LBWF, Community Ward Forums, and freedom of speech

As this blog regularly points out, LBWF devotes a surprising amount of time and attention to what PR spinners call ‘controlling the narrative’, that is vigorously promoting a particular, and self-serving, version of events, while at the same time seeking to sideline criticism.

Recent developments add a further concerning illustration.

Trevor Calver is a community activist in Chingford, a leading member of the Waltham Forest Dyslexia Association, a determined campaigner on issues ranging from asbestos to the preservation of free parking bays throughout the borough, and a one time Independent candidate, who gained a very respectable 869 votes at the 2010 council election, the best showing for someone without party backing in the recent past.

As an energetic, informed and trusted figure, Mr. Calver is often consulted by residents with problems, and accordingly takes steps to make sure he is well abreast of events.

One way that he does this is to regularly attend not only his ‘home’ community ward forum (CWF), but also those in the surrounding area. Indeed, he has become something of a fixture on the circuit in the north of the borough, whose contributions, always politely made and without party political rancor, are widely appreciated.

Now, however, an attempt is being made to clip his wings, and in a way that, as will be seen, does those responsible little credit.

In the autumn of 2017, Mr. Calver attended the Hoe Street CWF, and participated in the discussion. However, afterwards, the chair, Cllr. Saima Mahmud, told him that he should not have been there, and added that she was referring the matter to LBWF Director of Governance and Law, Mark Hynes.

A little later, Mr. Hynes wrote to Mr. Calver as follows:

‘Mr Calver

It has been brought to my attention that you have recently attended the Local Ward Forum for Hoe Street even though you live…[in]…Endlebury Ward. The ward forums are for local residents only and your forum is the Chingford Green & Endlebury (joint) ward forum…

Please note that if you attend other ward forums outside Endlebury then you will not be entitled to participate as they are intended for local residents only’.

In reply, Mr. Calver quite reasonably requested the ‘documentary evidence’ that underpinned this decision, only to be told ‘There is no “evidence” – it is a matter of interpretation of purpose – and I have provided my interpretation to you’.

Subsequently, the correspondence rumbled on, with Mr. Hynes clarifying that by ‘participate’ he meant ‘ask questions etc’, the ‘etc’ left hanging.

Finally, Mr. Calver submitted one last plea for a change of heart:

‘Mr Hynes,

…As I have previously stated, other residents and I have attended and participated (asking questions) in Community Ward meetings other than our own. Whilst you have your own “interpretation” of the purpose of the meetings, it is not in keeping with a number of councillors whom I have spoken to on this matter.

It is evident that there is no council paperwork in support of your interpretation or any proper or reliable system to establish whether attendees of such meetings are residents of the wards in question…

Notwithstanding the above, the reason I attend various Community Ward meetings are as follows:

1. For and on behalf of family and friends who do live in the wards but are unable to attend themselves.

2. As a member of a Waltham Forest Charity, in order to keep them up to date on situations that are going on or arising.

3. Because my wife and I work throughout Waltham Forest…

I must also point out that when I attend these meetings I do raise my hand to ask questions and wait my turn to ask. Further, I have never been disruptive and do not intend to…change my approach to future meetings’.

However, Mr. Hynes was not to be moved, and (in true LBWF style) responded as follows: ‘I do not intend to engage in any more correspondence with you on this matter. My position remains as previously stated’.

This series of exchanges prompts a couple of reflections. The first and most obvious matter of interest is the basis for Mr. Hynes’ reasoning.

The key question here is whether there is any relevant paperwork or precedent to fall back upon. Mr. Hynes, as recounted, believes that there is none. However, his assertion is questionable.

True, CWFs do not feature at all in the Council’s Constitution (which, in passing, raises serious doubts about their legal status, and the appropriateness of Mr. Hynes’ intervention). But CWFs are referenced on LBWF’s website, and significantly without any mention of the kind of restriction which Mr. Hynes now proposes as immutable:

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Moreover, as Mr. Calver rightly stresses, a body of custom and practice is also highly relevant. For as all of those who regularly attend CWFs know full well, attempts to register attendees, and thus ensure that they live locally, have never been more than piecemeal; Mr. Calver is far from alone in attending multiple meetings; and while Cllr. Mahmud believes that this is an issue, some of her colleagues disagree, and at their CWFs accept questions from whoever asks them, regardless of address.

Against this background, Mr. Hynes’ ‘interpretation’ looks somewhat threadbare, and it is unsurprising that when Mr. Calver challenged him in detail, he declined to engage.

Officers no doubt sometimes find it difficult to deal with disgruntled councillors, but Mr. Hynes would have been much better advised to tell Cllr. Mahmud to calm down, and explain to her that dealing with questions is part and parcel of the job description.

Now, however, Mr. Hynes finds himself in a corner. For while he has banned Mr. Calver as described, he will not want to be seen to discriminate, and so must put in place machinery to ensure that all other attendees at CWFs are similarly treated.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

Postscript

Regular readers of this blog will remember that, in her Mayoral year, Cllr. Saima Mahmud hosted surreptitious award ceremonies, organised by two private citizens, in the Mayor’s Parlour; and that the beneficiaries of these events included several controversial figures, including the prominent Pakistani Senator Sirajul Haq, a man known, amongst other things, for ranting about ‘the Jews’ and opposing legislation on domestic violence – in other words espousing views which are not only abhorrent in themselves, but also (more important in this context) diametrically opposed to LBWF community cohesion policies.

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