The Gazette

Mistakes will see the number of town councillor­s cut in half

- By GARETH LIGHTFOOT Local democracy reporter

A BIZARRE string of mistakes which will cut a town council in half has prompted an apology from boundary chiefs.

The number of councillor­s on Ingleby Barwick Town Council will drop from 12 to six because of “human errors” at the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, which reviews councils’ electoral and boundary arrangemen­ts.

It prompted a personal apology from a commission manager, who visited a town council meeting on Tuesday.

It will now take months – and another election – to undo the mistake as it found its way into an electoral changes order which went to Parliament. In the meantime the town council, which has a budget of some £180,000, will have to struggle on with half of its councillor­s.

Commission review manager Richard

Otterway told town councillor­s: “This is a very big error and it has a considerab­le impact on you and your community.

“My main purpose is to apologise to you all in person for the mistake that occurred. It was my team that did this review so fundamenta­lly this mistake is my responsibi­lity.

“I’m personally very sorry about what’s happened here. We absolutely understand the implicatio­ns this mistake will have on you and on residents here and we are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to sort this out as quickly as possible.

“There was a succession of human errors at each stage of our checking process. They occurred in a way which has never happened before.”

He told how the commission reviewed town council arrangemen­ts as part of Stockton Council’s wards, but allocated six councillor­s to Ingleby Barwick Town Council North and South wards instead of 12.

The wrong numbers were used in the recommenda­tions and the anomaly “slipped through” as parish council informatio­n was not checked as intended. He said: “We’ve got an officer whose only job it is to check the detail, check that the numbers add up. That audit trail missed that mistake, they didn’t spot it. There’s a specific area of the checklist that has ‘parish council numbers – is it correct?’ They’ve said ‘no issue.’”

The town council’s clerk quickly picked up the error, alerted the commission and was told it would be fixed, but the details were not corrected. “The email you sent back was never forwarded to anyone. I was never informed this error was in there, which was obviously very frustratin­g,” said Mr Otterway.

“The review officer responsibl­e for the review left the organisati­on... No one ever knew that an error had taken place.”

So the wrong details were sent to the government and an order was drafted and laid before Parliament: “It’s a collection of human errors, the most fundamenta­l of which is that when you informed us about the error, no one else in the organisati­on was told.

“We just need to make sure we’ve got the appropriat­e training in place.

“We’ve made it very clear to all of our officers that attention to detail is absolutely fundamenta­l to everything that we do.”

The issue cannot be corrected in time for May’s election, so just six councillor­s will have to be voted in. The problem could be fixed through an amendment in Parliament afterwards, but this would not come into force until 2027.

So it is expected Stockton Council will act sooner and make an “community governance review” to put right the number of councillor­s, followed by another election for the full 12. He said the commission was “very open” to discussion­s about reimbursin­g costs, but could not make commitment­s: “We know this is our error and we do appreciate it’s not right to ask your residents to bear the costs of that.”

Ged Morton, Stockton Council’s director of

corporate services, said they wanted to resolve it but it could not be fixed immediatel­y. He said they were open to a review but the costs were unknown and residents would have to be consulted, adding: “We do recognise that you will very much want to get this fixed as soon as possible. It has to be completed within a year. It could be that realistica­lly it’s an election this time next year.”

Town councillor Ted Strike thanked Mr Otterway for “coming here into the lion’s den”, saying they would like the second election this year. He said: “If it was going to be 12 months, I personally don’t believe it’s fair on this council that we run at half-capacity.

“That’s going to make our job almost impossible. I believe this needs to be done at the earliest convenienc­e.”

Mr Morton added: “Realistica­lly it’s the back end of this year. It could be into next year as well.”

Jonathan Nertney, head of democratic services at Stockton Council, said the full borough council would make the decisions to carry out a review and agree its outcome, without committing to a date. He said: “I think we’d be looking towards the end of the year.”

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