Labour’s acting leader in Preston has been criticised after a call to ‘think again’ about controversial cemetery rules was squashed.Advertisement
Preston City Council is moving forward with a plan to restrict the memorialisation of graves in the cemetery to a set length.
A decision by the city council’s cabinet went for enforcing the existing rule of decoration or fencing up to two foot six inches.
Those with loved ones within the cemetery now have six months to comply with the rules.
The city council argues the grave memorials contribute additional cost to upkeeping the cemetery and also present a ‘health and safety risk’ to the public.
Campaigners led a petition against the proposals with more than 4,000 people signing it, forcing the Town Hall into a consultation.
The consultation results, with more than 250 responses, showed support for full-length grave memorialisation – which was ignored by councillors.
Conservative leader councillor Neil Cartwright triggered a call-in of the cabinet’s decision, made in March.
On Friday 13 April councillors on the overview and scrutiny committee met to discuss the grave memorials ruling.
Before the meeting began the Labour whip, councillor Mark Yates, said Labour councillors on the committee were being whipped on the vote – meaning any Labour councillor who wanted to vote against the cabinet’s decision would have to rebel against their own party.
After quizzing acting Labour leader councillor Robert Boswell, soon to be chief executive Adrian Phillips and environmental health manager Chris Hodson, councillors moved a motion to request the cabinet reconsider their decision and undertake further consultation but this proposal was defeated due to the Labour whip.
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Campaigner David Hudson said: “We are shocked by the decision and how the events of the meeting were handled by councillor Boswell.
“We understand it has taken 20 months to reach a decision and that decision remains status quo.
“In that 20 months we, as the Friends of the Cemetery group, have had to chase meetings and we’ve regularly invited councillor Boswell who only attended once.
“Councillor Cartwright has done more in the last two weeks in consulting us and assisting than we’ve seen from any councillors.
“The scrutiny meeting showed how badly it has been handled by councillor Boswell who turned it into a political issue rather than the items at hand.
“The Friends group is now looking at other avenues to go down but we might have six months to comply to the rules but until we feel we’ve exhausted all avenues we will not rest.”
Cllr Neil Cartwright said: “We were disappointed at the attitude of councillor Boswell and his colleagues at the meeting. We have tried all along to avoid making it a Party political issue and were only asking cllr Boswell to delay implementing their policy to allow time for further discussions with the Friends group, and indeed, other interested parties.
“My colleagues and I thought some compromise might have been possible and hoped for a helpful response from Cllr Boswell. It’s clear that not all his colleagues were happy with his attitude but, unfortunately, it became ‘we’ve got more votes than you’.
“As David Hudson says, it has taken 20 months to get this far: a couple of months more and a willingness on the part of Cllr Boswell to engage with David and his colleagues wasn’t too much to ask. Unfortunately the Labour Councillors decided to force their decision through by imposing their ‘whip’.”
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Acting Labour leader councillor Robert Boswell said: “Firstly, I was at scrutiny to represent the position of cabinet and I gave the position of cabinet as cabinet saw the issue. It is true we have debated and discussed this issue for 20 months. Within that time we have had an extensive consultation period which I agreed to last August. It has been to scrutiny three times. Scrutiny has also visited the cemetery and seen the controversial graves. It has been the subject of a debate at full council. Cabinet has informally discussed the matter. Officers have regularly attended Friends meeting. I have discussed the matter continually with officers over that period. I have received several e-mails from representatives of the Friends groups explaining their position. It has also been extensively discussed within my own political group.
“I am really struggling to understand what further information could be obtained from the Friends group after all the extensive consultation and discussion which has occurred during the last twenty months. It is the interests of all the stakeholders that we draw this to a close rather than entering a further period of uncertainty. Nothing can be gained by further discussion.
“I actually received an e-mail from a representative of the Friends group on the 1st of February this year being very critical of the cabinet when I said we don’t want to be rushed into making a decision; that the cabinet was “stalling” and this was “upsetting people” and delay after delay is not helping the council. The issue was actually discussed at Scrutiny at the end of January when criticism was made of cabinet for not having already taken the decision.
“So cabinet get criticised for delaying the decision and then when the decision is made criticised for not delaying the decision. In January we had taken a couple of months too long, now in April we are told we should take a couple of months more.
“On my attendance at Friends groups I have only be responsible for this issue for 12 months. To the best of my knowledge I have only been invited to three meetings. I attended one in June; the one is September I was away and one very recently which was on the eve of the relevant cabinet so I didn’t think it was appropriate to attend. Officers have attended all meetings and I have been regularly briefed as to what was discussed at these meetings.
“Secondly, the vote at Scrutiny. I am not a member of the scrutiny committee. I have no vote at Scrutiny. I was at the meeting to explain the cabinet decision not to take part in the decision making part of the meeting. Its up to members of scrutiny what they do. It is not within my gift to turn scrutiny into a political football.”
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