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'Secret squirrel' claims branded at council group

Leader defends lack of transparency over environment action group

John Herring

John Herring

john.herring@newburynews.co.uk

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01635 886633

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THE leader of West Berkshire Council has hit back at “secret squirrel” claims surrounding council meetings established to make the district more environmentally-friendly. 

After councillors unanimously voted in favour of declaring a climate emergency in July, a cross-party group was set up to discuss how West Berkshire could become carbon neutral by 2030. 

However, opposition councillors and campaigners have complained that the work of the Environment Advisory Group (EAG) is being kept behind closed doors. 

The public is not allowed to know what is discussed during meetings of the group and councillors are forbidden from mentioning what is discussed. 

The secrecy of the EAG boiled over at an executive meeting last week, with claims of disingenuousness, rule-breaking and “secret squirrelism”.

Shadow executive member for climate change, Adrian Abbs (Lib Dem, Wash Common) said: “Myself and the Greens are having to ask questions in public forum.

“It’s somewhat disappointing when we are meant to be cross-party and we are meant to be, hopefully, giving you ideas and receiving feedback.

“I’m trying to make the point to you that we are here to help, we are all on the same side as far as this climate emergency is concerned. Involve us more, use us more.

“We’re all in a position where we have got this secret squirrel stuff and this doesn’t need to be. We don’t need to keep this behind closed doors.”

Defending the privacy of the meetings, council leader Lynne Doherty (Con, Speen) said: “This is not secret squirrel. People who have been on this council for a long time know that there needs to be an opportunity for officers and members to sit down and throw ideas around.

“Any organisation will have that opportunity to sit down and chew the fat and play around with what is potentially happening and what’s not – so that people can have silly ideas, so people can test the waters and it’s supposed to be in a safe environment so that people can air those ideas.

“That is what the advisory group is set up to do.”

However, Mr Abbs replied that there was “no reason why the output of those meetings can’t be made public. I’m asked by the press regularly on this”.

“I know, and there is our problem councillor Abbs,” said Mrs Doherty. 

“What appears in the press  hasn’t actually gone through the executive governance function.

“We need that opportunity to get that consultation where we should all agree what should go forward to the public.”

Steve Masters (Green, Speen) said that the Conservatives had broken council rules.

He said: “A member of the public publicised the date and venue of the climate conference four days before it was discussed at the last EAG meeting, so that made a mockery of the part two discussions.

“That’s unacceptable.”

In response, councillor for the environment Steve Ardargh Walter (Con, Thatcham Coltrop & Crookham), said he was certain that the conference details had been mentioned during the climate emergency declaration on July 2. 

Addressing Mr Masters, he said: “I think your repetition of trying to create a plot of secret squirrelism, or whatever you call it, about the conference, again there’s been absolutely no desire or intent to conceal this.

“Your desire to find something secret, frankly, is a bit disingenuous.

“There’s no secret here.

“You have known about this since our cross-party meeting.

“I really think you are flogging a dead horse.”

But Mr Masters hit back, saying: “There was no discussion about a date or venue prior to the EAG. You are being extremely disingenuous.” 

Mr Ardagh-Walter said that tickets for the climate conference at Newbury College would be available on September 16.

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