A bid to have Thanet’s housing crisis debated as an emergency item at a council meeting last night (August 30) was denied by a vote of 8 to 6.
Thanet Labour group’s deputy leader Helen Whitehead made a rarely used ‘councillor call for action’ in the hopes of debate and agreement for a formal hearing that would invite attendees from government and relevant organisations to look at ways of solving Thanet’s increasing homelessness, rising rents and spike in ‘no fault’ evictions.
She had hoped the action would force the formal hearing and intervention from central government to aid people moved into temporary accommodation, or those sleeping rough, due to rent hikes and a lack of truly affordable accommodation.
An option to hold the debate was backed by Labour and Green councillors on the Overview and Scrutiny Panel but rejected by Conservative members and committee chairman Stuart Piper (Thanet Independent).
Councillors who spoke in support of the debate included Independent Cllr Ruth Bailey, Green’s Cllr Mike Garner and Cllr Abi Smith, Labour’s Cllr Rob Yates and Sarah Ellis from Thanet’s Citizens Advice.
However, there was some disruption as the option not to debate the issue was not one of those listed in the report but was proposed by Cllr Piper.
Among the reasons given by Cllr Piper were that a report on housing issues faced by Thanet is due to be discussed at a council Cabinet meeting on September 22; that a call for action should be for issues that can realistically be resolved by TDC and that there would be cost to bringing in people for a formal hearing with money that would be better spent on shelter for those in need.
He added: “Everybody in this room sympathises with the views you (Cllr Whitehead) have and the actions you would like to see being taken but given there are finite resources. How do we justify what could be an extraordinary cost.”
He said his recommendation was that the panel take no further action “at this time” including having no debate on the subject.
The argument was disputed by Cllr Whitehead and others in the meeting, including Cllr Becky Wing and Cllr Corinna Huxley. Cllr Whitehead said the debate and action was needed precisely because Thanet council could not solve the issue alone and the only cost would be sending emails to those asked to take part.
Cllr Huxley said she had been ‘ignored’ and not allowed to speak despite trying to put forward a proposal in favour of debate. She said to Cllr Piper: “You’re the referee in this situation, you shouldn’t be giving a 20-minute speech. I asked to speak first and you have ignored me.”
The outcome of the vote, which created some confusion, meant no debate on the housing issue took place.
Following the meeting Cllr Whitehead said: “This item was not party political and emphasised in both paperwork and verbal contributions that both recent administrations have attempted to resolve this issue and have had no useful response from central government.
“As such I do not understand why an issue that affects all our residents, and requires addressing with external partners now, has been dismissed simply because the nature of a call for action required a councillor from a significantly affected ward, who happens to be Labour, to bring it.
“Residents are suffering and councillors have been silenced and prevented from speaking up for them. I have made clear that I have no criticism of our housing officers, who work tirelessly, but the system is broken, and we have tried every form of internal meeting, every letter, every form of communication to make it clear that we need further funding and support from central government.
“A call for action is a call of last resort, which requires you to prove that you have tried everything else, and the role of scrutiny is not to shut down but discuss and debate.
“All the formal guidance emphasises the importance of considering and debating any call for action. It is never necessary to deliberately stifle debate, especially when that is not a given option. What has happened here goes directly against best practice guidance for a councillor call for action. It is wrong on every level.”
Cllr Garner added: ““Last night’s meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee which was due to debate a ‘call to action’ on the worsening housing situation across Thanet was farcical. While those of us not on the committee were able to put our views across and Cllr Helen Whitehead, who’d bought the call to action to the committee, was able to make the very compelling case for the committee to call for a public hearing on the issue, it soon became clear that the Tories had already decided, before the meeting, that this was not going to happen.
“With the cooperation of the committee Chair, Cllr Stuart Piper, they voted to prevent debate on the issue, even among committee members themselves. The residents of Thanet, especially the increasing number who are being made homeless and looking to us to take action, deserve better than this.”
Cllr Bailey said adding an option of no debate, which was not in the report, was “quite extraordinary.”
She added: “After a long speech the Chair himself put forward a motion which would effectively shut down any debate and summarily dismiss the councillor call for action. This to me seemed really undemocratic, I for one would have liked to have heard what the committee members had to say, on both sides of the argument. What is the point of a committee if they have no voice?“
Cllr Piper said: “It is perfectly normal for committees to have three options. The no debate option was not ‘added’ it was there all the time, a fact I mentioned twice during the evening.
“The options outlined at the beginning were…1. Debate and accept in full…2. Debate and make changes…3. Decide not to debate. Two proposals were made…1. Not to debate…2 To debate the issue. There was a simple yes /no choice and the decision not to debate was decided upon.”
Options published in agenda
4.1 The Panel could opt to debate the call for action request and agree to conduct a full hearing at an agreed future Panel meeting.
4.2 Members could choose to debate the call for action request and make recommendations for consideration by Cabinet.
4.3 Members could opt to debate the councillor call for action and thereafter decide to take no further action.
In favour of debate
Cllrs Corinna Huxley, Patricia Moore, Heather Keen, Alan Currie, Becky Wing and Tricia Austin
Not in favour of debate
Cllrs Charlie Leys, Kerry Boyd, Paul Moore, Linda Wright, Phil Fellows, Mick Tomlinson, Keith Coleman-Cooke and Stuart Piper