Call for an end to "toxic" Lancashire County Council politics

Opposition parties on Lancashire County Council have called for more of a chance to contribute to discussions about the authority’s policies.

Monday, 31st May 2021, 9:54 pm

At the first meeting of the full council since the Conservatives retained control at the local elections earlier this month, Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali requested a cross-party gathering to explore ways to “open up transparency and scrutiny of council decision-making”.

Newly-elected council leader Phillippa Williamson said she had already initiated a review of governance arrangements at the authority.

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It follows controversial changes made during the administration’s last four years in charge at County Hall, which included a rule that only cabinet members and the leader and deputy leader of the main opposition could speak at cabinet meetings. Prior to 2018, all councillors had been able to have their say on issues being decided in that forum.

Committing to being a “constructive opposition” that worked to promote Lancashire, County Cllr Ali condemned the “toxic culture “ that had developed in the council chamber in recent years.

“That…resulted in councillors being stopped from speaking at cabinet [and] being curtailed at scrutiny meetings – where certain [chairpersons] decided that they’d had enough and…they had to get home – and councillors were stopped from speaking at development control [planning meetings].

“That is not acceptable – we live in a democracy and in that democracy, sometimes you hear things that you don’t like,” County Cllr Ali said.

The chairs of scrutiny committees use their discretion to determine how long members can speak and whether any non-members can address a committee.

Liberal Democrat group leader David Howarth said that democracy had been “shut down” over the last four years. He also supported a call from Labour to refocus on a “councillor first” approach at the authority.

“I find it quite incredible that the Lancashire Post can get replies to issues in my division faster than I can,” County Cllr Howarth said.

County Cllr Williamson said that the Labour amendment – which was defeated during a debate on the council’s constitution – was unnecessary as plans were in place to assess what changes needed to be made.

“I’m quite clear that the development of policies and plans…can only benefit from appropriate scrutiny and discussions. These perspectives only enrich the policies that you make.

“We have…already indicated to County Cllr Ali that we will be reviewing those arrangements. I think they will improve the quality of debate and engagement across the chamber,” the new leader said.

Her deputy, Alan Vincent, said that he could not agree to Labour’s demand that any proposed alterations were reported back to council by July, but said that there was no interest in delaying the process.

“We want to talk to you for the benefit of all councillors…we want to improve democracy for our own group, because there are certain restrictions which we think shouldn’t apply and that people should have some more freedom.”

New cabinet member Cosima Towneley added that “constraints” had previously been brought in on cabinet meetings, because some opposition members “could not behave without grandstanding and making a circus of the proceedings”.

Labour’s Lizzi Collinge said that she believed councillors of all political colours were “passionate about representing our residents and [so] we might disagree vehemently”.

“But the past four years has slid away from vehement disagreement on ideas and policy and into the personal,” County Cllr Collinge added.

Her party colleague Erica Lewis also questioned why scrutiny committees were chaired by members of the ruling group, warning that there was an inherent “conflict” in the arrangement.