Cllr Paul Crabb: "Some meetings don’t achieve a great deal.”
One in five councillors at North Devon Council (NDC) has turned up to fewer than 60 per cent of the meetings to which they were expected over the past year, with one councillor arguing that council meetings don’t achieve much.
Nine out of the 42 councillors were absent for at least four out of 10 meetings they were expected to attend between 7 April 2021 and the same date in 2022.
Of the councillors who responded to a request for comment on their attendance record over this time, explanations given included work commitments, health issues, and doubts about the value of some of the meetings.
Councillor Paul Crabb (Conservative, Ilfracombe East), who had an attendance record of 39 per cent over the year, believes that often much more is achieved by spending time talking to officers rather than attending meetings.
“I attend all meetings where I feel that my contribution would be useful,” he explained. He believes some meetings “don’t achieve a great deal.”
Cllr Crabb, who also represents Ilfracombe at Devon County Council (DCC), said he wanted more opportunities for members of NDC to directly challenge officers. “I think it ought to be part of the system where you directly question officers and decisions they’ve made or intend making,” he said.
Asked whether he will seek re-election next year, he said: “A number of my colleagues are not feeling motivated by their position on the council. I’ll make a decision nearer May next year.”
In response, NDC’s chief executive Ken Miles said: “cllr Crabb’s contributions to the work of the council are always useful, whether made within a meeting or outside but, at the end of the day, it is a matter of personal choice as to whether a councillor attends a meeting or not.
“In relation to cllr Crabb’s wish to see more opportunities to challenge officers, it is difficult to respond to this without knowing what is intended by it.
“I am more than happy to discuss any concerns with cllr Crabb direct.”
North Devon’s Conservative MP Selaine Saxby is also a district councillor for Instow. She attended 54 per cent of council meetings at which she was expected over the 12 months to 7 April.
A spokesperson for Ms Saxby said many of the council meetings the MP is expected to attend are on Wednesdays, often a day on which parliament is in session.
Asked if she would consider standing down from the council to focus on her parliamentary duties, Ms Saxby, who became an MP in the December 2019 general election, did not respond.
Councillor Pat Barker (Conservative, Braunton West and Georgeham), who attended one in three meetings also did not reply to a request for comment.
Councillor David Luggar (Independent, Landkey), who has a 52 per cent attendance record, said as well as his council duties, he works long hours doing shift work and balances this with caring responsibilities.
He explained: “I can’t always at the drop of a hat always get to council meetings.
“I’ve always been a councillor that gets things done. I’ve been instrumental in delivering the playing field for Swimbridge. I’m working at the moment on delivering the Landkey Community Hall. I’m very active in the community.”
“I know there are a lot of councillors with worse records than me. I do try and balance the two [work and attending meetings]. It’s a big commitment.”
Councillor Jo Orange (Lib Dems, Barnstaple with Pilton), who has an attendance record of 52 per cent said she has suffered from poor health over the past year, including bouts of covid.
She said: “Like so many others in North Devon, I felt that the most responsible thing I could do was to isolate as required, and to follow the rules to reduce the risks of infection.
“I am in a high-risk category, and the very last thing I wanted to do was to cause anyone else illness, whether they are staff, other councillors, or members of the public.
“I feel that it was important to follow any guidelines that were in place and to put others before myself. This hasn’t stopped me from being an effective councillor and working to support residents and to deal with the issues they bring to me.”
The council’s chief executive Mr Miles commented: “Officers are not always aware of the specific reasons why a councillor does not attend a meeting.
“Generally, we are aware that many councillors have commitments to other authorities such as parish and town councils and Devon County Council and there can often be clashes with dates.
“We are also very aware that many councillors also work and have other responsibilities outside of the council and so it may not always be possible for them to attend meetings.”
Mr Miles says group leaders will continue to encourage their members to attend meetings.
Attendance rates at NDC have drawn the attention of the council’s leader. Speaking at the council’s annual meeting on Wednesday 6 April, council leader David Worden (Lib Dems, South Molton) pleaded with councillors to turn up more, describing the situation as “a little bit disappointing on occasion.”
Leader of North Devon Council, David Worden. (Courtesy: Local Democracy Reporting Service, North Devon Council)
Attendance seems to be a particular problem for the governance committee. In the last financial year, the committee met five times, with only the committee chair, councillor Ian Roome (Lib Dems, Barnstaple with Pilton) making it to each, resulting in a 64 per cent attendance rate overall.
The low attendance record included cllr Daniel Turton, who only turned up to two of the committee meetings over this period. Overall, cllr Turton attended 57 per cent of council meetings to which he was expected.
Cllr Turton did not respond to requests for a statement by the time of publication.
Speaking at the annual council meeting, cllr Warden said: “I know at the governance committee it’s been a bit disappointing sometimes. Please do turn up and make sure we do continue going in the right direction because I am confident that this council is doing a great job for North Devon and long may it continue.”
Speaking later, the council’s chief executive said that the problem “has been mentioned specifically to group leaders who will be encouraging attendance at the committee.”
The average attendance rate for all North Devon councillors from for the last financial year was 70 per cent.
Councillor Jasmine Chesters (Independent, Braunton West and Georgeham), who attend 43 per cent of the meetings where she was expected is believed to have had significant health issues.
Councillor Jim Campbell (Conservatives, Ilfracombe East), who attended two in five meetings to which he was expected (42 per cent), says his family has gone through a very difficult year and that the council is aware of his circumstances.