[The Luton News: Thursday, September 18th, 1919]
The resolution passed at the recent ratepayers' meeting at the Plait Hall, and calling on all members of the Luton Town Council to resign and submit themselves for re-election in November to test whether the members still had the support of the electorate, was discussed at Tuesday evening's meeting of the Town Council [September 16th].
No suggestion was forthcoming from any member that all the Council should resign, but there was a certain amount of support for a suggestion that the two-thirds of the Council who are not due to retire should submit to a referendum of the burgesses and abide by the verdict.
Such a suggestion, however, would only be workable is all the members of the Council unanimously agreed that they would submit to this referendum, and they were not unanimous on the point, one member at an early stage of the discussion going so far as he would not vacate his seat under any circumstances until the time for which he was still entitled to a seat had expired.
Mr James Neil, the chairman of the ratepayers' meeting, was an interested listener to the discussion, as also were some members of the committee of that meeting. The resolution which Mr Neil had been directed to forward to the Council, and also to the Local Government Board and Home Office, was as follows:
“That this meeting of ratepayers of the borough of Luton expresses its emphatic disapproval of the policy pursued of late by the Town Council as at present constituted, and considers the whole of the members of he Council should come before the burgesses of the borough at the forthcoming municipal election to be held in November for the purpose of ascertaining whether they do retain the confidence of the burgesses.”
Councillor M. Barford moved that no action should be taken. Each councillor, he said, was entitled to ask what individual charge he had to answer. Applying that to his own case, he asked in what way he had not fulfilled his duty and his obligations to the burgesses.
It was the height of absurdity that they should resign, canvass and try to get back. With all their desire to study the best interests of the town, in these days of considerable anxiety and disturbance, all true Englishmen should stand by the British Constitution, and it was by one of the rules of that Constitution that they held office.
“We are not perfect men,” said Councillor J. Bone in seconding. “We never pose to be perfect men, and consequently our works are like us – imperfect. But I do say, with all sincerity, every councillor and every alderman has endeavoured to the best of his judgment to do hit duty to the town and to the burgesses who elected him. For all the councillors to retire at a crisis like this would be suicidal and detrimental to the welfare of the town, and folly in the extreme.”
Alderman H. O. Williams, supporting, said they would be false to the trust reposed in them by the electors if they retired before their time had elapsed. He referred to various departments of the Corporation's activities, including education, sewage, health, electricity, housing etc, and asked in which direction it was their policy was called into question. Until the accusation against them was defined, he did not think there was anything which they were called on to meet.
Intimating that he did not intend to vote on this matter, Councillor A. B. Attwood said it should not be thought he was afraid to vote. This matter was discussed in a sober moment earlier in the year. He said then what he had to say, and had no idea of withdrawing or altering what he said then, and if the Press cared to they could reprint what he said on that previous occasion.
Alderman J. H. Staddon anticipated that he would not find support from his colleagues that would warrant him taking any serious action. He agreed with much that had been said, but was of opinion that the speakers were entirely missing the mark in the way they were dealing with the request contained in this resolution.
He knew nothing of what took place at the meeting other than what he heard outside, and he did not read the reports. But in view of what happened in the borough since July, and which had given the town a bad name throughout the country, some stain had to be wiped out.
There was a feeling throughout the town that a certain amount of discredit had been brought upon the Council through various causes, and it was unnecessary to go into fine definitions of what he referred to in that statement. But unless they were going to have the whole-hearted support of the burgesses from November 9th onwards he would be very sorry for whoever occupied the Mayoral chair. He did not say they should all resign, but he had a proposition which he thought would meet the case.
They had a half-million housing scheme, a £50,000 sewage scheme, an electrical undertaking which demanded the utmost care and consideration, and a wretched tram system they had to take over within the next two or three years. These things had to be faced. He had faced a crowd on two occasions, and unless they were prepared as a Council to meet the burgesses under any conditions they could not go for peace in the borough.
“Some of out friends make excuses as to the cause of the trouble,” continued Alderman Staddon. “It is no use saying 20 or 30 hooligans were responsible for burning the Town Hall. There were thousands in the streets who did not turn a hand to stop it, but egged them on. Those thousands we have to deal with, and the bulk of them were probably burgesses and voters.”
His suggestion, which he considered reasonable, was that the two-thirds who were not due to retire should submit to a referendum of the burgesses. There would have to be stipulations, and he suggested for consideration that 60 per cent of the burgesses should poll to prove their interest. He was prepared to beaten by the majority of the Council, and to take it calmly, but such a suggestion would involve nothing derogatory.
They were in a peculiar position at present, but if under such conditions they found a majority supporting them, then they could face the public with confidence. He moved an amendment that the remaining two-thirds should ask for a referendum, and suggested that the Town Clerk could possibly advise how it could be done.
The Deputy Mayor (Councillor C. Dillingham), seconding, said if they could do this it would be far better for the work of the Council and the town. He was willing to go before the ratepayers and to stand aside if they showed him he was not wanted. He had done his duty for 30 years as well as any man could, but there was so much ill-feeling about the town at present that it was time the air was cleared. To work for another year under the conditions which existed now would not be pleasant or for the good of the town.
In reply to Councillor Barford, Alderman Staddon said his suggestion meant that all the two-thirds should stand or fall as a body, and not individually.
Councillor Bone: “Has this Council power to commit suicide? (laughter). Supposing the Council carry this amendment, does it really mean that we are obliged to go before the electors though some of us vote against it, not because we are afraid to go, but because we don't believe in being heckled by a discontented, unsatisfactory class of people, who it is utterly impossible to please? I am not afraid of the electors, but I am going to stand firm if there is not law to make me vacate until my time comes.”
Alderman Staddon: “I asked what we should offer as a body to take a referendum on our own, and if I get 500 out of 22,000 I shall know I am not wanted, and I shall retire. That is the position I take up, and that is the position I ask other councillors to take up.”
The Town Clerk, without entering into he merits of the suggestion and speaking purely from the legal aspect, said a resolution by the Council that every member should submit himself for re-election would have no value. The Council could not compel any member to resign.
Such a resolution would be a pious expression of opinion, and it would be injudicious and unfair on the part of any Council to exercise such a power. It was a matter for every member of the Council to decide for himself.
Every member, of course, had the option to resign, when the vacancy would be filled in the ordinary way. The present system had been law since 1835 and, while he was not disposed to look on things as good because they were antique, it had stood the test of time, and there was good reason for its existence.
With regard to a referendum, if the Council passed such a resolution it would necessarily have to be done unanimously, because otherwise it would be placing some members in a position in which the law never intended they should be placed. It they all agreed to it, then it would be another matter, but none of the expenses could be paid out of Corporation funds.
“So far as the work is concerned, if the Council think it desirable to adopt the means of ascertaining they are in favour with the electorate or not, the matter can be arranged, but I certainly would not advise spending any public money on it, because you would be doing something you legally have no power to do at all.”
Councillor Barford than questioned the mandate of the ratepayers' meeting to speak for the electorate. They were told about 1,000 were present, but there was considerable doubt how many of them were ratepayers. The West Ward, which he represented, had 9,000 electors. Assuming there were 400 West Ward electors at the meeting, were they justified in considering the views of 400 as being necessarily representative of 9,000?
“For my own part I do not accept it,” he said. “If I offered myself to the electors I should hope and expect to be returned.”
Alderman H. Arnold thought if all the members looked at it from the same point of view as Alderman Staddon it would be the best thing for the Council. His own opinion, however, was that the views expressed at the protest meeting were those of the people who were in a large minority in the town. It would be invidious to record a vote which compelled the action of other members of the Council, and he did not think there was the ghost of a chance of getting a unanimous expression of opinion on this point.
Councillor R. F. Briggs said most of them had outstayed their welcome. At the meeting earlier this year he said they had ceased to be ratepayers' representatives and had become Government nominees. If there was a unanimous vote that they should place themselves before the electors, he would be exceedingly happy to do it, and he could not see with Councillor Bone that it would be suicidal, detrimental or folly.
He could never understand why the County Councils came out as a body and municipal corporations did not, especially as the County Councils were considered to be the superior body. Although they came out as a body, they secured continuity of policy, and this Council would do the same, because some of them would go back.
Councillor S. B. Hubbard was also of opinion that the referendum might be workable if the whole of the members would agree, but not otherwise. He did not agree, however, with the proposal to dismiss the letter without taking any action.
Councillor Escott, who comes out of office next year, said if he retired now and was re-elected he would have to come out again next year. He was not in a position to fight and pay election expenses twice in a year, and this was perhaps a point which had escaped the attention of some of those outside.
A similar position was taken up by Councillor A. Chapman, who added, however, that he did not mind which way the matter was decided.
Councillor C. Yarrow, who was recently re-elected to the Board of Guardians, said he then had to go before practically the same body of electors as he would have to face if he now resigned from the Council, and he did not think he would have been returned unless he had the confidence of the majority of the ratepayers. He did not feel called upon now to resign, and that being so it was not incumbent upon him to pass judgment upon other members.
Alderman Staddon: “All I ask is that every member of the Council should realise the poistion we are placed in as representatives of this borough. Then let us put the interests of the Borough at heart. That is all I appeal for, and in view of the fact that we have long overstayed our time I thought every member would be prepared to stand up and go through with it in the interests of all parties. That is the reason I brought it forward.”
Councillor Barford said if the amendment was carried, and a referendum taken, any member of the Council who chose to do so could snap his fingers at the result, so it would be abortive.
The Mayor (Councillor H. Impey): “Any member who conscientiously feels that he ought to appeal to the electors has the opportunity of doing as I have suggested I shall be doing, although I shall not be appearing before the electorate. There is nothing to hinder any member of the Council. resigning.”
Eventually it was decided that instead of the “no action” policy being adopted, it should be dealt with by sending a reply to the effect that it was a matter which concerned, not the Council as a whole, but each member individually.
In the covering letter which accompanied the resolution, the Council were asked to waive their charge for the use of the Plait Hall on the ground that for a ratepayers' meeting it should be available free of charge, but the Tolls Committee did not see their way to agree to this. It was pointed out that to do this would open the way to a general application for the free use of the hall, and so cause considerable difficulty.