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Parish Council has banned our correspondence for an unlimited time period for being "vexatious", would you agree?

0 votes

I am a committee member of a local parish action group (apprx 60 members) who have been corresponding with our parish council over some concerns we have regarding a planning application in our parish. We have written to the parish council (via email sent to the Clerk with a request to pass the correspondence to all Councillors which is the accepted format within our parish) a grand total of 4 times in 9 months. None of these communications required, nor asked for, any response, and all communications were submitted only when the application was tabled on a forthcoming agenda for discussion i.e we did not contact them out of the blue.

The purpose of the letters was to inform the council of certain facts or updates we as neighbours to the proposed development site were aware of and which we understood the parish council were unlikely to be aware of and would find helpful prior to their discussions regarding the site, especially given only one councillor has visited the site concerned. As an example, one letter attached an independent ecology survey some of our members had commissioned which revealed the presence of protected species on site which the developer had denied up until this point. All of the letters contained different information i.e they were not repetitve in nature. This same information was also submitted to our district council who have taken on board much of the information we submitted and as a result they have subsequently altered or updated certain district council reports regarding the application.

In addition to the 4 letters over the past 9 months we also requested a slot to speak during the public forum on 3 occasions and again the correct proceedure for making said requests (email to the clerk 72 hours before the meeting) was followed. 2 of these requests were made via individual emails (from our designated spokesperson) and one was attached to the same email as one of our letters (so was made via our actions groups Clerk). Finally, our actions groups Clerk sent one email to the Clerk of the parish council politely asking for clarification regarding the tabling of the application at that particular meeting, to which no reply was even recieved. So in total, we have submitted 4 letters to Cllrs (none of which asked for a response and were purely briefing sheets with information we felt they would find useful), 2 emails to the Clerk requesting a slot to speak (which is the required proceedure), and one email to the Clerk asking for clarification re: the tabling of the agenda (to which we never even received a reply). Part of the reason we formed the action group was that we felt joint communications would not only be more effective and would be taken more seriously than 60+ individual letters, it was also felt bombarding councillors with multiple letters saying the same thing would not be appreciated.

At this months parish council meeting the agenda stated that a vote would be held to resolve for the parish council to not communicate any further on the application unless the district council specifically consulted them. At the discussion led by the Chair, our action group and one of the Parish Councillors were the only ones specifically named as persons who they considered had been vexatious in our correspondence, and whom the Chair said were taking up too much of the Clerks time with our communications and therefore any further attempts by our group to contact the parish council regarding the application would not be responded to, discussed, nor we infer will even be forwarded to Councillors by the Clerk (and even if they were we assume they would not be read by the Cllrs due to the resolution just made). It remains unclear whether even if the district council does issue a further consultation to the parish council regarding this application if any communication we then make would be taken into account at that stage by the parish council since this appears to be a blanket ban.

I have checked with our members and can confirm no other communications outside of those listed above have been submitted. In 9 months all we have asked for is for 4 sets of documents to be digitally forwarded to Cllrs via the Clerk (we did not trouble them with any hard copies) and for one question to be answered by the Clerk (to which we never even recieved a reply) so we cannot believe what we have been accused of. All of our communications have also been nothing other than friendly and polite in nature.

I have also checked all the PC's policies and proceedure documents that have been made available online and cannot see any specific vexatious communications proceedures so am struggling to see what the proceedural basis is that allows for a outright ban of this sort to us as parishioners/local residents. I have researched online and have seen that other parishes have specific vexatious communication proceedures, but ours does not, and also quite honestly cannot see how we have done anything wrong. Would any parish councillors or clerks on this forum agree that this level of communication over this time period could be reasonably said to be vexatious? as I'd appreciate your insight.

By way of background we raised a concern a few months ago to the monitoring office that the parish council chair had distributed inaccurate information regarding the planning application before one of the meetings. The monitoring office investigated and found no breach per se since they said the code of conduct for our parish doesn't cover inaccuracy only dishonesty, and we had not alleged the Chair had been dishonest, our concern was purely that they had been inaccurate. We can only assume that the Chair did not take too kindly to having had a concern raised against them to the monitoring officer, and perhaps this is some form of retribution for our having contacted them. We can also imagine that the Clerk may have had to have submitted certain communications to the monitoring office on behalf of the Chair or at the request of the monitoring officer but it seems unreasonable to blame our group for any communications the chair and clerk may have been asked to make by the monitoring officer during their investigation.

When some of the Councillors started to question whether this was a reasonable thing to do to our group, the Chair then went one stage further and in addition to saying our emails had been vexatious and time consuming, it was also claimed that they could be percieved as "threatening" in nature, something which we are utterly appalled to have levied against us. None of our communications are anything other than friendly and polite and the singular email we sent where we asked for a reply from the clerk regarding proceedure, we cc'd the monitoring office into that email since our complaint against the Chair was still outstanding at that point and we felt it was the appropriate thing to do, so we would hardly act in a threatening manner only to then copy in the monitoring office!
As it stands we can't even send copies of these emails to the Councillors to clear our name since they have now banned us from communicating with them over this application. The Chair strongly led the discussion with very little input from other councillors and it seemed to us as though the other councillors just took the Chair at their word without any proof or any specific questions eg asking how we had supposedly been threatening. The Chair also helms the complaints committee (which only consists of 3 councillors, one of whom is good friends with the Chair) so that option seems unlikely to be able to clear our name, especially as no appeals process to that course of action is listed as available and given the council has now resolved to refuse to communicate further on this matter, and as the monitoring officer only deals with complaints against individual councillors I also don't see how they would be prepared to investigate the appropriateness of this resolution which has been made by the council as a whole. So I find myself unsure of how to advise our members how best we should proceed as we are obviously very upset to have been falsely accused of being vexatious and threatening, in addition to feeling upset that we have been banned from communicating with our council regarding this matter, hence I'd be most grateful for your thoughts.
by (130 points)

2 Answers

+1 vote
From what you have written, it appears that you have been gagged by a council without a gagging procedure for no particular reason. So, as an organisation, you are banned from communicating with the council. As 60 residents, you have not been banned from individual private communication. Perhaps each of your members should write a personal letter to the council expressing concern about the way your group has been treated and asking the council to explain what legal power it used to make the decision, what the wording of the motion was, who proposed it, who seconded it and which members of the council voted in favour.

In the longer term, start recruiting more members to your group and decide who amongst you will stand at the next council election. Follow the model of Residents for Uttlesford and you might find yourselves running your district council too.
by (45.9k points)
I agree with Dave if you have 60 members get some to stand in every seat at the next election
Also go on Amazon and buy Flatpack Democracy and Flatpack Democracy 2 by Peter Macfadyen
Dave, I have drafted a message to our members re them writing in as individuals but it would appear that from the wording of the motion that it's not just our group that's been banned but all correspondence relating to the application whatsoever- this is the exact wording of the motion that was on the agenda :- "to resolve for all correspondence on xx planning applications to cease unless xx District Council advise the Parish Council of a material amendment to the applications.".
(I have redacted the locations for obvious reasons).

The motion was on the published agenda and came direct from the Chair with no seconder as far as I am aware since they seem to create the agenda with the Clerk and very little input from the other members. The vote was 7:2 in favour but with concerns raised as to the legitimacy of the proceedure being followed, to which the Chair replied "we've looked it up and we can do it". The 'we' being referred to was the Chair and the Clerk. I will write personally to the parish council requesting the legal foundation they are relying upon, but suspect they will not reply due to the above resolution and they will treat my letter as vexatious, in which case after waiting 20 working days for the FOI time limits to expire my next step will have to be the ICO I suppose.

Jules, thank you for the tip re Flatpack Democracy- the next election cannot come quick enough for us. In the meantime we are focusing on if there is anything we can do to prevent the Chair being successfully nominated as Chair for another year come May when our annual parish meeting will be held as that might provide us with some short term benefit until elections are held. Short of our petitioning the other councillors not to propose and second the nomination for this particular councillor to be Chair I'm not sure what else we can do to prevent the Chair remaining in situ for the next year at least which is rather frustrating.
The motion is poorly worded, as it only proposes that the council does not reply to correspondence received in relation to the application. Correspondence is a two-way process, only one half of which falls under the control of the council. It does, however, give the council the right to ignore correspondence received.

The chair is nominated from within by the members of the council, so you would need the support of more than half of them to have any realistic prospect of invoking the change. There are other ways of encouraging a chairman and council to improve their conduct and I always recommend publicity as a useful tool in this regard. Record the meetings and upload them to YouTube. When Covid restrictions are relaxed, encourage as many people as possible to attend the meetings. Write to individual councillors expressing your concerns and seek their support in addressing them. Remember, you elected them to represent you.
+2 votes
I don't understand why a body of sixty people is wasting it's time arguing with the parish council instead of putting its energies into getting its point of view across to the planning authority.  Whether the parish council supports its argument or not is unlikely to matter.
by (2.0k points)
Thanks Quornpc- I felt exactly the same, but to try and spare boring you with too much backstory, the current planning application is trying to more than double the amount of homes granted in outline for the plot of land several years ago. When the outline permission was applied for our group got together and focussed soley on the district council, we clubbed together to get help from a planning consultant and commissioned independent reports. We were able to get a reduction in the amount of houses being sought back then in addition to certain conditions being added, but were somewhat blindsided (as was our planning consultant) at the determination meeting by how much weight was given to the PC opinion by the district council.To the degree that our district councillor mid-meeting deffred to the Chair of our PC for their opinion and assistance. Had less weight been given to the PC back then, our planning consulatant felt would never have recived planning permission whatsoever as it was in the green belt. Now we are trying to stopa repeat of the same thing happening, by at least trying to ensure the PC are aware of our concerns, but only when it has been on their agenda for discussion as agree it's a waste of our efforts to spend too much time on them. I think part of the current issue is that many of our members now feel personally affronted having been accused of being vexatious, which I can understand, and would like to assist in resolving.

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