A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge; the illustration is by Becky Unwin
Published in December ’14
There’s a scientific theory (which I confess that I originated while twiddling my journalistic thumbs during an endless council debate about nothing in particular) that a local authority’s ability to discuss briefly and to the point is inversely proportionate to the importance of the subjects it is required to discuss. Put another way, the smaller or less significant the topic under discussion, the more time a council seems to require to talk about it.
My theory was born out of personal experience in the 1970s and ’80s, when I was Wimborne district reporter for the Western Gazette and later the Bournemouth Evening Echo. These were the heady days, soon to pass, when newspaper editors had staffs and budgets that their 21st century successors can only dream of; when meetings of district councils and their committees, and even town and parish councils, were part of a local reporter’s staple diet.
The local government reporter today is an endangered species: if even one journalist turns up, the chairman may be seen rattling his chain of office in excitement. Thirty or 40 years ago, in contrast, we had three or four reporters at every district council and committee meeting – not only the two abovementioned papers but the Wimborne & Ferndown Journal and the Poole & Dorset Herald. To continue the endangered species theme, the Journal and Herald, sad to say, are now extinct, while the other two no longer have an office in the district.
For the local reporter, the more rural of the many parish councils were the worst. While your friends were at home with the spouse and the telly, you could spend an entire evening listening to people discussing such diverse topics as dog-poo on the playing field, vandalism at the bus-stop and a planning application for a granny-flat. Many of the councillors could talk for England. If only they could be hooked up to a wind turbine, imagine how much useful hot air could be generated.
Compared to the parish councils, Wimborne (later East Dorset) District Council was a slick operation – a council with teeth and some relatively meaningful business to discuss. It did have its moments, of course, but we journalists had our own ways of showing our appreciation. If I remember rightly, the Winter Olympics were on when the planning committee spent an hour discussing one item before failing to make a decision. Inspired by the judging format for the Olympic ice dancing, the trio on the press bench marked the end of the debate by raising a sheet of paper in each of our six hands and delivering our verdict – 0.1, 0.2, 0.1, 0.3, 0.2, 0.1.
Had we done this in another of our regular environments, Her Majesty’s Law Courts, we’d surely have been sent down for contempt. Happily even the stuffiest old councillors had a sense of humour. And although most of them have since been elected to that great council chamber in the sky, the journalistic Day of Judgment has not been forgotten.
‘I remember being told the story by an officer or another councillor after I joined the council in 1983,’ says Pauline Batstone, now a member of Dorset, North Dorset and Sturminster Newton councils. ‘We thought it was quite a good wheeze. It had become part of council folklore.’
Though we perhaps did not realise it at the time, local government was a rapidly evolving beast in the 1970s as the wartime generation gave way to a brave new world of party politics, attendance allowances and even female councillors. Pauline recalls that female members were still a rare breed in the 1980s and were expected to wear hats and gloves at full council meetings.
When I first covered the old Wimborne and Cranborne Rural District Council in the early 1970s, women councillors were virtually unheard of while many of the men’s names were prefixed by a services title. The army, navy and air force were all represented. Lieutenant Colonel PJK Warren was the RDC chairman and Major Somebody-or-Other was vice-chairman. Other members included Commander Aubrey Tod and Squadron Leader Norman Trodd while Wing Commander Bill Groves flew in, guns blazing, a year or two later. There was also a sprinkling of country gentlemen, most memorably the triple-barrel surnamed Councillor Claud Hanbury-Tracy-Domvile, whose name alone occupied two lines of type in the narrow newspaper columns. Apparently he was originally Hanbury-Tracy, acquiring the ‘Domvile’ as a condition of accepting an inheritance. No-one spared a thought for the poor reporter who, ever mindful of his word count, found himself engineering ways to avoid mentioning him more than once in a story.
Ironically it was the advent of free newspapers that began the decline of the paid-for local paper, creaming off much of the advertising, employing smaller editorial staffs and inducing readers to question why they were paying good money for a paper when free ones dropped through the letterbox. Commercial radio, the internet and other media have driven more nails into the coffin. The unfortunate consequence is that the Fourth Estate is now rarely around to keep an objective eye on how local authorities spend our hard-earned council taxes. ◗