2016 council intrigue included budgets, Brexit and Star Wars!

The council applauded the Gay Pride event in Wigan
The council applauded the Gay Pride event in Wigan

It was a momentous year for politics in Wigan due to the historic vote to leave the European Union and a shake-up of the borough’s opposition after the local elections.

Carrying on from 2015, behaviour within the chamber at full council meetings continued to improve. The year was the first for a while not to require police officers to attend due to unruly behaviour.

Council chambers

Council chambers

And the heated debates that in previous years had boiled over remained within the realms of proper conduct.

Former mayor Coun Mike Winstanley returned to assume control of the Conservative group and once again take on Lord Smith.

Here’s a snapshot of the major issues debated at each of the year’s seven full council meets.

JANUARY 13

The battle of Orgreave was debated in November

The battle of Orgreave was debated in November

The first full council meeting of the year took place at Leigh town hall as it did in 2015 but that is where the similarities ended. The previous year’s January instalment saw police officers called to the chamber after Independent Coun Bob Brierley refused to leave having been voted not to be heard. But the start to 2016 proved to be a timid affair with the most fervent debate reserved for the council’s decision to bring the start time of the meetings back one hour earlier to 6pm.

The proposals were opposed strongly by Standish Independents leader Coun Gareth Fairhurst who said it would restrict those of a working age choosing to become elected members.

He said: “This is a step too far. We should be getting more people that are working age and this isn’t going to help.”

Members did unite to pay its respects to Leigh sporting legend and honorary freeman Tommy Sale MBE, who died earlier in the month aged 97.

Council leader Lord Smith told the chamber: “We’re all better for knowing Tommy Sale.”

MARCH 2

The borough’s financial plan was voted through as members returned to Wigan town hall. The year’s budget received support from opposition leader Coun James Grundy although two amendments submitted by the Conservative group were rejected by the ruling Labour party.

A vote rubber stamped the Deal for the Future initiative which is designed to find savings of £60m by 2019.

In an overwhelmingly genial meeting, Lord Smith thanked his counterpart for his positive approach. However, the pair did clash on the two per cent tax rise dubbed “Osborne Tax” to fund social care.

Coun Grundy said: “You’ve pitched on this idea that we need to do this (raise tax by two per cent) but said, I know, we’ll call it the Osborne Tax’. There is no such thing. But it’s the right thing to do.

“We had the choice whether to sign up to it or not, but we did because it was the sensible thing to do.

“It’s not as if George Osborne grabbed Lord Smith in an arm-lock and said get it up that two per cent’.”

The meeting was the first to take place since the Don’t Blame the Council internal investigation concluded with a number of managers leaving their employment with the council.

Coun Gareth Fairhurst called on Lord Smith to issue an apology to residents on behalf of the council for the damage caused to the reputation of the borough.

The leader refused to issue an apology, stating there was no need as the programme had been “a deliberate distortion” by the production company and not a true reflection of council staff.

APRIL 20

With this meeting the last before the 2016 local elections, proceedings saw a bit of a shake-up with community project leaders thrust into the spotlight.

Instead of hearing from elected members, control of the floor was passed over to representatives from eight schemes boosted by the Wigan Deal.

Lord Smith described the proceedings as “inspirational” and opposition leader Coun James Grundy said he was proud to have given cross-party support to the concept of the Wigan Deal.

Councillors also heard from the town hall’s recycling campaign poster boy Adrian Speakman who spoke of his new-found fame, having featured in BBC series Call the Council.

MAY 25

The borough welcomed its new mayor Coun Ron Conway and several new additions to the chamber following the elections earlier in the month. It also marked the final official appearance in the chamber for Susan Loudon who stepped down from 22 years as a borough councillor after her year serving as first citizen.

The chamber was also informed that Ms Loudon was hopeful of reaching the £35,000 mark through fund-raising efforts for her mayoral charity, guide dogs for the blind.

Members later confirmed the appointment of the council’s principal lawyer Brendan Whitworth as the temporary assistant director for legal and monitoring officer during the continued absence of incumbent Linda Fisher.

JULY 13

Proceedings took a sci-fi turn in July as Lord Smith and the ruling party were likened to Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers in a light-hearted jibe by returning opposition leader Coun Mike Winstanley.

The jokey comparison came as councillors discussed a motion calling for more questions to be included on the next census to help councils provide for Armed Forces personnel.

Submitted by Labour cabinet member Coun Paul Kenny, it reflected a campaign by the Royal British Legion which states more is known about the fictional Jedi Knight population in many areas rather than members of the forces following the last census.

Coun Winstanley said his Tory opposition members were like the Rebel Alliance fighting against the might of the Empire, in reference to the Labour group’s significantly superior number in the chamber.

It was also the first meeting of the council since the historic Brexit vote and Lord Smith said the borough faced “uncertain” times.

He said: “We need to accept that there is going to be momentous change for this country.

“This council, like many others, has benefitted from EU funding in the past.”

SEPTEMBER 7

Organisers of the town’s first Pride event in August received a standing ovation after addressing the chamber with details of their achievement.

Zac Bretherton and Jess Eastoe also revealed plans were already in place for a second instalment in 2017.

Coun Jo Platt, cabinet member for young people, told her colleagues: “The Deal principles: the way we work with communities and organisations, working hard to support each other, is something we all value as a council.

“One way we have achieved this is through the Pride event, this has all been about our young people.

“They came forward and organised an event which acknowledges, supports and celebrates our LGBTQ community.

“This wasn’t about the council taking charge, this was all about them. We’ve had some fantastic feedback, both national and international recognition.”

NOVEMBER 2

Councillors split by the political divide showed both their unifying then partisan sides during this emotion filled meeting. Initially the chamber unanimously voted through a motion pledging support for the Women Against State Pension Inequality (Waspi) campaign.

This was greeted with cheers from the public gallery which was packed with those affected by the controversial changes.

But the feeling of unity soon dissipated when an urgent motion about the Home Secretary’s decision not to grant a public inquiry into the Battle of Orgreave caused heated debate.

Ex-miner Coun Stephen Murphy called on the council to write to the Home Office to express disappointment with the decision.

He said: “We were all led to believe that the answer was going to be yes. But all of a sudden the Home Secretary made it a ‘no’.

“The evidence is quite clear, it’s glaring. The Hillsborough inquiry revealed the antics of South Yorkshire Police over a long period of time.

“They’re the same antics that took place at Orgreave.”

His calls were not supported by Tory members. Coun Winstanley said: “I’ve got a quiz for Labour members: what have these got in common? Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Jacqui Smith, Alan Johnson. Yes, all Labour Home Secretaries for the past 13 years and no inquiry over Orgreave. Why didn’t they do anything about it?”