Alan Dean

Liberal Democrat Councillor for Stansted North and Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group Learn more

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New faces for old. But which way are they facing?

by Alan Dean on 22 May, 2019

The new Council at Uttlesford got under way last night by deciding which councillors will do what jobs. With so many new faces and with control and responsibility now under a new-broom administration, it will be some time before the real face of Uttlesford District Council and its Residents’ Administration reveals its true shape and ethos.

There was much talk last night of an administration of all the talents. So far, that seems to mean the leadership gathering a very large team – probably at least one-half of all councillors into the executive cabinet or as deputies or other forms of supporting cast. The cabinet itself has leapt in size from six members to ten.

Yet the leadership’s much stated aim is to reduce the cabinet’s central control and to delegate responsibility away from the centre compared with recent tradition. I remain confused. I detect signs of authoritarianism dressed up as inclusiveness.

A well-functioning council depends on a constructive tension between the majority Administration, who have to take responsibility for decision-making, and those tasked with challenging power. The latter must have independence of thought and act as critical friends – the Opposition. An effective and well-resourced Scrutiny system is also needed to challenge and keep the bloated Cabinet on its toes. Scrutiny will struggle now that there are too few councillors remaining whose first loyalty is not to the council leadership.

It may be some time before the right balance and mutual respect emerges between the different roles. Scrutiny wasn’t good enough under the late Conservative regime, but they did agree a new way forward. What must be avoided now is a blurring of roles, such that patronage stifles challenge and dissent.

There are seriously critical issues that must be addressed within weeks. Biggest of these is the Local Plan. The new Administration promised in its local election manifesto that all residents of Uttlesford district would have a fresh say on future housing plans. This is odd, because public consultation has been going on ad nauseum for years. A plan has been agreed and will be subject to formal, external scrutiny from July. The meeting was told last night that the Residents’ Administration wants to improve the plan, including revisiting housing numbers. Does it intend to support or challenge the council’s draft Local Plan at the summer Examination in Public?

I await developments with interest and will do my best to maintain sceptical challenge as a critical friend.

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