Courier 23 July 2004 Front Page


By Mary Harris

The serious failings of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council from its leaders down to its frontline services have been laid bare in a damning report.

The council has been exposed as "weak" and has been lambasted on its performance and delivery.

Untrained councillors and tensions in the cabinet which hampers decision-making to the detriment of taxpayers across the borough, have been exposed.

Further strain between councillors and officers has created a "lack of trust" and departments failing to work together.

Chief executive Rodney Stone and council leader Cllr Melvyn Howell confessed on Wednesday, 21 July 2004, that the Corporate Plan, which should have created a clearer vision and direction for the council but was slated in the report, was "rushed".
They admitted the council had been too concerned with council tax ?? Band D is the lowest in Kent ?? and not directed enough money into services and operations.
The council "does have strengths" and some services are delivered to a high standard, most notably leisure facilities, recycling and waste management. It is also strong on the environment including graffiti busting, well maintained parks and minimal development on green belt.

Despite a scathing assessment of the council by the Audit Commission, the expenditure watchdog, released last year in 2003, and a subsequent hard-hitting critique in the Peer Review, significant improvements to key services have not been made, the commission has revealed.

The Audit Commission has ordered the council to makes improvement plans public and will "track progress".

Some Comprehensive Performance Assessment judgments for the Tunbridge Wells authority are:

Asked if the council had any sense of shame and a grasp of Tunbridge Wells taxpayers' disillusionment, Cllr Howell told the Kent and Sussex Courier: "I understand that and it is disappointing to be categorised as weak. I have for some time felt we have not been quick on the uptake with what needs to be done."
Asked why the council was weak, he said: "It's about a mindset. It's about not coming to terms with the realities of what councils are for. It was about emptying bins, now it's bigger, about improving quality of life. We've been slow on the uptake."

In terms of who is to blame, Mr Stone said: "Melvyn and I are of the view we are not going to move forward by attributing blame. But there is or has been a slight tendency among some politicians to regard the new agenda as Blair's government trying to impose its will on local government rather than embracing it as a new challenge."
Asked if Mr Stone took personal responsibility for the failings, he replied: "I take responsibility for those elements raised on the officers' side just as I take great credit for those things on the officers' side that are praised in the report."

written by a Resident of Tunbridge Wells
5 August 2004

My impression of the Courier in the past four years is that they have been increasingly critical at the Planning Department. They print a few letters and usually give space for a Council officer to respond with his comments in a postscript.

This is why I find the Editorial on p.12 of 30 July 2004 so enlightening. The Editor NO longer feels he has to sit on the fence. At last hopefully he is calling for resignations at the top and hopefully the paper will be leading the crusade to rid the Council of the rotten wood.

If the Editor may not have seen the Telephone House website it is worth drawing his attention to it and in particular:

  1. The uneasy questions the Chief Executive refuses to answer.

  2. The Planning Department and the Telephone House Development:

    1. turning down the first application without referring it to the Western Area Planning Committee
    2. deliberately (?) wording the second application’s refusal of the Western Area Planning Committee in October 2000 in such a way as to help any appeal by the developers
    3. appointing a useless Junior Counsel for the Public Inquiry
    4. not bothering to read the submission to the Appeal Inspector made by T.H.Neighours Association
    5. leaking the Draft Local Plan to the appellants/developer and the Appeal Inspector – David Prentis was from recollection the culprit – He is now the Head of Planning Services !
    6. misleading Councillors at the Full Council Meeting in May 2001

  3. The Whitewash reports prepared subsequently indicating the poor and weak conduct of officers below the Chief Executive – e.g. the Haynes’ report of November 2001\twbcinternalinquiry\twbcinternalinquiry.html
    and\twbcinternalinquiry\thna2osb271101.html (letter 21/11/2001 to Cllr Oliver Smith)

This is one case in just one of many examples of:

  1. the arrogant attitude of officers towards both Members and Residents
  2. acting against the wishes of those for whom they are employed to act
  3. causing financial loss to the Council
  4. producing Whitewash Reports (at what waste of time and cost ?) to cover up their negligence and inefficiencies.
  5. the weakness (to use a kind word) of Rodney Stone in demonstrating his inability to act upon the overwhelming presumptions arising from the unanswered questions to him about the malaise and gross inefficiency in the Planning Department in 2000 / 2002.

A letter in the 30.07.04 Courier asks how many adverse reports are required before the Chief Executive resigns. Another letter is now needed suggesting that a further alternative is to dismiss Rodney Stone which he can call a decision to “take early retirement”.

Because no doubt Stone has chosen all his senior managers and because some at least have shown their abilities are very limited ( and like Stone “weak” ) several need to be removed e.g. Harris, Haynes, Fullwood, Prentis.

This is probably best done by a new Chief Executive – a new Chief Executive of integrity, ability and strength is required and he must come from OUTSIDE the Borough Council.
Neither Stone nor any underlings should have any input into the choice. Head Hunters should be employed.

Councillors are weak and this may be because they apparently undergo no training. A new Chief Executive can show them the way to go.
Councillors of ALL parties should receive training / education. Quite recently the Liberal Democrats held power for +/- 12 months. They were no better than the Conservatives have been since.
Stone and his managers have in my opinion deliberately and successfully set out to control Councillor.

The defence of the Council seems in part to be that Tunbridge Wells has the lowest rates, that services are pruned in order to achieve this and further that to improve services it would be necessary to increase rates. This is not so. It does not seem to have occurred to officers that services can also be improved by increasing efficiency. – for example: to Telephone House Appeal : costs were awarded against the Council because of the conduct of officers.

Furthermore hours and hours of officers’ time was wasted preparing and conducting (sic) the appeal because they were too arrogant to sit down instead with all parties, including the appellants, and reach an amicable agreement for the Telephone House development to satisfy all parties.

In view of the next big Public Inquiry for the Cinema site perhaps the time is now right to write to Stone asking him yet again what the appellant’s costs were for the Telephone House appeal.


The Courier’s Editor quotes Mr Stone as saying he takes responsibility for his officers’ mistakes but takes great credit where they are praised.

I wonder whether he considers he has done a satisfactory job so long as there are more positives than negatives ? Whatever the balance in the opinion of Mr Stone, there have been so many of the latter that any sensitive Chief Executive would have long since resigned.
Stone has not done so and should now be dismissed.

What went wrong with the Telephone House Planning Applications ?
The uneasy questions to the Chief Executive Rodney Stone and other senior officers of TWBC

2004, the questions are still unanswered - they are as intriguing as in 2001.

2000 - Planning Application (Second) for Telephone House, Church Road, Tunbridge Wells

2001 - Tunbridge Wells Borough Council's Internal Inquiry into the Telephone House Debacle

A guide through Tunbridge Wells Local Press since January 2003 - "Failing Council"