I would imagine that most Lib Dem councillors only have experience of one council (or at least, only of councils in a particular area). And so we fondly imagine that most authorities must work in the same broad way as our own. Having worked as a Section 9 political assistant for two very political London boroughs, I imagined that my own home county of Cornwall would be similar. Nope. We have independents, we have too many councillors and too many pointless meetings and we ‘don’t do politics’.
Back in June the Lib Dems didn’t do too well in Cornwall. The old County administration actually did most things right but got the crucial bit about communicating that work horribly wrong. And so we came out of the first unitary elections with just 38 of the 123 seats. Yep, you read that right – 123 councillors each representing single member wards. To win overall control, we would have had to have a group larger than the Parliamentary Party.
The good news was that the Tories didn’t win overall control either – with 50 seats. There were 32 independents – of whom 31 decided to operate as a group and to go into coalition with the Tories – and three Mebyon Kernow councillors. Not a single Labour member was elected and the former MP for Falmouth and Camborne got just 254 votes, coming third in the ward in which she stood.
Our biggest concern going into the election was that the council would be officer controlled. So we spent a long time (probably a bit too long) sorting out a manifesto and delivery plan to hand to officers on day one. Of course, we never got that chance. The Conservatives asked us to join a rainbow coalition to run the council ‘for the good of the people of Cornwall’. We chose not to take them up on that offer. Not because we wanted to be pointlessly oppositionist (if that’s a word), but because we believed that whoever was in control, they needed decent scrutiny and alternative ideas put forward.
Taking this course of action has, however, meant that we have been denied any seats of power at all. Of course we are not in the cabinet. But we have no scrutiny, planning or licensing committee chairs or vice chairs either and there are a plethora of ‘panels’ which sometimes try to exclude us altogether.
In London, I was used to watching robust political debate on just about everything. Here in Cornwall, that is an extremely rare thing. There is a desire to get consensus wherever possible and, whilst admirable in intent, it can lead to not taking any risks or not taking a decision at all. It means that in many cases officers take the lead and go unchecked. We’re working hard to battle against this tendency, but the constitution is set up in such a way as to restrict opportunities for debate whilst, perversely, encouraging more and more meetings.
I said earlier that we went into the election with a definite manifesto. The Conservatives didn’t and so we asked early on for their plans for the Council. We especially wanted to know how the demands of the Independents in coalition would be dealt with. We now have a draft of the Council’s business plan but no political manifesto and nothing concrete to judge them against. Perhaps they are playing safe, but I suspect they will rue the decision. With no stated ambitions there is drift. The first acts of the new administration were to vote through a review of allowances, to put all localism on hold and to reject a call to sign up to the 10:10 campaign.
Seeking consensus means that the budget process is much more open than was the case in London. We already have draft proposals for this year and the three that follow. But surely a sharper political mind within the Conservative camp would have realised that closing public toilets, introducing fortnightly rubbish collections and cutting community grants wouldn’t sit well with voters, particularly when also pushing for a £16,000 taxi budget for the Council Chairman.
That’s where we stand at the moment. Next time (if ALDC allow me another column) I’ll talk about our efforts to bring decision making closer to the people.
Alex Folkes is Cornwall Councillor for Launceston Centrallansonboy.blogspot.com