Derby City Council

Party first; the week the Tory Council ‘faced the music’ and its credibility fell apart

May 2018 was a pivotal point in Derby’s political history as it saw the end of the “toxic Banwait era” Labour lost its majority but was still the largest party.

The Tory manifesto heralded a new approach:

“Despite the hard work and best efforts of staff across the Council, under Labour control, Derby City Council is broken and has become dysfunctional. For too long, Labour have pursued their own political agenda.

We will approach every decision we make by remembering that we are public servants elected to deliver what is best for our City.

Derby first, not party first”

The position had become untenable.

The “agreement”

The Conservatives had reached undefined arrangements with UKIP (now Brexit Party) and the Liberal Democrats, allowing them to take control of the Council.

Despite many calls from the Labour group over whether there were documented agreements in place between the parties, the Leader, Cllr Poulter, repeatedly denied this in the Council Chamber.

The early part of the Conservative administration was consumed by the A52 project overspend, and the future of the Sinfin Waste Incinerator; both of which were easily passed off as legacies from the Labour Council. Although the new Council did proceed, as planned with a number of commitments, particularly the reinstatement of the brown bin scheme, and “deep cleans” across the City, it is the “slow burn” flagship promises that have finally unravelled and begun to undermine their credibility.

Assembly Rooms

The most visible and controversial project in the May 2018 manifesto was the reversal of the Labour plan to build a new performance venue in place of the fire-damaged Assembly Rooms, costing £44m. The manifesto goes on to say:

“We are confident this can be delivered with a budget of around £10million and, unlike Labour’s plan to demolish and rebuild the venue, our plan would not require an unnecessary burden on the Derby Taxpayer from massive borrowing.”

Although not specified, the clear implication was that it could be re-opened in a few years – it just required a “lick of paint”. It transpired quite quickly that it needed an on-going subsidy ( and therefore a burden on the tax payer) and had little support from Senior Council Officers, local businesses, leisure professionals, and a good proportion of the public.  In a Derby News article which examined the business case it showed that the new venue would be more cost effective in the long run.

As the budget increased and the programme slipped, the Conservatives remained steadfast in the face of much opposition and the unfolding circumstances.

Improving democracy with the Committee system

The commitment that was less visible to the general public but fundamental to the democratic process inside the Council was the change to the Committee system.

The first pledge in the 2018 manifesto under the heading of “delivering fundamental change” (my emphasis)

“A Conservative-led Council will bring about a major change in the way the Council is run by moving to a Committee System and end the Leader & Cabinet model that is currently in place.

The new Committee System, following a suitable preparation and transition period, will give all Councillors, regardless of political party, a greater say in the Council’s priorities and every aspect of how decisions are made.

Crucially, this will also allow formal engagement with partners across the City and the public to ensure they are part of the decision-making process.”

This was based on the premise that:

“The Conservatives believe that Labour’s “Leader & Cabinet” approach to governance is no longer fit for purpose in Derby. We believe that fundamental change is urgently needed.”

It was the change to the Committee system that would bring about the necessary transformation to “broken” Derby.

“A week is a long time in politics….”

On Tuesday the announcement was made that the Assembly Rooms refurbishment cost had spiralled to £30m – an inevitability given that the project was going to take slightly longer than a few years.  The project was cancelled.

On Wednesday, at Full Council, a report was tabled that the Committee system would not be pursued as Council Officers, and the cross party working group, couldn’t find a solution that met the pre-defined 7 principles.

Also on Wednesday, Cllr A W Graves revealed in his speech that there were in fact agreements in place between UKIP, the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives – something which Cllr Poulter had consistently denied.  Both agreements broadly committed the parties to support the Conservatives, politically, in return for the implementation of the Committee system.  Cllr Poulter tried to split hairs on the specific wording and intent of the agreement.  Cllr Graves felt that the Conservatives were being “disingenuous”

Comment

There is no question that Derby City Council is a lot less chaotic than it was before May 2018. More measured, and more covert. The Conservative administration is not as “open and transparent” as it aspires to be.

Cllrs Poulter and Barker distanced themselves from the failure of the plan for the Committee system by “blaming” the officers and the cross-party working group. To paraphrase “….they couldn’t come up with a solution that rigidly met all of the criteria”.  Nothing was presented which stated the extent of the compromise that was necessary in order to make the system work – this could then have been put to Full Council and voted on.

It was the number one commitment which would have transformed “broken Derby” and not an esoteric indulgent luxury; a replacement for something which was not “fit for purpose”. There demeanour was not determined – just lacklustre and uninterested. No longer necessary, now they are in office!

One would have expected that the Conservatives would have learnt from the A52 fiasco, and listened to people around them rather than fobbing of dissenters when it came to serious questioning of the Assembly Rooms project. The problem wasn’t unforeseeable, it was entirely predictable.

In my interview with Cllr Matthew Holmes in April 2018, the then leader of the Conservative group, I asked:

DN: On the Assembly Rooms – have you done any form of survey that confirms that it can be re-opened successfully with just £10m funding and that the 4 years it has been closed hasn’t resulted in structural deterioration ?

Cllr Holmes: From Day 1, I believe that Labour decided that they didn’t want to re-open it.  If they wanted to have done that, they could have done it for around £7-£10m. The building hasn’t deteriorated, in my view, at all, since then?

Are you a buildings expert?

Council officers have not said that there is a problem with the building, today. I’m absolutely convinced that a maximum of £10m will bring it back into use. I think we could actually do some improvements, like, the front-facing sections which could bring in revenue.

As soon as the budget exceeded £10m it should have been stopped. The dithering and “travelling hopefully” that all would come good in the end has the bad stains of the A52 on it and was ultimately poor judgement.

Telling Full Council that there were no agreements between the Conservatives and the 2 smaller parties was not “disingenuous”, nor “poor judgement”…it was simply “dishonest”. There may be some contorted version of events, or wording, which could in a legalistic way construe these newly publicised agreements as “not-agreements” – but that’s not being “open and transparent” that’s more “obtuse and opaque”.

It was certainly the week that the bottom dropped out of the Conservative administration’s credibility. Perhaps the “gloves will come off” more with the opposition now the honeymoon is finally over.

More the case of “Party first, not Derby first”

Categories: Derby City Council

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