John Blackie – the Rural Summit and that complaint

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On Tuesday, November 25, Graham Dalton and I sat with Coun John Blackie for two hours at the Bainbridge office of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority  (YDNPA) waiting to find out what had been decided behind closed doors about the complaint brought against John.

We both knew that John’s passionate championship of local communities sometimes led to him being just a bit “over the top” in his comments, especially at YDNPA meetings. (Above: John Blackie at the Upper Wensleydale Community Office soon after he took on the role of community volunteer head postmaster to save the Post Office service in Upper Wensleydale. With him are Abbie Rhodes on the left and Imogen Kirkbride.) 

But both of us were there to defend him regarding what he had said and done at the YDNPA full Authority meeting in March 2014.  We and others felt he had been quite restrained that day! We couldn’t be sure that we would be allowed to speak at the meeting of the Standards Committee on November 25 because at one stage during the investigation against him it had not been deemed necessary to hear what we had to say.

While we were waiting Graham asked John about the Rural Summit which had been held in Leyburn the previous week (see my posts about that). John, as the leader of Richmondshire District Council, had played a key role in organising this. He told Graham:

“Early this year I wanted to find out how, even with a rural housing enabler, we hadn’t produced any rural houses for the last two years – and I know she had tried. I found out that the housing corporations and housing associations were so risk adverse now and so concentrated on the golden triangle which is Harrogate, York and Leeds, they weren’t interested in rural areas any more.”

There had been lower and lower responses to the surveys conducted to identify housing needs, he said, because people had given up hope that they would ever get affordable housing developments in their communities. But without such housing they would not be able to hang on to their young people and young families.

“I then had a meeting with the Local Enterprise Partnership – and they too were playing the numbers game and were really only interested in the market towns and the larger conurbations, and the old days of providing advanced workshops were done and dusted for ever.”

“My experience in Hawes was that we provided a rural business park ten years ago and it has only just now been filled. But in filling it we have over 50 jobs.

“Then I looked at the school rolls. I have been a (North Yorkshire) county councillor for 17 years so I asked (to see) those from 15 years ago, 10 years ago and five years ago. And I found that young families were voting with their feet and leaving the Dales.

“As an example Reeth and Gunnerside schools 15 years ago had 95 children and they now have 46. Bainbridge and Askrigg have lost 50 students out of the 117 they had 15 years ago. And then there is the loss of services for young families – like the midwife and paediatric services. In Gunnerside I found the last teenager in the village just can’t wait to get away. He said ‘ I’ve got no friends here.’ There’s no place for a young person in a village where the school is down to seven students. The Post Office has closed. The shop has closed. At that time the pub was closed – fortunately it has re-opened.

“I thought I’ve got to do something – and the only way was to get everybody together – everybody who has a role to play in economic and social development – to get them round the table and say ‘the way we’ve been doing it to date, standing on the side lines and every one of us hoping something would turn up, isn’t working. And unless we do something differently now then we are going to see the collapse of communities that will not survive without young people in their midst.’ And that’s where it came from.

“So back in June I said there would be a rural conference. I didn’t like the word conference. We’d been to conferences before – you turn up, say wonderful things and then you walk away and do absolutely nothing about it. I decided it would be a conference with a difference. Somebody provided the word summit for me and I devised the format – ‘speed-dating’.

“I wasn’t interested in any excuse, any justification. What I was interested in – what the summit would be interested in – was doing things differently in the future. And even if it failed at least you were there for the trying. And that’s what we had and I believe that what’s we got – a head of steam going.

“The most important thing about the rural summit is it reconvenes next July with everybody to come back and say what they have done differently and what progress they had made.

“Which is why what is happening today (November 25) is so important. I am willing to accept there wasn’t a conspiracy if the complaint is being, so to speak, withdrawn. Far more important is what we can do for the communities out there. Because if we don’t do anything we are going to watch them die in front of our very eyes.”

Soon after I recorded that, Peter Charlesworth, the chairman of the YDNPA, came to tell us that a formula for agreement had been accepted. I deeply respect Mr Charlesworth for all he did that morning as a conciliator.

John had been accused of breaching the Authority’s code of conduct by failing to treat others with courtesy and conducting  himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing the Authority or his office as a member into disrepute.

In a YDNPA press release afterwards it was stated: “The allegations followed a meeting of the Authority in March and were denied by Mr Blackie. Independent solicitor John Lawrence, who was called in to investigate the allegations, decided the evidence supported them.”

Graham and I disagreed. My defence of John rested on the fact that I had recorded all the debates at the full Authority meeting in March. When transcribing those recordings I was even more convinced of his innocence.

The official meeting of the Standards Committee finally started at 12noon on November 25 and Mr Charlesworth was allowed to speak even though he was not a member and his following statement was accepted:

“Having spoken at length to all concerned – may I ask that this statement be recorded by agreement with the parties: to in effect adjourn sine die on the basis that on reflection the complaint need not be preceded with to a hearing and on the basis that John Blackie acknowledges that the allegations of political motivation and conspiracy by any of the parties were wrong and that no decision is being made on this complaint one way or the other.

“The further action is a joint resolve between all concerned to work together, to meet the challenges that face the National Park and its communities in the future.

“I would like to add personally, particularly since the Rural Summit last week at Leyburn that it is essential that we all work in harmony together to do our best for the National Park the communities in the Dales.”

John accepted that and said:”I in my various public service roles will do my absolute best to deliver outcomes that are favourable to the local communities within the Dales and indeed beyond the Dales, and that I am positive they will benefit from a sound working relationship between the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and (Richmondshire) District Council of which I am proud to be its leader.”

Well – at least they didn’t “shoot the messenger” !

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