Walmer Town Council Cleans Up Dodgy Deal

RNLI Walmer lifeboat station
RNLI Walmer lifeboat station; picture: Walmer Town Council public domain

New Council cleans up Conservative deal

On the website of Walmer Town Council is the following announcement:

“We can confirm following enquiries from outside bodies, that Cllr Patrick Heath has been suspended from all council committees and from representing the council on external bodies pending the outcome of enquiries into the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the lease at the council’s former offices.”

Walmer Town Council’s dodgy deal

What has led to Cllr Heath’s suspension? After the 2019 May elections, new councillors on Walmer Parish Council, which had a majority of independents, discovered that in 2012/13 when Pat Heath (elected 2011 as Conservative) was Chair, he had quietly signed off a lease for the council’s offices benefitting the vice-chair, Cllr Margaret Johnson, owner of 8 The Strand. The rent was to be paid from public money to her account. Cllr Pat Heath had ignored legal advice.

The new Independent-led council has worked hard for three years to clean up this dodgy deal. Perhaps as residents learn the truth of what has been happening since 2013 they may feel thankful to  12 clean-up councillors on Walmer Council.

The minutes of Walmer Town Council’s full council meeting held 2 February 2022, available on their website, includes item 6315, which shows that the council voted to refer the matter to the authorities [police] and to suspend a serving councillor involved in the original decision from all committees. We understand 12 of 14 councillors approved this and other clean-up decisions.

Former councillor Margaret Johnson was elected as Conservative in 2011 like Cllr Heath. Up to July 2021, as the owner, she received £50 000 rent and spent about £25 000 to upgrade 8 The Strand in 2013. Evidence to this effect included a reply to a freedom of information request from the new clerk to the council from July 2021. This lease is now under dispute, and the Council has purchased a new property for its use, as they explained in their letter to ratepayers.

Sleaze and corruption

The Seven Principles of Public Life, known as the Nolan Principles for elected people, say councillors should make declarations of interest and should not take part in financial decisions that they benefit from monetarily.

The need to clean up the dodgy lease is the reason for the council investing in new publicly owned council offices, which of course become a publicly owned asset for residents. Looking back at this deal in 2013, how would we now describe it?

People used the words sleaze and corruption to describe what Conservative MP Owen Patterson did, why he needed to resign in late 2021. The following parliamentary by-election saw the Conservatives beaten for the first time in 200 years in that North Shropshire constituency.

Questions remain. Why didn’t the Walmer councillors on the finance committee in 2013, or the then clerk, say anything at the time? Was it a secret deal? Was bullying involved?

In response to these latest developments, Cllr Mike Eddy, one of three Green councillors on the Walmer Council clean-up team said, “Sadly some Conservative councillors in East Kent behave as if the rules don’t apply to them.”

The Nolan Principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership are standards that the powerful have disregarded in recent years, but the public want them restored. Although it is understandable that some Conservative councillors in Walmer – such as Cllr Heath, Cllr Jull, Cllr Murphy (Kent County Council / Dover District Council / ex Walmer Parish Council) and Cllr Vinson (Dover District Council) – seem to believe that the council should return to being a one-party-rules council as it was before 2019 for over a decade, the evidence suggests that a team of councillors from varied backgrounds serves the community in a much more honest manner

Editor’s comment

Walmer Town Council is part of the Dover local authority. It has the status of a parish council. It charges ratepayers some £67.95 of the rates collected by the local authority (lower than the district average of £75). The services it provides, according to its notice to ratepayers are to:

  • Maintain and administer the allotments in its area
  • Maintain a website and other means of communication with residents
  • Organise a minimum number of public meetings during the years.

“The town council is legally obliged to provide opinions on planning applications to Dover District Council which makes the final decision. The town council’s planning committee meets regularly and makes every effort to inform local people of when particular applications are to be discussed at town council level.

“The town council also maintains Hawksdown Common and the Drill Field and open space off York and Albany. Like all other town and parish councils, Walmer pays Dover District Council for the cleaning of the public toilets. By careful management of finances, Walmer Town Council has brought in some £4,000 in match funding for electric vehicle charging points and, with a contribution of £6,000, will shortly bring in some £34,000 for secure cycle storage at Walmer station. The town council also offers residents free use of a thermal imaging camera so they can find out where their homes may be losing heat.”

By-Election on 6 May

The minutes of the Walmer Town Council, as available on its website, include the financial reports which show that this council controlled more than £200 000 of public funds. There is now a by-election scheduled for 6 May which has two candidates: a Conservative and a LibDem.

Hopefully this election will attract more than the often low turnout (of under 25% of voters) for local government. Judging by the clean-up actions described above, as well as the progressive actions to counter climate change, it is important for all voters to realise that by casting a vote they can make a difference to the quality of the council that makes decisions affecting their environment.