OPINION: Alliance challenges 'political point scoring' by opposition leader

Happiness is when you come together.

The three party leaders that form the rainbow alliance at county council: Cllr Tom Sanderson (Independent) with Cllr Elisa Meschini (Lab) to his left and Lib Dem and coalition leader Cllr Lucy Nethsingha. They have responded jointly to an opinion piece by Cllr Steve Count (Con). - Credit: Archant

Earlier this month, Cllr Steve Count, leader of the opposition Conservative group on Cambridgeshire County Council, contributed a column critical of the rainbow alliance now running the council. 

Cllr Count attacked decision making and described it broadly as a “nail in the coffin” for local democracy.  

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dem), the independent group leader Tom Sanderson, and Elisa Meschini, Labour leader, offer this collective response. 

One would expect a seasoned council veteran like Cllr Count to be well aware of the various routes available to anyone who has concerns over constitutional matters.  

One would also expect a politician of his experience to understand the basic point of constitutional amendments. 

They aren’t an end in and of themselves, but a tool at the service of the rather more important end goal of policy setting and service delivery. 

It is therefore a little surprising that he would choose the route of a newspaper article to deliver a rather incoherent list of increasingly obscure references to constitutional amendments. 

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This can’t have been the easiest to follow for readers who haven’t been to all meetings or read all papers produced over three committee cycles since May. 

However, to paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged by commentators who follow the Westminster bubble that, during the weekly PMQs, the most important audience are the backbenchers on one’s own side.  

It may therefore stand to reason that Cllr Count’s target audience wasn’t necessarily members of the public. 

Rather it may have been the backbenchers on his own increasingly fractured side, many of whom have reacted to the loss of power with a remarkable lack of grace or self-reflection and are now refusing to get behind even something as basic and uncontroversial as the vaccine effort. 

It is nevertheless important for us in the new administration to explain the purpose behind the constitutional changes we are making, and how they are intended to aid us in delivering essential services for Cambridgeshire residents during this difficult winter. 

  

Over the last six months we have: 

 * Continued the free school meals programme for an increasing number of eligible Cambridgeshire children in the school holidays, topping up government funding to the full amount of £15 per week per child 

* Announced a household support fund throughout the winter months that doesn’t just support families with children, but other vulnerable individuals too, helping with essential bills and support 

* Delivered the real living wage for all council employees, with a view to widening this to contractors and supplier organisations over the coming years 

* Drew up a revised Climate Change strategy for presentation in December, with more ambitious net zero plans for the council’s own activities, and bringing forward the net zero target for the whole of Cambridgeshire towards 2030 

* Agreed to take 22 of our own premises off fossil fuel reliant heating, and to financially support all our maintained schools to do the same as their heating systems reach the end of life, already agreeing major projects at four schools 

* Agreed to invest more money to support those at risk of flooding in response to a motion proposed by a Conservative councillor, demonstrating that we are willing to work collaboratively cross party when Conservative councillors have sensible suggestions to make 

* Increased gully clearing in communities most at risk 

* Invested an immediate £109k in urgent and seasonally dependent site repairs and maintenance of our open spaces 

* Begun a biodiversity audit across our land to help with the countywide ‘doubling nature’ agenda and the council’s commitment to 20% biodiversity net gain 

* Instituted a library service review due to report next month, looking at options for removing the 50p book reservation charge for not just for those on Universal Credit, but for all library users 

* Initiated an independent review of This Land, the council’s arms-length property company, due to report early in the New Year 

* Revised the council’s whistleblowing policy and strengthened the policy on members’ conflict of interest 

* Reduced the cost of councillors’ allowances by an annual £60k, and incentivised diversity of elected members by championing a proposal for parental leave. 

We need the slow-moving machinery of a large organisation such as the county council to speed up, and we have made great strides in doing this already.   

In relation to substitute members being agreed at short notice, we make no apology at all.   

We are still in a pandemic, having pushed to become an Enhanced Response Area at the beginning of this month to draw down additional support as infection levels are rising and putting essential services under great strain.  

Because the Government failed to renew legislation that allows councils to meet remotely, we must meet in person.   

We will not demand that councillors with COVID, who have been pinged, or who are clinically vulnerable put themselves or others at risk, so we need a sensible policy for ensuring substitute members can attend at short notice. 

If Cllr Count really has concerns and wants to raise these properly then he should take up our suggestions, which we will repeat.  

Cllr Count could raise his concerns about constitutional matters with the chair of audit and accounts committee, to that committee itself, to the constitution and ethics committee, or to a full council meeting. 

It is a shame that Cllr Count chooses to raise matters in the way he has, which may lead the more cynical reader to conclude that he does not have genuine concerns about democracy or delivering real and tangible improvements for the people in our county.  

Perhaps he is merely interested in political point scoring. 

Or perhaps last May’s electoral verdict is proving too hard to come to terms with, and the coherent narrative he needs to consolidate his floundering position in the wilderness of opposition just isn’t coming.

His readers, within or without his unruly group, may need to look elsewhere. 

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