Herefordshire People: Wye Oh Wye?

PUBLISHED: 16:53 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

There was standing room only for Herefordshire Council's regular February meeting. I said to an official that I had heard they were discussing a controversial bungalow extension in Bobblestock. He looked at me as though I were bonkers.

There was standing room only for Herefordshire Council's regular February meeting. I said to an official that I had heard they were discussing a controversial bungalow extension in Bobblestock. He looked at me as though I were bonkers.

They don't really get jokes on the council. There is a lot else they don't get either.

True, several hundred more people than usual had turned up, but it was a huge room, and the only reason people had to stand was that the council had configured it badly and failed to put out enough chairs. Those standing were told to push off to an overflow room to watch a video link. They refused. They stayed. Victory No. 1.

Then instead of recognising that here was a special meeting that required special handling, the chairman John Stone carried on as normal. Nearly two hours passed, and we were still dealing with routine questions from councillors.

There wasn't really a bungalow extension in Bobblestock, but we certainly had street cleaning in Belmont and the problems with the members' email system. The crowd grew restive, and eventually Councillor Stone caved in. Victory No. 2.

Victory No.3 - the one that mattered - had already happened. Roger Phillips, the council leader, had said in response to a question submitted from an ordinary citizen: "There is no change to the existing policy to the closure of schools." It was such an opaque answer that hardly anyone grasped what it meant.

He was trying to tell us the war was over, that the schools review and the proposed mass closures had effectively gone forever. The best indication of that was the sight of Sharon Menghini, the chief officer responsible for the proposals, biting her lip and slumping lower and lower in her seat.

Finally, the council had a debate. Except that it wasn't a debate because there was no disagreement. Out of 53 councillors present, 53 were against the proposals. The question was whether they supported the motion put down by the non-Conservatives which contained a lot of nasty d-words ("damage...distress...disruption") or the Conservative majority's blander amendment.

Terry James, the Lib Dem leader, launched a slashing attack on everyone involved which had the gallery roaring with delight. But he might have been smarter to employ a more subtle approach. What he did was to entrench all the Tory councillors behind their leader instead of expressing what some of them - surely - must have been thinking privately.

Councillor Phillips was thus able to maintain his line that he had been shocked - shocked! - by the contents of the schools review when it was announced. But, as Councillor James put it: "I don't know what's worse. Knowing or not knowing."

So is it over? Yes. Politicians can obfuscate - we all know that - but they cannot go back on a commitment as clear as this. Between now and 2011, no high school in Herefordshire can close or be re-organised. And no primary school can be forced to close unless its numbers fall below 36 which, on present figures, would affect only Clehonger. [CHK CHK CHK]

This pledge lasts only until the 2011 election but next time voters will be keeping watch. And if any party wants to go into that poll proposing to decimate the county's education system, the best of British luck to them.

What will be the effects of this strange, strange month? I can offer one bad one, and two that might actually prove rather invigorating.

The bad one is that there has been a total loss of trust in the children's services department. Even in the second phase of the crisis - after the proposals had been "recalled" but not yet abandoned - one official was reportedly telling people in Bromyard that, no matter what they said, their high school was for the chop. There will have to be a very thorough housecleaning before the repair work can even begin.

On the other hand, this has made everyone think. Heads and governors are now contemplating how best to secure their schools' future in the long-term. Parents have been made to take an interest in what they previously took for granted.

And it has heightened awareness of the council itself. Judging by the schools review, which treated successful schools and unsuccessful ones with the same indifference. Herefordshire Council doesn't set much store by league tables. But in the official national league of council performances, it hovers close to the relegation zone.

This affair has shed a harsh light on the way Herefordshire is run, and not just in education. We, the people, have to invigilate the council far more strictly. This column will do its best to play its part in the process.

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