“What another one?” may have been the plaintive cry on hundreds of doorsteps across Peterborough as residents opened a city council embossed letter.
But this one was special – signed by no lesser dignitary than Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald, the council leader.
Recipients recognized immediately it was ‘official’ since in the top left-hand corner of the letter was the unmistakable coat of arms of Peterborough and its motto – Upon This Rock – emblazoned within it.
The letter from Cllr Fitzgerald began cheerfully enough too, reflecting in his first paragraph about the “move towards spring” and “lighter nights coming ever closer”.
But upon further reading, the purpose of the letter became much clearer as enclosed with it was a survey from Peterborough Conservatives who (until May 4 and may be beyond) run the city council.
And with a reply-paid envelope lurking inside, Cllr Fitzgerald was keen to hear residents views on all manner of topics.
The NHS, cost of living, street safety and in particular which party you voted for at the general election of 2019 and local elections in 2021 were among survey questions.
It also included an appeal to join the Conservatives delivering newsletters, finding out more about becoming a councillor or even displaying an election poster.
But Cllr Fitzgerald, in sending out the letters to residents of West ward, which includes South Bretton and Longthorpe, is facing a bit of a backlash.
Labour’s Parliamentary candidate Andrew Pakes is among those questioning whether Cllr Fitzgerald ought to have used council headed notepaper to send out party political literature.
“The surveys also ask for voting intention which is a big no-no when passing off as council literature,” he said.
“I’m encouraging people to email the Monitoring Officer to ask if they approved it and if it is right that council headed paper can be used for party political purposes during purdah.”
Purdah, as defined by the Local Government Association, “describes the period of time immediately before elections or referendums when specific restrictions on communications activity are in place.
“The term ‘heightened sensitivity’ is also used”.
Whether the letter – which is dated March 2023 – breaches those restrictions is not known.
Meanwhile Cllr Fitzgerald has assured residents, in a footnote to the letter, that “this correspondence has been produced and delivered at no cost to the taxpayer”.
Cllr Fitzgerald told me today: “The last time I checked John – I was still a city councillor so yes, I am an elected member of Peterborough City council and can communicate as a councillor with residents whenever and however I want as their elected member.
“I often write to people on the same letterhead all year round. I shall be writing to the prime minster next week on another matter. There is no law preventing this use as far as I’m aware.”
Cllr Fitzgerald said the letter “was not produced by the council or from within the council nor was it funded in any way at tax payers expense.
“It was written by me, and mail merged by my external office and then all hand delivered before the election period even began save for about 250.
“As the person who usually does a particular round is observing Ramadan so was unavailable – these though will be accounted for in any expense returns when they become due but will amount to a few sheets of paper and a few envelopes.”
He added: “I am aware that some people and I presume opposition parties and other a political activists have asked the same question of my monitoring officer but clearly, they don’t know what is allowed and what is not! I hope that helps to clarify matters for you.
“As for the surveys these again are sent out all year round and do not specifically relate to an election. Every ward does them and so do the opposition – the Liberal Democrats being very prolific in this area of publicity as it is a good way to find out what is important to people and where they live.”
He added: “The party survey is not on city council letterhead, and it clearly says is it from me as a Conservative councillor – nobody could mistake the survey as being from the council once you filled it in and put it in the envelope which clearly says where to return it too!
“And many many people have already done that! And it was enclosed separately along with the letter from me as a current councillor and I said that too.”
WEST WARD CANDIDATES
Lorraine Andison – Labour Party
Wayne Fitzgerald – Conservative Party (current councillor)
Colette Francis – Green Party
Polly Geraghty – Liberal Democrats
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