Jim Parker: When trying to champion the community you hold close to your heart can sometimes badly backfire

Head of councillor

Steve Darling - Credit: Torbay Council

Steve Darling’s big thing is about looking after people, the community and the Bay’s residents.  

The Torbay Council leader has had plenty of opportunity to turn those words into action across many projects and initiatives since taking over at the helm at the Town Hall thanks to a power-sharing coalition (he says partnership) between his Liberal Democrats and the Independents just over two years ago.  

In fact, if I had a quid for every time he mentioned the words ‘consultation’, ‘collaboration’, ‘partnerships’, ‘community’ and ‘engagement’ I would be a millionaire ten times over  

That’s why the predicament in which he now finds himself is even more amazing as he has unwittingly upset sections of that very same community he holds so close to his heart. It’s all to do with refugees and housing.  

The timing must have been something to do with it. One minute he was commenting on the growing housing crisis in the Bay where homeless families are having to be housed in hotels, B&Bs or even in accommodation away from the English Riviera because there is no room at the inn in the resort. The next he was being asked about the Bay being able to offer help and homes for the refugees caught in the horrendous Afghanistan crisis.   

He made the mistake of mixing the two. Putting it bluntly, he opened his mouth and in went the size nines.  

He claimed the council wasn’t in a position to help due to its own acute housing crisis. He then went on to add that he didn’t feel Torbay’s ethnic mix would be suitable for Afghan refugees. 

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I'm sure he didn't mean to cause upset as he attempted to emphasise the local housing crisis, but a helping hand of some kind should have been held out to the refugees forced to flee their homes and he knows that now. 

Critics were quick to pounce. But when some leading players from within your own ranks start to kick you know you’ve got things wrong.  

Fellow Lib Dem Jermaine Atiya-Alla, who became the Bay’s first black councillor in 2019, has been championing the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic]) community locally, leading a review of how they are treated and chairing Torbay's new racism review panel. 

Head shot of councillor

Jermaine Atiya-Alla - Credit: Torbay Council

Ironically, the panel was originally proposed by Cllr Darling in response to racial incidents in the Bay in 2020 following the death of George Floyd in the United States and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. 

Cllr Atiya-Alla was quoted as saying: "If you were in any other public sector organisation and you came out the way the comments did, if I was in that position or in councillor Darling’s position I would find it very hard to continue to be the frontman.”  

Cllr Darling has subsequently apologised and the council has since encouraged landlords who have an empty property available for a minimum of one year to step forward to assist.   

Cllr Atiya-Alla says: "I am pleased that the administration have decided to welcome refugees into our community. I am really pleased that the community are stepping up with offers of accommodation and clothing and making donations when people can afford to. It has been brilliant in terms of the community rallying around."

But as far as Cllr Darling ‘s position was concerned, he said: "At the end of the day he is leading the third largest public sector organisation in Torbay. There are cases out there where councillors, not necessarily leaders, have made alleged racist remarks and whether they have meant them or not they have stood down from their posts.”  

Cllr Atiya-Alla is adamant: "This is a confidence issue and a moral argument. My comments are a matter of public record. I stand by them.  He may have apologised but I believe the comments are still offensive to parts of the community.  At the end of the day he has to go. He can remain as a councillor but he cannot remain as leader." 

He was quick to emphasise: "Steve Darling is not a racist or a racist person but I believe his comments were offensive and discriminatory. " 

Will he continue in his role? He says: "I am still determined to carry on with this important role and stand up for the BAME community. " 

He added: "Steve and me have not had a big conversation about this. My door is open for him to have a chat."  

I have known Steve Darling for more years than I care to remember! As I say, putting the Bay residents first, engaging, etc etc have all been his watchwords - so much so that the only time we may have disagreed on issues is when he insists sticking to them. Perhaps a clear-the-air meeting is just what is needed here. It's time to move on and watch what you say....