Today, Cllr Gary Wilkinson, Labour’s spokesperson for environment, transport and sustainability has sent an open letter to the committee Chair, Cllr Amy Heley:
I am sending you this open letter ahead of the Environment, Transport & Sustainability Committee meeting on 21st September 2021.
On the Environment, Transport & Sustainability Committee, we are tasked with addressing some of the biggest issues in the city, and few are as emotive as tackling the climate crisis.
However, with that task comes an added responsibility to conduct ourselves well, to treat each other with respect, and to ensure we keep the level of debate civil, not fan the flames of division and hostility.
Unfortunately, I fear the administration has lost its way in recent weeks on that count.
At the Environment, Transport & Sustainability Committee on 21st July 2021, I was very disappointed that in your role as Chair, you were rude and dismissive to opposition Councillors and members of the public. In all my years of working in and following local government, I’ve never known a committee chair to conduct themselves or a meeting in the manner you did that day.
We must treat our fellow Councillors with respect and follow the Nolan principles of how we behave in the positions of privilege and responsibility we hold. At the meeting on 21st July, one of my Labour colleagues had to make an intervention calling for the tone of the debate to change as it had delved into personal attacks and hostile remarks, sometimes even from yourself as Chair.
Following the meeting, we have seen Councillors from the administration making ugly remarks and personal attacks on my Labour colleagues and I on social media. From taking and sharing unsolicited photos from within the council chamber alongside misleading captions, to accusing my Labour colleagues and I of having ‘no integrity’, I have been truly shocked by the behaviour of some of my Green colleagues.
In turn, this has given the greenlight to others on social media to behave in the same way, and I, myself have been inundated with abuse on social media since that remarkable meeting in July.
You will be aware of Labour’s firm stance on the climate crisis. We declared a climate emergency, we set up the climate assembly, we co-chair the carbon neutral working group with the administration, we implemented active travel measures, we installed solar panels on council homes, electric vehicle charging points, developed the bike share scheme, advanced the Valley Gardens scheme, and identified funds for 20-minute neighbourhoods.
We have worked with the Green group on many of these actions. We also voted to extend the majority of temporary cycle schemes that came before the committee in July. So, no matter how strongly the administration may feel about the temporary lanes on Old Shoreham Road, to disingenuously declare on social media that Labour doesn’t care about the climate crisis and to make personal attacks on our Councillors, has opened the door for trolls online to tell me I don’t care about kids and want to see them run down by cars.
I hope you will agree with me that this is truly unacceptable and wholly unrepresentative of the views of my Labour colleagues and I, and I hope you will apologise.
Perhaps more concerning than the way the administration has treated fellow councillors though, is the way that in your capacity as Chair, you rudely dismissed the views of residents who took part in the committee meeting on 21st July.
Public participation in local government is crucially important, and we should all welcome every resident who is so engaged with their community that they wish to come and share their views with members of their local authority. We should never dismiss them, be curt with them or treat them as an inconvenience if their views do not align with our own.
It is incumbent on us as councillors not only to speak on behalf of our residents, but also to empower them to speak for themselves. By treating some of the public participants the way you did at the July meeting, I fear the opposite effect has taken place, and others may now feel put off coming forward and taking part in future committee meetings.
This would be truly sad, and I hope that you apologise for your behaviour at the July meeting, and all councillors present at the next committee meeting can commit to conducting future debates in a calm, measured way.
Our city deserves a more grownup and mature politics. When we fail to lead by example here on the council and fan the flames of division, we set a negative tone for the citywide debate on these crucial issues, seeing motorists pitted against cyclists and pedestrians, and none of the above benefitting.
Let’s put the ‘Punch and Judy’ politics of the July committee meeting behind us, and let’s all make sure another meeting like that never takes place in this council again.
The city is watching us, and they deserve better.
We can do better, and we must.
Councillor Gary Wilkinson