Whilst a new administration has now been voted in to run East Devon District Council, the bad language and behavior of some Conservative Councillors, led to a delay of some 15 hours in the election meeting being concluded.
At last year’s District Council elections, the voters of East Devon ended 47 years of consecutive Conservative rule by electing a majority of non-Conservative Councillors. Unfortunately, no single grouping of Councillors was able to form a majority Administration.
A group “The Independent Group” which last May had the largest number of Councillors in its grouping, was able last may to be elected to run the Council. This grouping consisted of Councillors who stood as Independents in the election. They had nothing broader than this to bind them together. They had no collective set of objectives or values. None the less they were the largest grouping and were given the responsibility to run the Council.
Over the past year The Independent Group administration has fallen apart which given it had no real collective vision was in some ways not a surprise. Equally, as this grouping of Councillors had not anticipated being thrown together to lead the Council it was unsurprising that they struggled to maintain unity of purpose.
After nearly five decades of single party dominance in East Devon, for others to take time to work out how to work together across their wide political spectrum is understandable.
Many Councillors, including myself, who were outside of both the Conservative Party and The Independent Group, were unhappy as the months rolled on at how business was being done and the priorities that both groupings were seemingly supporting.
At the same time some disquiet within the ruling Independent Group started to bubble to the surface and various other groupings – East Devon Alliance, Liberal Democrats, Greens and several Independent Councillors – started to discuss the possibility of abroad coalition being formed with the objective of seeking to attract the majority of Councillors, which would be 31 or more, with a common set of values, as well as social and political objectives.
This broad coalition initially was formed of 24 Councillors into the Democratic Alliance which included 12 East Devon Alliance, 8 Liberal Democrat, 2 Green and 2 Independent Councillors. A group of 7 Councillors then decided to leave The Independent Group and to form the Independent Progressives and to align themselves with the Democratic Alliance to achieve a working majority on the Council.
All of this left the still ruling Independent Group with only 10 Councillors and the Conservative group with 19. Having a ruling group of only 10 out of the total 60 Councillors was clearly untenable and therefore on 18 May the Leader, Ben Ingham, and his Cabinet resigned. As I write the Independent Group now only consists of 6 Councillors.
On 28 May at a virtual Council meeting a vote was taken as to who should become the new Leader of the council and form the next administration. A new majority administration – formed by the Democratic Alliance and the Independent Progressives – was elected. This new administration, led by Paul Arnott received 32 votes, whilst the Conservative Party, led by Andrew Moulding received 20 votes and 8 Councillors abstained from voting.
The new Leader of the Council, Paul Arnott has now announced his key appointments, and I am pleased to have been asked to serve as the number two in the Finance Portfolio. It’s going to be a tough time ahead for this Council and this new administration on many fronts, not least the financial one as the Council’s income has plummeted during the Covid 19 lockdown period.
This will make for a really big challenge in order to not only balance the books in this 2020/21 financial year, but also over the medium term of the next few years. It doesn’t take a financial genius to recognise that some very tough financial decisions are going to have to be taken whilst still trying to maintain and deliver quality services that residents rightly expect.
I cannot leave this story without reporting on the problems that the Council, its Officers, Councillors and members of the public who were following the 28 May online Council meeting faced. Officers did a great job in corralling and keeping all 60 Councillors linked in on line via Zoom to hold the meeting to elect the new Leader and his key appointments.
Throughout the meeting the demeanour of some of our Conservative colleagues had been less than positive. When it came to each of us in turn having to say whether we supported Paul Arnott or Andrew Moulding for Leader various Councillors could be heard to mutter disapprovingly of the way some others were voting.
Indeed, several Councillors could occasionally be heard uttering swear words and indeed as we got to the point where the 58th Councillor was asked for their vote the YouTube live feed to the public was cut off by YouTube. As a Councillor at this point swore, and as this violated the terms upon which YouTube allow the feed to be broadcast the feed was cut and the meeting had to be halted.
Although at the point where the meeting had to be suspended it was clear that Paul Arnott had sufficient votes to be declared the new Leader of the Council, this was not possible until all Councillors present had been allowed to exercise their votes. After much effort by Officers, it became apparent why the live feed had been cut and so the meeting was temporarily suspended, thus requiring everyone to reconvene on 29 May to allow the final three Councillors to cast their votes and finally for Paul Arnott to be declared the new Leader and to then announce his key appointments.
I find it incredibly disappointing that my colleagues within the Conservative Party have expressed faux annoyance at the fact that those of us in the democratic Alliance and the Independent Progressives sought to legitimise our majority and to establish a new administration at a time when usually face to face Annual meeting of the Council would allow us to have a vote upon who should lead the Council for the next year.
They cynically chose to hid behind Covid 19 as an excuse for not holding a virtual Annual Council meeting despite councils being allowed to use virtual meetings to conduct business. Indeed, I am more than disappointed at the way in which the Conservative group argued that holding a meeting to virtually elect a new Leader would be to divert the Council’s attention and resources from the challenges of Covid 19.
Indeed, all of the unpleasantness that some of the Conservative group displayed at the virtual meeting on 28 May, as well as the unprofessional and inappropriate use of swear words in the meeting, which led to the meeting having to be abandoned and reconvened, place far more strain and waste of time and resources on the Council, its Officers and its Members, than actually holding a meeting to ensure democracy carried on during Covid 19.
So, as the new administration starts to get to grips with improving and delivering quality services to residents, I am mindful, particularly as I have now been appointed to the number two financial role, of the significant challenge facing the Council as its income has been sorely hit as a result of Covid 19. It will make for some tough challenges ahead.
I hope that as we move forward my Conservative colleagues will stop playing political games and start to behave as the experienced professionals they claim to be, but fail to demonstrate by their often-puerile actions. Its time for them to get behind the new administration and to support us as we try to meet the real challenges facing this Council and its residents.