So, the elections are over for another year … and thanks to everyone who voted Liberal Democrat in Rayleigh this May. We had two councillors elected, and actually got more votes than the Conservatives. (They don’t like us mentioning that!)
And we have had one or two successes in the council chamber lately. After a lot of work, led by my colleague June Lumley, in the autumn we will get back a cheap rate 40p parking charge for the first half-hour in council car parks. We were also pleased to see that you will be able to pay by mobile phone (handy if you are stuck at the dentists, or getting a perm!) We’re still not satisfied – we’d like to see free parking after 6 pm to encourage early evening trade. But we’ll keep battling away.
However, I want to write about something that alarms me – not as a Lib Dem – but as a resident of Rayleigh. It’s about how the District Council’s most important committee, the “Cabinet” (officially called the “Executive”) is going from bad to worse from a Rayleigh point of view.
The new situation is that no Rayleigh councillors are in the cabinet at all. It’s astonishing and worrying. And it matters. Rayleigh is by far the largest town in our district; it has the biggest shopping centre; it contributes well over 40% of the total income to the council. All the other large villages and towns are represented. But there’s no Rayleigh member to express a view in important meetings.
I guess I should explain the background a bit. The cabinet consists of the Conservative leader of the council, Terry Cutmore, plus 7 other Conservatives that he picks. Councillors who aren’t in the cabinet aren’t normally allowed to speak at all at the meetings – even if you want to point out a mistake, or even if they are discussing part of your council ward. That’s unlike most other council meetings.
Other councils – like Essex County Council – allow minority parties to have a representative in their cabinet so they can at least make suggestions. And if a Lib Dem were included in the cabinet we would put forward a councillor from Rayleigh. But unfortunately the Conservatives decided the cabinet would have 8 Conservatives and 0 others.
There is still some control over things. For example, we can ask for something to be dealt with at a meeting of the Full Council instead of the cabinet – that’s what we did with car parking. Though by that stage the Conservative councillors were so whipped into line that hardly any of them spoke and the whole meeting on car parking charges, budgets, types of machines and methods of payment was over in 16 minutes!
Decisions can also be ‘called in’ by 3 backbench members or by the Chair of the Review Committee. But quite often things can’t be called in at all because some decisions are urgent.
Now I’ve never liked the cabinet. I prefer the traditional system of having committees, where all councillors are fundamentally equal and everyone can have their say and every part of the district can be represented. The old system is also about £46,000 a year cheaper, because the council wouldn’t be paying substantial extra payments to councillors.
And this year the Cabinet has no Rayleigh councillors at all. There’s one from Ashingdon, one from Barling , one from Hawkwell, two from Hockley, two from Rochford and one from Great Wakering . A totally unbalanced arrangement – which may well put Rayleigh at a disadvantage when some issues are discussed. There are 12 Conservative District Councillors in Rayleigh – not one of them has been included.
By the way, the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Council this year are both from Rayleigh. You’ll see their photos in the papers a lot as they visit places, and we wish them well. But these are really ceremonial posts, and have nothing to do with the cabinet.
Another worrying sign is the “Local Development Framework Subcommittee”. That’s a long title, but this is basically a panel that decides which bits of the green belt get houses built on them. It’s made up of 5 Conservatives and 1 Lib Dem. I’m the Lib Dem, so Rayleigh and Rawreth have some representation. But guess what – the Tories haven’t picked any Rayleigh members for this one either. Why is that ?
As Lib Dems , we will carry on regardless. At least we aren’t under the Tory whip and can say what we like, which helps us achieve things. We will push to get big issues discussed at Full Council (like car parking). But it’s worrying to see that the ordinary Rayleigh backbench Conservatives have been completely outmanoeuvred and sidelined.