Conservative councillors storm out of meeting after ‘racism’ accusation

Comment made by Labour’s deputy leader during debate around sites for Travellers, reports Simon Allin Local Democracy Reporter

Enfield Civic Centre and (inset, left) Labour's deputy leader Ergin Erbil and (inset, right) Conservative group leader Alessandro Georgiou
Enfield Civic Centre and (inset, left) Labour’s deputy leader Ergin Erbil and (inset, right) Conservative group leader Alessandro Georgiou

Conservative councillors walked out of an Enfield Council meeting last night after being accused of being “racist” by the Labour administration’s deputy leader.

Ergin Erbil’s claim – fiercely denied by the Tories – came after the opposition group refused to back his motion calling for sites accommodating the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community to be incorporated into the council’s Local Plan.

A new draft of the Local Plan, which allocates sites for development and other uses up to 2039, is currently being prepared. The council has been analysing responses to a public consultation on the first draft, which will inform the next version of the document.

Conservative members gave a range of reasons for opposing the motion, including claims it was unnecessary because it was already part of the Local Plan process and didn’t take account of the needs of local residents who may be affected by GRT sites.

In his closing speech, Cllr Erbil accused the Conservatives of using “dangerous” wording. The deputy leader said: “Travellers are your residents as well. I want to be very clear: they [the Conservatives] have given a various number of different reasons why they won’t support this motion. The reason they are not supporting it is because they are racist.”

His comments sparked uproar on the Tory benches and Enfield mayor Doris Jiagge, as the meeting chair, asked Cllr Erbil to apologise. But when he refused to do so, all Conservative councillors left the chamber in protest and didn’t return. After consulting with the monitoring officer, the mayor said she had been advised to continue with the meeting and allow a vote.

Speaking after the meeting, Conservative group leader Alessandro Georgiou said the deputy leader’s comments were “completely outrageous”, adding: “He should have apologised, because it is not based on fact whatsoever.”

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Cllr Erbil today (Thursday) stood by his comments and accused the Tories of leaving the meeting to avoid voting on the motion. Cllr Georgiou denied this claim and said the Conservatives left because of his remarks.

The deputy leader today wrote a letter apologising to the mayor for “any part I played in the disruption” but adding that “as a point of principle, it would not have been right for me to withdraw my views in the council chamber”.

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Cllr Erbil’s motion, supported by his Labour colleagues, stated Enfield “does not currently have any allocated sites for Gypsies and Travellers”. It added that a previous assessment revealed the borough needs “23 permanent pitches and six transit pitches during the life of the Local Plan”.

The motion continued: “Enfield Council stands in solidarity with Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities and will work to ensure we meet identified housing need for these communities, ensuring they can access public services, and to tackle the hate crime and discrimination they experience.”

Conservative Julian Sampson said during the debate he would oppose the motion because it was “unnecessary and incomplete”. However, he claimed the Tories welcomed “the council’s efforts to combat prejudice wherever and in whatever form it takes”.

Cllr Sampson said the interests of the GRT community were already being considered in the Local Plan process and added there was “much missing” from the motion, which gave “no specific points of direction in the Local Plan that would actually give substance to the motion”. He also said the motion failed to consider the needs of teachers, health professionals and other residents who could be affected by GRT sites.

When Labour’s Ayten Guzel branded the failure to support the motion “shameful”, Conservative group leader Cllr Georgiou claimed his colleague had been saying that the Tories abhorred racism and were “welcoming” but did not trust the administration because Labour had failed to deliver on the motion’s aims despite being in power “for the last twelve years”.

Other Conservatives also cited the possible impact on residents. Mike Rye said Travellers in his Town ward had once sparked a “huge number of complaints”. He said the motion was “deficient” because it did not specify that a “well-organised, well-supported site” by “people who want to use it responsibly” should be put in place.

Lee Chamberlain claimed that across the borough there were residents who “would not be in favour of any form of campsite” and to pretend otherwise would be “foolish”. He said there was a need to respect how people choose to live, but people who have made those choices “also have to accept where those choices have an impact”.

Prior to the furore over Cllr Erbil’s accusation, there was also anger over comments made by another Labour cabinet member, Rick Jewell, when he brought up the mass murder of Romani people in the Holocaust and referenced earlier comments from Cllr Sampson about his Jewish family fleeing persecution, saying: “Yet he would vote against a group of people who were victimised under the Nazis.”

Cllr Georgiou subsequently claimed Cllr Jewell’s comments were “frankly insulting”.

After the intervention from Cllr Erbil led Conservatives to leave the meeting, all Labour councillors present voted for the motion. Afterwards, Cllr Georgiou claimed the mayor should have expelled Cllr Erbil from the chamber and added: “She performed poorly in her duties as far as we are concerned, and we hope she learns from this.”

In response, a council spokesperson said: “The council’s constitution sets out the procedural rules for managing the business and conduct of council meetings and the mayor’s role is to preside over meetings in accordance with those rules.

“Any allegations of misconduct arising from exchanges between members during a council meeting would be investigated in accordance with the usual protocols for handling complaints against councillors.”

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