An Opportune Time
As Leader of the Labour and Cooperative Group Leader at Hertsmere Borough Council it’s my job to ensure that opposition Councillors, representing thousands of voters across the Borough, scrutinise the actions of our Conservative run Council and hold its leadership to account. This involves staying abreast of a wide array of issues and policy areas whilst relentlessly shining the spotlight on problems so that lessons can be learned for the future.
The cut and thrust of local government often reflect the national arena. This is as true of Hertsmere as anywhere else. Right now, issues around the relationship between big business and politicians, the Owen Patterson affair, and the influence of property developers over the Tory Party are all playing out at a national level. We are certainly seeing these issues play out here in Hertsmere against the backdrop of unprecedented levels of concern about the Draft Local Plan that the Council are currently consulting on.
All of this makes it a particularly opportune time to launch this regular blog in which I hope to post regular updates on key Council meetings and major issues around the Borough. This is just one part of our broader initiative to bring new levels of openness, transparency, and public engagement to the work of our Labour and Cooperative Councillors on behalf of people across Hertsmere. In this inaugural posting I’ll be focussing on the events of November’s meeting of the Council which took place just over a week ago on 17 November.
You can watch the archived webcast of the whole meeting here: https://hertsmere.moderngov.co.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=106&MId=10967
As ever we welcome your input, ideas and feedback on any aspect of Council policy and activity. You can contact me directly via email@example.com
The Democratic Deficit
Our November meeting included a record number of decision reports. These reports involved the council making commitments and decisions on key policy matters or major resource allocation. It is always a challenge to use the scant time allowed for these meetings to achieve a balance of decisions, reporting, scrutiny, and policy discussion. However, it was clear to me that the sheer magnitude of this agenda made it almost certain that key parts of the agenda, such as Opposition Business and scrutiny committee reports would not be reached. To try and avoid this democratic deficit I opened the meeting with a proposal that rather than invoke the guillotine procedure (which effectively kills unreached business), Council should adjourn the meeting to consider any unreached items at a later date. Despite having the full support of the Liberal Democrat Group, the Tories used their majority to quash this proposal, thereby increasing the magnitude of Hertsmere’s democratic deficit.
Grass Verges – The Only Cut the Tories Won’t Make
More positively, Hertsmere’s Council agendas allow for public participation in the form of questions to Executive Members and Committee Chairs. I applaud the local resident who pressed the Tory leadership on grass cutting in public spaces and the general state of waste and recycling. Part of the problem here is confusion as to exactly who is responsible for which areas – especially as some parts of Hertsmere have a three-tier system of Local Government. The Tories hide behind this as an excuse. Labour has been proposing an alternative. However, the Council continue to ignore our proposal that they produce a publicly accessible map setting out the different ownership of grass verges enabling local people to direct complaints about their upkeep to the correct authority. After all, local people pay considerable sums of Council Tax. They should not have to put up with failed services and no clear information as to who is responsible.
Does He who Pays the Piper call the Tune?
Next up is the opportunity for Councillors to question the Executive and Committee Chairs. We recently succeeded in having this item moved to a more prominent part of the agenda after consistently not reaching it for almost a year. These Councillor Questions are a key moment to really hold the Executive to account. I used this opportunity to probe two senior Conservatives, one of who chairs the Planning Committee, on the original sources of funding for their election campaigns. This was a result of concerns about the so-called South Hertfordshire Business Club acting as a vehicle for Tory politicians to avoid declaring funding from property developers. You can watch the exchange and judge their responses for yourself here.
Next up was the first of the plethora of Decision Reports. My colleague, Borehamwood Kenilworth Ward Councillor Dr Dan Ozarow made a fantastic speech on the failure of the council to facilitate a genuine consultation process in regard to the draft local plan and the chaos and confusion created by launching a consultation on the South West Herts Joint Strategic Plan whilst the Hertsmere Local Plan consultation is still underway. You can view the full speech here.
Vision, or the Lack Thereof
Next it was time to discuss the Council’s Corporate Plan. A hefty document nicely presented – but as ever, the devil will be in the detail. I pointed out that we seemed to have managed fine without one for the last couple of years. I did manage to get a commitment that the images in the document would be changed to reflect the reality that the wonderful village of South Mimms is a thriving community – not just a motorway service station. When we reached Report 9 on Council Finances I welcomed the fact, that albeit belatedly, the Council had finally implemented my request for key financial monitoring data to be tabled before Council on a more frequent basis. We went on to plough through detailed Reports on gambling policy, licencing and other procedural matters. Whilst the public often only see the short debate in the chamber, they often don’t realise that our Group spends a great deal of time analysing these reports in advance with one Councillor being delegated to do further research and lead our response on each item.
Report 13 proposed a review of some of the smaller parish councils in the Borough, including Ridge. I asked the council to prioritise keeping the unique character of each village and settlement in all future decisions. I opposed any move to merge, scrap or change bodies of local government without consulting local people. The recent rejuvenation of South Mimms Parish Council (in which Labour Councillor Chris Myers has had a lead role) is an exemplar of how the lowest tier of local government can thrive with the right leadership. Some people have suggested that these changes are more about the collapse of the Tory vote in recent elections around some of the Parishes. I couldn’t possibly comment…
Stations, Places, Polling & Pubs
The next report included the outcome of the most recent polling station review. (Evidently we are now meant to call them ‘polling places’.) We were pleased that our recommendation that the Toby Pub in Borehamwood’s Kenilworth Ward no longer be used as a polling centre in future elections has been accepted. Not only does it risk disenfranchising members of the Muslim community who had objected – but it is often a cause of much distress for political parties on election day when we send volunteers to check turnout and they mysteriously disappear into the pub for an extended period!
Marking Their Own Homework
Report 16 on new Committee Terms of Reference stems from a Policy Review Committee investigation in Hertsmere’s scrutiny arrangements. Despite early resistance to these plans from parts of the Tory Group, I was happy to second the final version of this report which will set up the new Finance and Investment scrutiny committee that my review recommended. This will enable backbench Councillors to scrutinise key Council functions that are delivered by external subsidiaries. In the past, despite being public assets, these bodies have flown under the radar. Labour Councillors have been at the vanguard of highlighting how this lack of scrutiny led to poor and in some cases illegal use of public funds. The only fly in the ointment was an (uncharacteristic) slip up by Lead Scrutiny Member Cllr Paul Hodgson Jones in which he appeared to announce that the Committee would be chaired by a member of the Executive. He quickly backtracked when I challenged him on this. The Tories already chair the two existing scrutiny committees. On matters as important as this it just won’t do for them to continue to mark their own homework. That would taint the progress we have made by setting up this new committee.
Lack of Vision – Tory Leader Morris Bright’s Technocratic Approach to Leadership
After this marathon run of Decision Reports, we finally reached the report of the Leader of the Council, Cllr Morris Bright. This is the moment at which he is meant to report back on key matters and then respond to the two opposition leaders and other Councillors. Over recent years the Tory administration have sought to curtail this opportunity for open debate by restricting the topics discussed and cutting the time allocated to the main Opposition Leader. Cllr Bright’s style is to restrict his remarks to a dry list of bullet points based upon proceedings at recent meetings of the Executive and other key Committees. I have urged him to use this opportunity to set out his vision and narrative for the Borough so that this time can be used for the type of debate about the future of our Borough that local people tell us they want to hear. Instead, Cllr Bright persists with his technocratic approach.
As the main Opposition Group Leader, I am allocated a response speech lasting ten minutes, or the same length of time taken by the Leader if he exceeds ten minutes. This can be the most challenging part of Council meetings because it is tough to predict exactly what the Leader is going to say so there is a limit to how much can be prepared in advance. I opened my remarks by noting that this was the last Council meeting of a very difficult year. I paid tribute to all Council officers and our frontline workers who showed such immense dedication throughout the continuation of the pandemic and in addressing the new challenges as we adapt to the ‘new normal’. Like much of the world, Hertsmere has changed forever. The way we work, the way we think, the way we act. Thankfully, our consistent and growing community spirit, the ethos of volunteering, striving to look after those less fortunate, supporting our local charities and food banks are at the heart of what makes Hertsmere a special place.
I continued my remarks by setting out the strongest possible condemnation of recent activity around the Borough from extreme right-wing, fascist groups including Britain First and Patriotic Alternative. Labour will ensure that Hertsmere is always an anti-racist anti-Nazi area.
As the hour was late and it was clear that our Group’s motion on local NHS provision would not be discussed I urged the Leader to act on the crumbling of local GP services. I highlighted that the Chair of our regional NHS Clinical Commissioning Group himself, had recently raised the alarm. Worryingly, his remarks are at odds with the information provided to Hertsmere’s Planning team by CCG staff. This presents the danger that Hertsmere’s emerging Local Plan is predicated on incorrect data and information in relation to primary care infrastructure. Despite the continued Tory reluctance to have a full open debate on this topic, Labour will ensure that it is tabled at every single Council meeting until the debate actually happens.
Heating or Eating? Choices People Should Never Need to Make
Finally, I ended my remarks by highlighting the devastating position that working families have been left in by the Tory Government as winter sets in and Christmas approaches. Highest taxation since the last war, a botched social care plan that eats into savings, national insurance increases, council tax hikes, cuts to Universal Credit, record hikes to energy prices, rising food bills and Rishi Sunak’s new stealth tax that I revealed will cost over 800 self-employed sole traders in Hertsmere thousands of pounds over the next couple of years. I reflected that whilst I was glad to have succeeded in getting the Executive to agree to increase the 2022/23 local Council Tax support cushion to £100k, the reality is that this Tory Council, like Boris Johnson’s Tory Government are letting local people down. Following our local electoral gains last May it is increasingly clear that people in Hertsmere see Labour as a real alternative.
I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible at the forthcoming Christmas and Chanukah celebrations around the Borough in the weeks ahead.