, you can check the accuracy of our reporting.
Public access to meetings
For the duration of the COVID-19 restrictions, meetings of Olney Town Council (OTC) will be held online as audio meetings using Microsoft Teams. Members of the public can listen to the proceedings by surfing to the OTC web page, www.olneytowncouncil.gov.uk, clicking on the ‘Meetings’ tab, then scrolling down to the announcement about the next meeting, where there’ll be one link to the agenda and another to join the meeting listen-only.
If you would like to be identified in the Mercury report as the originator of any correspondence read out, please contact The Phone Box at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first letter reported the dumping of a large pile of rubbish on the small island on the Goosey, noting that with recent flooding this had been a disaster for the environment. Olney Town Council (OTC) is already in contact with the owner’s solicitors, will be meeting with them this month and will keep the letter writer informed of progress.
The second letter requested it be read out at the March meeting. But the writer would like to remain anonymous in the minutes and recorded meeting. [Some of Mercury’s notes here have been omitted by the Editor because of unsubstantiated personal views against former Councillors and their names being used; that we would not publish without the writers’ name being made available to ourselves].
It hit out at what say as “the public trial by social media of the Council which, in my view, has been relentless since August 2020. It appears to me that close friends of ex-Councillors associated with and supported by the Phone Box appear to have cornered the local media in trying to influence residents to their way of thinking without a full story.” And the “tireless onslaught which, rather ironically, constitutes bullying”
It then went on to request that “the Council replies to the questions publicly on social media and in the local press, to give a more balanced coverage of events?”
Jeremy Rawlings noted that the Council would be replying in due course. He explained that other letters had arrived at the Council, some of which would be addressed later in this meeting.
Note: The Council’s reply to the above letter, posted Wednesday 3rd March, and other of its posts going back to at least Wednesday 3rd February are worth reading as they provide some background to recent changes at the Council. These may be found here, https://www.facebook.com/pg/OlneyTownCouncil/posts, which may be viewed with or without a Facebook account.
Apologies and declarations
No apologies for absence had been received, all Councillors being present. No declarations of interest were made.
Louise Izod, Public Art Officer at Milton Keynes Council (MKC), gave a brief presentation on Public Art, and specifically how OTC could utilise its Section 106 monies for Public Art purposes. MKC has a broad definition of Public Art, examples including follies and landmarks, sculpture, and artists in residence. It “is about inviting the vision, creativity and skills of artists to engage people freely with place, in a well considered way”, she said.
Some of the contributions from development are used to help fund Public Art. Looking at Olney, her investigations suggested approx. £27,000 was available to spend now, with potential for a further £233,000 in the near future if certain developments, notably that adjacent to Yardley Road and Aspreys, go ahead. She recommended OTC seek public involvement to produce a plan.
Chris Tenant explained that OTC maintains a tracker of Section 106 monies, so he would be able to help tie down what was available. He calculated the total pot of Public Art money to be about £345,000, due to about six developments. Desmond Eley asked how long it would take from a potential Public Art project being identified to achieving funding for it – the question asked in the context of the Amazing Grace celebrations planned 2022-2023. Louise replied that timescales for individual projects were around one year to 18 months while, if a plan was put in place first, that would add an initial six to eight months. Andrea Vincent felt it may be worth starting some work immediately, in parallel with creating a plan and encouraging community involvement.
MKC Councillor Code of Conduct
This item was to review the MKC Councillor Code of Conduct and consider its adoption in place of the current OTC Code of Conduct. Jeremy Rawlings noted that MKC was yet to approve it, though planned to do so shortly, so proposed to defer this until next month. Peter Geary explained that, while OTC could theoretically adopt it now, if Councillors wanted to propose any amendments, they could be checked for legality prior to MKC debating adoption of the new Code next month. The Code should be ready for the new OTC elected in May to sign up to, he said.
Amendments to OTC Standing Orders
Jeremy Rawlings put forward two proposals: All elected chairmen of committees must have attended chair training within six months pre or post their appointment; all members of the Finance, Human Resources and Planning Committees must attend subject-specific training within six months of appointment and then at regular intervals afterwards.
Chris Tenant asked that “regular intervals” be defined, Peter Geary replying yearly, with additional training when underlying changes to the subject matter demanded it. Joanne Eley noted that most of those chairing committees who’d joined in 2017 had attended Finance, Planning, Effective Councillor-ing and chair training. Although she’d chaired many bigger committees than these, she felt those who were minded to give of their best had already attended the training and kept well abreast of these issues. Councillors voted unanimously in favour of these amendments.
Demand-Responsive Transport proposals
Jennifer Wilson-Marklew, an MKC Cabinet member with areas of responsibility including public transport, had been invited to speak concerning significant up-coming changes to bus services.
A new demand-responsive, all-electric transport service called MK Connect, a mix of shared taxi and bus, will be introduced Wednesday 31st March prior to the withdrawal of various subsidised services. The to-be-withdrawn services affecting Olney and its surrounds are no. 37, and the Olney – Lavendon stretch of no. 21. The new service may be used up to 11pm, seven days a week, where no fixed service exists or none is running at the time.
The service will cost £3.50 during peak hours (7am – 9am, 4.30pm – 6.30pm), and £2.50 all other times. Concessions are available, it costing £1 for All in 1 MK cardholders for example, and Older Person’s and Disabled Person’s bus pass holders travelling free after 9.30am on weekdays and all day at weekends. The service will arrive within 30 minutes in urban areas, 45 minutes in rural locations, and pick-up and drop-off within 400 metres of locations requested. Once booked, users will be guaranteed a seat, and wheelchair-accessible vehicles will be available on request.
Further information is available here, https://ridewithvia.com/mk-connect/, and the booking line is 01908 252526. The changes will be publicised, including posters in bus stops, leaflets posted to homes in affected areas and by Parish Councils including Olney’s.
Rugby 7s tournament
Olney Rugby Club has requested use of the Recreation Ground for the Rugby 7s tournament on Saturday 17th July. Permission was granted subject to the COVID restrictions in place at the time, and similar conditions to those imposed in 2018.
Tenders to repaint the Olney Centre interior
Just two quotations had been received, other companies declining to quote due to the size of the job. Of those two, one of which is local, only the first had quoted for all the work required, the second planning to do so in the next few days. The Council is keen to complete the decoration before the Centre reopens so, once the full second quote is received or seven days have passed, the Council will accept one, likely the cheaper.
Town Clerk’s report
This was a long item, containing much relevant to recent changes at the Council. Some information is skipped and other compressed for brevity.
The request for the up-coming year’s precept has been submitted, and documents for the Annual Governance and Accountability Return (AGAR) are being prepared. Annual staff appraisals have been put-back to early in the new financial year, bar the Town Clerk’s already completed. One-to-ones continue. The Council will be testing technology to allow the annual Town Meeting, planned Friday 16th April, to be online. The Olney Centre heating works are completed bar some final making good. A bin in front of the Olney Centre was set alight, this being seen, the fire extinguished and the Police informed of the criminal damage. Work on external walls has been finished, as has that near the Church.
All the Markets are taking place, the numbers of stalls being increased gradually in line with emerging COVID regulations. The Cemetery continues to function under COVID guidelines, this proving hard for the families involved. OTC has sought guidance from the institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, which has proved helpful.
Clerk’s report: Complaints about individual Councillors
Two complaints had been looked at by Monitoring Officers, each concerning an individual Councillor and on separate matters. Both were dismissed as having no case to answer, the Monitoring Officer noting both Councillors acted correctly. The outcome statements will be published on OTC’s website.
The first concerned Desmond Eley’s part in the discussion of the agenda item “To agree a tender for the emergency repair of three walls” in January’s full OTC meeting. Desmond noted:
“I find it rather ironic that former Councillor Mr. Viney made an unjustified, petty complaint about my perfectly acceptable conduct, particularly as he did not always comply with the Code of Conduct during his time as a Councillor. He has wasted hundreds of pounds of public money, and I am very happy for the full decision to be published. For the record, the Milton Keynes independent person advised that I stepped in to provide professional advice so that the matter could be resolved. That decision seemed to be in the best interests of the Council and the residents of Olney.”
Regarding the second, Jeremy Rawlings explained:
“This was raised by Councillor Colin Rodden, against me, who accused me of bullying and harassment. The independent person found no evidence of this whatsoever and, in fact, dismissed the claim completely. The complaint was rejected and, again, the adjudication, the report will be published in full on the Olney website.”
... and Collin Rodden responded:
“It was unfortunate, and I didn’t want to go through the Code of Conduct, but I did feel that unfortunately there was no further way for me to actually go, unfortunately. So I think that, hopefully, though the various opportunities we’ve got through the various Codes we’ve been talking about tonight, and that we’ve put forward to the next Council meeting, we can look at those to make sure that all Councillors are protected, and that we have respect for each other and ensure that we don’t have a war over emails, and that people talk to each other, and that there’s more respect between various Councillors within OTC.”
Jeremy concluded by explaining that, for members of the public listening to proceedings and considering standing for Council, there is a complete set of rules and regulations, a Code of Conduct, and also the OTC Standing Orders, to which Councillors are bound by law. They are important, available on the OTC website, and those considering standing would do well to read them to ensure they are fully conversant with the way the Council operates. He also noted that there is a route for both public and Councillors to complain and raise issues about Councillors’ conduct, as exercised here.
Clerk’s report: Complaints about the Council as a whole
Andrea explained that other complaints, more general to the Council as a whole, had been received. In the past year, one former Councillor had sent over 25 emails, including a Subject Access Request and three Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests, as well as complaints registered with the MKC Standards Office. All of these had been found to have no foundation, she said, but had caused great cost to the public purse.
The first complaint was received from a member of the public and (different) former Councillor: Since the beginning of February, the Council had received 10 emails, on the matter of the Clerk’s Statement and the publishing of a Report, from a former Councillor. The complaints, where evidence had been provided, have been responded to as below. No evidence of bullying of the former Councillor has been provided. However, this will be investigated because it is a complaint and must therefore go through the process.
The Council’s response was as follows, verbatim bar some reformatting:
"I was not the Clerk at the time but have spoken to the Mayor and others who were on the Council at the time to build up an understanding of what happened. Having read the independent report and in the absence of other evidence, the report is correct.
The complaint by the former Clerk clearly came as a surprise to most of the Councillors at Olney Town Council, especially the content. Olney Town Council took the complaint seriously and commissioned a full independent investigation that interviewed numerous people on the Council including yourself.
The main allegations by the then Clerk were found to be baseless, however a number of significant weaknesses in the way the Council operated, and governance were highlighted. The Council has worked hard to correct these in the intervening time.
The Council received a FOI request for the report after it was announced that we were looking into all business over the past five years that, at the time, the Council had decided to keep confidential and not make publicly available.
The Council took professional advice as to whether the report should be released. The advice was it should. When a report is released under FOI it is normal practice to make it publicly available, which OTC did.
I am sorry that you are annoyed by the release of the report, the Council has a duty to follow the rules. The very reason for this complaint arising in the first place was that the rules had not being followed.
OTC has followed these rules in this case."
The second complaint was from a former member of staff: In brief, they were concerned that their personal information had not been handled properly. They felt that they had become aware that OTC had disclosed information from their personal record on its website and also published the same information on its Facebook account.
The Council response was as follows, verbatim as above:
“Thank you for your email and I understand your concerns. The Council received a Freedom of Information request for a copy of the report on 5th February 2021. This came from a member of the public.
The report is a summary report to the HR Committee of Olney Town Council which met on 11th March 2019 and Full Council on 1st April 2019. This summary report was in the papers for both March/April meetings and the agenda/minutes of the meetings show that you provided the papers for that meetings and Clerked them. Further the Mayor sent you a grievance outcome letter summarising the report's recommendations. This came with an instruction to forward to your colleagues which they tell us you did not do and there were no copies of such correspondence on their files. The summary report is not on anyone's personal record.
This is a quite different document to the Investigation Report which of course regardless of an FOI would need to remain confidential as it is in people's personal records. Advice was taken from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who clearly stated that the document should be published under the FOI Act in full. It was at no time marked confidential by the authors.
We enquired of the ICO about names of staff and Councillors. They advised that redaction was not necessary as public servants Councillors, and staff should expect publication of their names and activities in the public interest. They also advised that the report was not exempt information under The FOI Act part II, having looked at it closely, there was no option for us other than to publish following the FOI request.
Having received that advice, the Council took the view that although not necessary we would redact the names of staff. I also wrote to all staff (past and present) by first class post as courtesy to let you all know the document was to be published. As you had not given permission to use your home address, so I contacted “your most recent employer” who agreed to forward a letter to you. That was sent to them in an envelope with a first-class stamp to forward to you, your envelope also had a first-class stamp attached.
You clearly had sight of the Summary Report when preparing for the March/April 2019 meetings. All other staff involved in the process did have a copy as I ensured this was the case when I took up my post in July 2019.
The Council should not have suppressed the summary report to the HR Committee document in the first place. I'm unclear why this path was taken. You are of course within you rights to contact the ICO.”
Clerk’s report: Compliments
The OTC office had been thanked for its assistance with the repairs for the Church wall, having negotiated with MKC to get the work done, and is now negotiating to see if further walls near the Church can be similarly attended to.
Colin Rodden thanked Andrea for contacting MKC re cutting back vegetation along the pathway between Olney and Emberton. This was looking really good, he said.
Human Resources Committee report
Joanne Eley explained that the Deputy Town Clerk, Sarah Kennedy, has gained her Introduction to Local Council Administration (ILCA) qualification and is embarking on her Certificate in Local Council Administration (CiLCA). The Town Clerk, Andrea Vincent, is part way through gaining her CilCA. Both regularly attend other training courses to give them the skills to manage their roles.
Joanne then said the following, reproduced verbatim:
“As the current HR Chair, I take exception to the false allegation reported in the Phone Box, implying that HR documents may have been shredded by current staff or Councillors. This is untrue. The source of this serious allegation is not identified but is asserted to be an anonymised comment posted on the Olney Noticeboard. This is not reliable, and the statements are defamatory. I would like to invite anyone with any factual evidence that this has ever taken place to come forward to the Council, Milton Keynes Council or the Police as it would indeed be a criminal matter. I cannot speak for what has occurred prior to my being elected HR Chair in September ’19, or prior to the appointment of the current Town Clerk in July ’19. There are certainly gaps in our documentation dating from before the respective appointments. The custom and practice employed prior to the dates stated above have been stopped. The former admin team issued confidential minutes on red paper, handed them out around after the exclusion of the press and public, and collected them back up after the end of the meeting. What happened to them after is a matter for the former incumbents. This was certainly not good practice, and lacked transparency. The report recently published highlights how this poor practice failed to stop a breach in confidentiality.
Please everyone take note, this is untrue. The Council is duty bound to report fact, as a regulated and monitored organisation, that is accountable. We are working within the legislation and rules to correct the past failures that have been many years in the making. We have established good governance and transparency. Cronyism, which undermines democracy and is a moral hazard, no longer exists. At no time in the history of Olney Town Council has there been more transparency around Council working.
For the record, I reiterate that this is my March 2021 report. No HR report was received by Council in February 2021. Given the editorial in this month’s Phone Box stressing how factual they are, and I quote ‘Mercury report, written by our independent reporters, that are a factual account of what has gone on’, I will therefore be writing to the Editor, asking him to explain why the report is not a factual contemporaneous report in this issue. See page 9 – this HR report was published in the January 2021 issue as a report delivered in December 2020. Whilst on the subject of the January issue, I take this opportunity to report to both Council colleagues and the residents, that the former Councillor who requested the FOI referred to has not exercised their right of appeal on the ICO ruling.
Finally, on behalf of the staff team and the HR team, I thank all those residents who have taken the time to call, personal message and email in their support throughout the wake of the protracted media attack. In particular, those who stepped away from their family celebrations to convey to us how shocked and angry they were at the New Year’s Eve meddlesome ridiculing of the Town Clerk and Council.”
Jeremy Rawlings thanked Joanne and the members of the HR Committee for the meticulous way they have worked since 2019 in order to bring the situation back to normality.
Finance Committee report
Paul Collins gave this report, part-reproduced verbatim:
“I would like to correct a couple of statements in the latest issue of the Phone Box in Mercury’s report of the last Town Council meeting, in reference to the Community Support Fund. We have there allocated £5,000 per annum over three years to support the Amazing Grace 250 celebrations, which we hope will take place in 2022 – 2023. The report says I said that ‘£5,000 per annum for the next three years has been granted to the Museum for the Amazing Grace 250 celebrations.’ That is not correct. That money has not been allocated to the Museum. That is a fund specifically designed for the purpose of encouraging small community groups to come forward and suggest a variety of small-scale celebrations. The Museum itself is engaged in a project where we anticipate applying to external funders for approximately £350k, which is a project, I’m sure you’ll agree, in a different league to the one being referred to in the report.
There is another point I’d like to raise in relation to the Phone Box, and this relates to a comment by a columnist, part of whose column is headed up ‘Council matters’, wherein it is stated that the mistakes made in the last AGR are in black and white and can be rectified by correct accounting next year. That is a totally false statement. There has been no challenge to the accounts submitted in terms of the actual numbers stated in our annual governance report, which has been signed off by both our internal auditor and our external auditor. The comments made by the external auditor were not a challenge to the actual numbers in our accounts, but they concerned procedural matters which have already been referred to by the Town Clerk. I can only surmise that the purpose of this was to smear myself personally and potentially other members of the Finance Committee. I wholeheartedly reject that. I think it’s a disgraceful way to conduct journalism.”
Jeremy Rawlings reiterated that it was a procedural matter – some of the documents required were not submitted. As soon as the issue was raised, they were submitted and everything was fine. There was no issue with the content of any of the accounts or documentation sent to the auditors. Everything had now been approved.
Joanne Eley added that the Mercury report is always unattributed to the actual author, month on month. She would be writing to the Phone Box, to ask that the public can see the name of each article’s author, it not being accountable otherwise. Jeremy explained that, over the years, there had been inaccuracies, and noted that there were times in the past when the Mercury reporter would speak with Councillors to verify accuracy but he did not believe this had happened, or at not with him, for well over two years.
Recreations and Services Committee report
Desmond Eley explained that the Town and Deputy Town Clerk have completed specific cemetery training, and are getting the records in line with current legislation. The grounds staff continued with all maintenance on open spaces, as they have throughout the pandemic, with the exception of the watering of hanging baskets. This included grass cutting, performed throughout the winter due to the lengthened grass-growing season. The introduction of management controls by the office and head grounds man had achieved a 57% decrease in diesel purchases, saving 3,200 litres for the year. These controls included fitting a padlock to the tank after the stock took a major hit mid May 2020. Further management control has led to a significant reduction in bedding plant expenditure, hoped to be reduced further this year while maintaining the existing displays.
The soil of the sports pitches has been tested, the soil scientists recommending no more general fertiliser be applied for at least another five years. A rogue fertiliser order received in September 2019 was taken back by the suppliers’ agent without charge, and no purchases have since been made. Some nitrogen may need to be applied in Spring to parts of the pitches only. This evidence-based management of the Recreation Grounds is saving around £3,000 per year, and is also in line with the Council’s Environment Management Plan.
An audit of machinery has been performed. It was established that two pieces of equipment were being held outside the town and out of the Council’s direct control. They’ve since been relocated to the Council’s compound.
Public toilets have been kept open throughout most of 2020 and remain open today. Feedback on this and the cleaning regime established has been very positive indeed. The failure of the old Victorian underground pipe-work in the Olney Centre has been remedied and future-proofed, and turned out to be the cause of the long-term dampness in the Pre School area.
Planning Committee report
Steve Clark reported a Planning Application related to the ‘Apple Store’, at the top of the lane down to the orchard in East Street. Members of the Planning Committee had been given an informal presentation by the family concerned and their developers regarding the potential development of a small part of the orchard site. This would require access from East Street, that currently existing being too narrow due to the presence of this property. He believed it had not been used for human habitation for many decades – perhaps 60 – 70 years. A Planning Application has been lodged with MKC to remove the property, due to its poor state of repair, thus facilitating access to any subsequent development on the orchard. The state of the building and difficulty securing it mean it will likely be taken down without further consultation. This was a legitimate process, and not part of any future Application for the orchard site, he said.
Development Group report
Chris Tenant first declared an interest, living near the Aspreys / Yardley Road development. There has been concern about surface water run-off from that site, though there has been no further incident, temporary measures having been put in place by the developers. The full drainage scheme is slated for completion by April. Construction traffic routing has now been tightened, it appearing some vehicles had not followed the procedures in place – that Yardley Road and Driftway must be used to access the A509. The application for construction traffic access off Aspreys has been withdrawn on the advice of MKC. However, the developers will be able build a tarmac road on-site, along the path of an existing farmer’s track to its North Eastern edge. This will not require planning permission and thus not receive the usual checks and balances: Concerns remained, therefore. OTC has asked MKC to review this decision. Also, there will be further closures of Yardley Road due to associated works by Thames Water, noted on the Council’s website.
Significant planning reform consultations are underway, particularly one concerning permitted change of use from retail and commercial to residential. If adopted, Chris felt it would imply a parallel planning system, where owners of commercial or retail properties could in effect change their use to residential without a Planning Application. This is of concern to market towns up and down the country, he said, it representing a threat to town centres.
Joanne Eley noted that the biggest threats to retail were the pandemic and its aftermath. If some retail businesses were threatened, surely housing was preferable to empty units. It was hard to predict how our High Streets would be after the fallout from COVID. The best solutions to this were to support local businesses and shop locally, generating a thriving town centre, she felt. Desmond Eley asked if the Council could do more to encourage local shopping as the situation develops, in its newsletter for example. Joanne felt the whole shopping landscape had changed countrywide, for example young professional couples shopping online and on their way back from work, rather than using Olney for their weekly shop.
Steve Clark gave some background, noting that OTC has seen various Planning Applications over the years for moves between retail and residential, and has always viewed them with sympathy to the local traders. However, not requiring a Planning Application was a retrograde step, he felt. Steve also asked Chris whether he would write an article for the next issue of the Council newsletter, summarising the main points about the various developments taking place around the town, Chris replying in the affirmative.
Library and Museum reports
Colin Rodden noted that, while Olney library is currently closed due to COVID, a click-and-collect service is available. Books can be ordered from https://www.milton-keynes.gov.uk/libraries and collected from Olney Library at times available via that page. Paul Collins noted that the Cowper and Newton Museum now has an online booking system and, albeit scaling up, an online shop. It is hoped that the shop and gardens will open mid April, and the Museum mid-to-late May, subject to the lifting of COVID restrictions.
The next meeting will be held online on Monday 12th April, at 7.00pm. If you would like to contribute to the Public Participation section at the start of the meeting, please contact the Town Clerk, email@example.com.