Short story first published in ACES ‘The Terrier’ Magazine in the Winter 2017/18 edition.
This is the first short story in the ‘Selwyn’ series. The Selwyn series is written specifically for the Terrier. Each story is a self-contained episode in the life of an early-retired Council Property Manager from 2003 to the present day and beyond as he continues to maintain occasional contact with his former colleagues from the fictional Herdwick District Council. The characters often present controversial and outspoken opinions on local and central government policy and practice. Please accept that those stories, all names, characters and incidents portrayed are fictitious and are views expressed by the author, not those of ACES. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. Also, occasional historical background details may have been changed to fit the chronology. Enjoyment of these stories will be enhanced if they are read in order from the beginning.
The Final Vote (2002)
As Selwyn waited for the question he looked around the Council Chamber. It was packed with the Members and Chief Officers of Herdwick District Council. The seats on the Press bench were full from the overspill of the public who could not fit into the Gallery above him. All were waiting to hear what he had to say. He reflected upon the importance of his evidence. Then he looked back at the Chairman, ready to answer.
One month earlier Selwyn had attended the last Property Committee meeting before the change to the new Cabinet system introduced under the Local Government Act 2000. He expected it to be lively. That Committee had only one item on its agenda; approval of the terms for the sale of Council-owned grazing land off Sparrow Hawk Lane in Shepdale to Twosheds Housing Association to build 120 affordable homes to rent for local people nominated to the tenancies by the Council. It would be the biggest housing scheme to be built in the district since the Council-estates of the 1950s and certainly the most controversial. The residents of the adjacent Sparrow Hawk Council-housing estate (now mostly privately-owned because of Right to Buy) as well as the owners of the wealthier residences nearby had formed an ill-fitting alliance to frustrate the disposal process at every stage.
The Planning Application submitted by the Housing Association had been a bitter, hard-fought three-year battle before consent was finally granted. Now those residents were pinning their hopes on the recent electoral changes within the Council membership which, although not significantly altering the balance of the hung Council (the Tories being the largest party but without an overall majority) may have brought fresh minds to the decision-making process. The Planning decision could not now be over-turned. However, the original decision in principle by the Property Committee to sell the land subject to planning consent being granted, taken three years ago, could still be reversed or the recently-negotiated terms on which it was to be sold could still be rejected.
Selwyn, the Council’s Property Manager, was a grizzled veteran of many lengthy property battles and thought, as he neared retirement age, that he’d seen everything that there was to be seen in local government; many things too frequently, which was a sure sign that it was time for him to call it a day. As he’d aged it had become harder to do the job. Once planning consent would have been a quick and simple task; mark an area with a red line on a plan, fill in a foolscap form and seek an outline decision from the Planning Committee. Now it was impossible to obtain outline consent. Instead, the Planners needed full development lay-outs, ground contamination investigations, traffic-impact studies, environmental-impact studies, flood-impact studies, housing-needs surveys and the rest before any application would be considered.
It was the same with the land sale negotiations. No longer could Selwyn just identify the land on a map, stick an advert in the local paper and invite bids from the local builders. Now, special terms had to be inserted to restrict the houses to local people only, to rented housing only, to main residences not second homes, to special mixes and types of houses to meet varying local need, with clawbacks so that the houses could not be sold off for profit by the Housing Association further down the line and with reserved nomination rights so that the Council could decide who was local and who was best qualified amongst those locals to be given the tenancies. Whilst Selwyn was at the height of his experience as a surveyor he was in the depths of his energy levels as an employee; his enthusiasm had started to erode when the emphasis had changed from getting the best deal for the Council to getting the best solution for the community. It was not that he disagreed with the principle of providing affordable homes, it was just that he had seen it all before and seen it done simpler and better in the past; when the Council had built and managed its own Council houses. Now the partnership developments with Housing Associations made the process expensive, overly complex to achieve and remote from democratic accountability once the land was sold.
He had presented his report on the negotiated terms for the sale of the land at Sparrow Hawk Lane to the Property Committee in the Council Chamber. It was a lofty, rectangular room converted from a former Sessions Court within the Victorian Town Hall in Shepdale Town Centre. The room had small, ceiling-level windows (to prevent prisoners escaping from the former Courts) which could not be opened. The Town Hall’s ancient central heating system, supplied by a boiler that could have powered the Titanic but which lacked sophisticated temperature controls, made the room stuffy and uncomfortable.
The Committee Chairman, the Council’s Solicitor and Jim, the Committee Clerk, sat behind an oak-panelled bench on a raised platform across one end of the room. Below them, at the far end of the room behind a matching bench, sat the local Press representatives. They had strolled in from the main Town Hall corridor with the Members of the Committee who now sat in the central well of the room behind rows of similar fixed benching but facing each other, with their agenda papers resting on the bench surfaces. The public sat above them in a panelled Gallery running along one side of the room, accessed by a staircase leading from the main corridor of the Town Hall. Selwyn could look up and see them above him from his seat behind one of the Members’ benches in the central well of the Chamber at the extreme end nearest to the Chairman’s platform. The Committee was not well-attended. Jim checked the absentees and confirmed that there was the minimum number present necessary to provide a quorum to make the vote legal under the Council’s constitution.
Selwyn noticed that Councillor Cedric Symons had walked to the end of the Members’ row opposite him, under the Gallery, and was now sat on his own directly facing him.
Cedric was a pleasant character, rumoured to be almost ninety years old. Recently widowed, he now lived alone outside Shepdale but still looked after himself well. He was small and neat and always wore a suit, shirt and tie to the meetings and, being quiet and dignified and polite, he kept his own company and his own counsel. He had served his local, rural ward for the last forty years as an Independent. Selwyn wondered why Cedric kept turning up to meetings. How did he raise the enthusiasm to want to bother at his age? He thought that Cedric had aged since he had last seen him. It had been noticeable over the last couple of years that Cedric had virtually ceased to contribute in debates and often, with his eyes closed, appeared to be asleep through many of the meetings, sometimes missing the vote although, to be fair, always participating on issues that affected his ward. Cedric pushed his chair back, rested his head and shoulder against the corner panelling behind him, closed his eyes and succumbed to the warmth.
The Chairman opened the meeting, speaking about how important the development would be for those in housing need within the District and then invited Selwyn to summarise his report on the detailed terms. Then the Chairman invited comments from the Members. A newish Liberal stood up to speak. Selwyn guessed that he was one of the recent election’s annual in-take. The Council elected one third of its members every year for three years with no elections in the fourth year in a rolling process rather than electing the whole Membership every four years.
The new Member received a cheer from the Gallery. He began to review the faults in the planning decision, to rubbish the housing needs evidence and to protest at the negotiated terms. His main arguments were that the houses were not needed, that this was the wrong site, that the impact upon the local roads and schools would be unbearable and that none of the surrounding residents wanted to live next to houses occupied by ex-offenders, drug addicts and off-comers. Further loud cheers followed his main request; that the Committee should refuse to sell the land and so prevent the development. As he sat down spontaneous applause and cheering broke out from the Gallery. A few Members ignored protocol and joined in.
The Chairman called for silence, reminding Members of the standard of behaviour expected of them. Hands went up and the Chairman selected someone that he knew would put the opposite view. That view was not well-received in the Gallery. A pattern was established: applause and cheering for those speaking against the sale and booing and shouting of insults at its supporters.
Herdwick was a large but relatively sparsely-populated rural district with Shepdale, its largest town, set in the centre. Its scenery attracted second-home and holiday-cottage buyers, pricing out the locals and consequently forcing village schools, post offices, surgeries and pubs to close from a lack of all-year round business. Right to Buy sales had decimated the rented Council-housing stock. New affordable rented housing was needed to stop younger people from leaving, to balance against the problems of an ageing population and to keep the services and amenities in use. All parties wanted more affordable housing but whenever a site was selected there was always opposition.
Selwyn despaired of the members. ‘They all want affordable housing but not on that site and not on that site and, oh no, definitely not on that site, that site or that site’ had been Selwyn’s sarcastic summary to Jim at a previous meeting. He found himself wondering how he could find a way to retire early with an enhanced pension like the former Chief Executive had managed to arrange for himself.
Because the Council was ‘hung’ the balance could be tilted by a few Independents and they were spread across the various Committees. Having no majority party in control made for weak and inconsistent decision-making.
And so it had proved to be in respect of the vote for the Sparrow Hawk Lane land disposal at the Property Committee meeting. The protestors had worked on the Members, either persuading some to stay away from the meeting or influencing the vote of those attending. Jim leaned forward over the front of the platform and took the count on the floor, noting the names for each raised hand. Five in favour of the motion to sell the land on the terms negotiated, six against. Cedric had not voted. The crowd in the Gallery buzzed in anticipation of an upset. The Chairman called the meeting to order.
‘As a Member of this Committee I have a vote on the motion.’ He paused, ‘And I vote in favour. Also, as Chairman, I have a casting vote.’ Another pause, ‘Which I also vote in favour. Therefore the proposal to sell the land is approved by seven votes against six.’
There was a moment of confused silence and then murmuring before pandemonium broke out in the Gallery as his words sank in – shouting, gesticulating, stamping of feet on the wooden floor. The newish Member threw his agenda papers across the room. He started yelling at the Chairman. His supporters rose with him. The Chairmen shouted that the meeting was closed, retreating through the door behind him, quickly followed by the Solicitor and Jim. The other Members rushed towards the door into the corridor, some to escape before the crowd could descend from the Gallery and others to meet the crowd to bemoan the decision. The Press chased them to catch the quotes. Selwyn followed them out but walked along the corridor in the opposite direction back to his office. The Town Hall Custodian switched off the lights at the exit and quickly locked the doors to prevent anyone returning to the Chamber from the corridor, fearful that some malcontent might wander in there to cause some damage.
‘The vote has been challenged.’
Chairman of Council was a hard-bitten, experienced politician. Selwyn had been called to his office for a private meeting.
‘Jim has taken statements from everyone present at that last Property Committee meeting. All but yours are useless as evidence. The public couldn’t see from the Gallery. Those on the top platform as well as the Press bench were too busy checking the raised hands and recording names. The Members were too busy ensuring that they were seen to have voted to notice anything. Besides, all the Members and the public have a vested interest in the outcome so are not reliable witnesses.’
‘What do you want from me?’
‘Those Members against the motion have claimed that there wasn’t a quorum. They say that the decision is invalid because, technically, there were not enough Members present. The Council’s Solicitor advises that we establish the facts and put them to the full Council. You were sat directly opposite Councillor Symons and saw what happened when the vote was taken.’
‘You’ve had my statement. I’m a professional. I’m not prepared to lie.’
‘You’re not being asked to lie. However it would help the Council enormously to have the original vote upheld. There is a way to achieve that. To have the decision over-turned would be a loss of 120 much-needed houses. It would also cause conflict with our Housing Association partner. They’ve relied on our in-principle decision from three years ago to sell them the land, spending thousands of pounds in fees for architects etc to obtain planning consent and they may well ask us to compensate them for any act of bad faith. Likely we cannot refuse if we ever want to work with them again. There’s also a lot of Housing Association Grant at stake that otherwise won’t be spent in the district and some construction jobs and apprenticeships that won’t happen. I’ve read your statement. Your evidence could prevent that.’
‘It’s the truth.’
‘Yes, but it says too much. I’d like you to remove some … er … small irrelevances.’
‘I’ve been thinking about early retirement. Isn’t the new Chief Executive looking at a small reorganisation scheme for the Council’s Departments?’
‘That’s certainly something we can discuss.’
‘Okay, tell me which bits of my statement are irrelevant.’
‘Did you see Councillor Symons sit up and open his eyes when the vote was called?’
Selwyn could sense the Chairman mentally willing him to give the right answer.
The Custodian had locked the Council Chamber immediately after the Property Committee meeting. Cedric’s car had stayed on the Council car park all weekend. No-one had reported him missing. When the cleaners had opened the Council Chamber on the following Monday morning he was seated at the end of the bench, leaning against the end panel with his eyes closed and his agenda papers on the benchtop in front of him exactly where he had been when the vote was taken.
‘Thank you Selwyn. I’d now like to sum up before asking for a vote. Normally, under delegated powers, the Property Committee’s vote to sell the land at Sparrow Hawk Lane would be binding on the Council. However there’s been a challenge on the basis that Councillor Symons died before the vote was taken and that technically there was not a quorum, thus making the vote invalid under the constitution. The Pathologist cannot say precisely when Councillor Symons died but confirms that it was of natural causes. The Council’s Solicitor advises that the matter must be decided on fact. If Councillor Symons was alive when the vote was called then, regardless of whether he voted or abstained, a quorum was formed. You have all had an opportunity to read the statements of those present. You will see that the only statement of any direct relevance is the one from the Council’s Property Manager. You have heard him confirm what he saw. You now know that Councillor Symons was alive at the time of the vote.
I stress that what you are being asked to decide today has nothing to do with the intention to sell the land or the terms upon which it is to be sold. On that matter, regardless of your wish to support or oppose the land sale, you are expected to put all political or personal feelings aside. You’re asked to decide upon a matter of democracy and that rests upon a matter of fact. The Property Manager has no personal or financial involvement with the land sale or the housing development. His job was to negotiate the terms of sale on behalf of the Council and that job has now ended. Therefore it is a matter of fact that if the Property Manager says that Councillor Symons was alive when the vote was taken then we have to accept that statement without question.
Accordingly, as Chairman of the Council, I direct you to find that the Property Committee vote was lawful and ask you to confirm that by the usual show of hands.’
Selwyn sat in his office with a box of his possessions, a card and some presents on his desk. He could hear the chink of wine glasses and muffled laughter outside his door. The last six months had passed quickly. He had no conscience about the irrelevances that had been deleted from his statement. He’d been a negotiator long enough to know that everything in life was a deal; that not to reveal all his information was not a lie, that the revised version had still been truthful if only a little shorter than his original version. It was for others to use that information and look to their own consciences. The Chairman of Council had certainly used it for his own ends. Besides, Selwyn hadn’t wanted to see three years of his work on the land deal end in failure. And what would it have achieved anyway? One side or the other had to lose; whether it was the residents opposed to the development or the people in need of affordable housing, he couldn’t please both. The latter seemed to him to be the better cause to support.
In any event, Councillor Symons may well have been alive after the vote. When asked, Selwyn had confirmed Cedric’s eyes opening and him sitting up. The momentary grimace on Cedric’s face could have been discomfort. The sweat on his forehead, running down his face, could have been from the warm conditions. The arm quickly reaching up inside his suit jacket could have been searching for a pen. Selwyn had not been asked about those small irrelevances. They didn’t mean that Cedric had died exactly at that moment. At the time, caught up in the counting of the vote, Selwyn hadn’t consciously registered those signs. It was only afterwards, when he’d heard about the body being found, that they had come to mind and he’d realised the possible significance of what he’d seen. Anyway, it wasn’t conclusive. Cedric may just have been uncomfortable or feeling poorly. He’d slumped back down to his resting position immediately afterwards. It didn’t mean that he wasn’t fit to vote at the exact time that the vote was called. Besides … he usually abstained on matters not directly affecting his ward.
Had he been aware, he’d have preferred that Cedric had not been locked in there all that weekend. But there was no point in letting it spoil his early retirement. He raised his glass and offered a silent toast ‘to Cedric, wherever you are’.
©David Lewis Pogson 2017
Now read ‘Lost Sheep’, the second short story in the ‘Selwyn’ series.