During Arun’s first full, in-person meeting since February 2020, Grant Roberts (Con, Arundel and Walberton) proposed a change to the constitution without notice which resulted in two motions being dismissed.
The motions, which were put forward by councillors Tony Dixon, Matt Stanley, Jamie Bennett and Shirley Haywood, sought to rescind decisions made by two committees regarding the marketing of London Road Lorry Coach Park in Bognor Regis and changing the start time of the audit and governance committee to 10 am.
Mr Roberts said: “It simply allows the council to get on with its business to be fair to its officers and members of the public – This is not a way to say to members that you cannot discuss and you cannot dispute.”
Isabel Thurston (Green, Barnham) said that changing the time of a committee without discussing it at full council was ‘undemocratic’ and could exclude people from attending.
James Walsh (Lib Dem, Beach) added: “I always have a problem with motions without notice, especially when they affect the constitution.”
Independent councillor Tony Dixon (Ind, Aldwick East) accused Mr Roberts of ‘making the rules up as he goes along’ but officers confirmed the change was allowed.
Paul Dendle (Con, Arundel and Walberton) claimed the motion is ‘freeing the council up to get its business done’.
Martin Lury (LDem, Bersted) and Hugh Coster (Ind, Aldwick East) were vocal about the change.
Mr Lury said it could set a ‘really dangerous precedent’.
Mr Coster added: “We could have dispensed with all of this and simply got on with the democratic process of dealing with the motions much quicker.
“Thanks to councillor Roberts, we are back to the old manoeuvrings and subterfuge.”
He said this ‘is not the way ADC does business’ and called the motion a ‘nasty little trick’.
Council leader Shaun Gunner (Con, Rustington East) took exception to this, saying: “I’m surprised the language of ‘nasty little trick’ is acceptable in this chamber.
“The Conservative group are trying to enable the business of this council.
“The rescind motions are being used by a minority on this council to set business back by six months.”
Richard Bower (Con, East Preston) said the council’s constitution was ‘living’ and that it ‘evolves’.
He said: “Seeking to rescind a motion at this council meeting is not the correct way of doing things anyway; It has to be sent back to the committee for it to consider.
“We’re now trying to hash problems out and deal with those problems on the hoof because that’s the only way we can do it.”
Mr Roberts denied that the motion was to prevent discussion about the lorry park, saying: “It doesn’t matter if something’s broken now or in a year’s time – you should get on and fix it.”
A total of 23 councillors voted for Mr Roberts’ motion, with 17 voting against and four abstaining.
This meant that the motions to rescind previous decisions were removed from the agenda immediately.
Mr Lury questioned if more councillors would have attended the meeting had Mr Roberts given notice of this.
Jacky Pendleton (Con, Middleton-on-Sea), along with her fellow Conservatives, then asked that a further five motions on everything from empty houses to sustainable energy, be presented at the council’s relevant committees instead of during the full meeting.
The move caused uproar among the mostly Lib Dem opposition councillors.
They stormed out of the meeting around halfway through as motion after motion was deferred to committees.
Mr Coster called the decision ‘a shambles’ but Paul English (Con, Felpham East) said the Conservatives ‘had never left the chamber’ when they were ‘disappointed with a decision’.
Speaking after the meeting, Shaun Gunner explained the move.
He said: “We’ve seen again tonight, that Liberal Democrats, Independents and Greens want to argue about processes, whilst the Conservatives are focussed on delivering for residents.
“We pushed ahead trying to bring investment to Bognor Regis, and money to explore how we can get additional river defences and projects for the residents and businesses of Littlehampton.
“The other councillors – whose allowances are funded by the public – walked away from the meeting, because they want the council to carry on not doing things, as happened over the last two years when they ran the council.
“I have a responsibility to work for the residents and businesses of this district to make Arun a better place to work, to live and to visit.
“No matter what games the oppositions try to play, I will always stand up for what I believe and ensure we have efficient and effective decision making at Arun.”
Conservatives also pointed out that the rules allowing motions to be deferred back to individual committees were agreed as part of constitutional changes passed by the previous Lib Dem-led administration.
But Jamie Bennett (Lib Dem, Rustington West) called it a ‘sad day for democracy’.
He said: “Tonight was a very sad day for democracy in Arun district.
“The Conservatives won’t allow debate at full council. This is a disgrace and today I was embarrassed to be a councillor.
“So proud of our Independent and Green [councillors] who joined us in leaving the meeting and standing up for democracy.”