Government commissioners ‘potentially have gagging order’ over bankrupt Woking Borough Council's public statements

“Unelected bureaucrats” sent to Woking Borough Council by Michael Gove’s Levelling Up department have a “potential gagging order” over the bankrupt authority’s press releases and media statements.
Woking Borough Council. Picture: Chris CaulfieldWoking Borough Council. Picture: Chris Caulfield
Woking Borough Council. Picture: Chris Caulfield

Commissioners were appointed to work with Woking Borough Council earlier this year when its dire financial situation materialised.

Their job was to work with the heavily indebted council as it worked its way through spending, jobs and service cuts in order to balance its books and begin its £2.6billion debt recovery.

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Now it has emerged that the commissioners also have had the final say on releases to the media and any public statements from the council for the past six months and will continue doing so after councillors formalised its corporate press and media protocol.

It means the commissioner team sent in from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities “has the opportunity to review and provide comment on press releases and public statements before they are issued to the media”, according to Woking Borough Council’s latest meeting report.

Statements will be “sent to the commissioner team for their approval” before release, the report adds. If they fail to get back in a timely manner, only then does it fall to the borough’s chief executive.

The change to the council’s constitution was expected to be passed without fanfare or debate until it was picked up on by Councillor Adam Kirby (LD, Horsell).

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He said: “The authority to represent residents comes from only, and from no other greater power, than their vote for us, in the media or anywhere else.

“Zero (people) voted for our respected commissioners and I don’t think it’s proper that they have a formalised role in our media protocol.

“It’s right that we consult with them but the final decision must be with officers and the executive, and only officers and the executive in representing this council.”

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He said the new protocol “potentially in its current form amounts to some kind of gagging order by a central government department”.

“The commissioners should not be a permanent part of the council and I don’t want to embed, formalise their position in the formal media statements of this council.” he told the Thursday, November 30 full council meeting.

“That democratic deficit goes hand in hand with the financial deficit and I think that’s very very important.”

Cllr Kirby added: “An executive of any colour or any combination of parties or combination of independents here shouldn’t have its media statements vetoed by unelected bureaucrats in central government.”

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The meeting heard that the process had effectively already been in place for six months and that the protocol would make it clearer to residents.

Cllr Josh Brown (Con Byfleet and West Byfleet) said: “Formalising this in public record makes it more transparent and accessible to actually see what the process is.”

Addressing concerns, including moves to have the commissioners removed from the process altogether. Leader of the council Cllr Ann-Marie Barker said: “I can see where people are coming from, I can see their concerns but we are in the situation we are in.

“We are under government intervention and the government gives the commissioners a certain number of powers.

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“At the end of the day there are a number of matters where if push came to shove the commissioners can overrule us as a council.

“That has not happened, I would like that never to happen.

“I would like us to make our own determinations going forward.

“But commissioners are consulted on press releases; they don’t write press releases.”

She added: ‘We are in intervention, this is what happens, the reality is it works well, it’s a good process and we don’t have any issues with it.”

The policy will be reviewed on an annual basis as well as after the commissioners have left – currently set to be in five years time.