At the resumed Annual Council Meeting last night, Labour and Conservative members voted together to remove the Chairs of two key Scrutiny Committees from the Liberal Democrats, despite the Lib Dems being the largest party on the council, and reinforcing the fact that there is clearly an agreement between these Groups to operate in their own interests, riding roughshod over the Council’s constitution and what is best for good governance at the Town Hall.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Mark Hunter, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Stockport, said: “The past three weeks have been a clear demonstration that Stockport now has a Conservative-backed Labour administration. Last night they voted together to secure the Chairs of the committees which scrutinise all of the council’s governance, finance and major investment. This was the third time in the last week that Labour and Conservative councillors have voted as a block.
“Those Chairs have the power to agree late items can be pushed through the decision-making process with minimal scrutiny and to agree which items can be kept from public view. Labour already have form for trying to do things behind closed doors, with their attempt to permanently shut down our wonderful, Carnegie-endowment Central Library, and to sell off Woodbank Hall. Now they have willing accomplices from the Conservative ranks installed in key positions.
“Much was made about this being all very ordinary and in the best interests of the borough, but the truth is this is simply a marriage of convenience, as the Lib Dems are the only challenge to Labour to run the council and the only challenge to the Conservatives in the parliamentary seats of Cheadle and Hazel Grove.
“The Liberal Democrats will hold this unholy alliance to account over the year ahead, and we will be urging residents to vote for a more positive outcome next May.”
Following an adjournment of yesterday’s Annual Meeting, Stockport Council will now meet again tomorrow (Thursday 27th May), as the parties try to agree a way forward for the new civic year.
Last week’s informal meeting had determined a Labour minority administration would continue in office with Conservative support. All eight Conservative councillors voted with Labour to deprive the Liberal Democrats, with 26 seats the largest party on the council, of the chance to form a new minority administration.
Not content with, effectively, being part of the administration it seems the Conservatives also want to control the overview and scrutiny process – a role traditionally taken by the opposition. Such a decision would mean they would only be scrutinising matters which they agreed with in the first place and would be a flagrant disregard of standard local government practice.
Speaking in advance of tomorrow’s meeting Cllr Mark Hunter, Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group said “Not content with their grubby deal to cling on to power in Stockport at any price, it now looks as if Labour and the Conservatives are working together to hand control of certain Scrutiny committees to themselves. This really is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ politics and cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
“In the interests of openness, transparency and accountability Liberal Democrats will oppose these moves and take every opportunity to expose this Conservative-backed Labour administration for the unholy alliance at the Town Hall it is. We will be proposing that the Chairs of Scrutiny remain firmly in opposition hands – the number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats on the council remains exactly the same as last year, so there is no justification whatsoever for this proposed change.
“In any event, as far as we are concerned any changes should have been agreed at the Informal Council last week. The very purpose of that meeting was to resolve any matters which may cause disagreement at the Annual Council Meeting. To try to push these controversial proposals through at this late stage is simply unconstitutional.”
Following pressure from the Liberal Democrat Group, Stockport Council’s meeting to determine which Group forms the administration for the year ahead will now be webcast so that the press and public can attend virtually.
Cllr Mark Hunter, Leader of the Lib Dems at Stockport Town Hall, said: “The Informal Council Meeting is held purely to avoid any party political conflict spoiling the installation of a new Mayor at the start of the civic year. This outdated mechanism has not been used for some 15 years and, despite claims made in the press by the current Leader of the Council, the constitution is silent about whether this meeting should be held in public.
“The council’s chief legal officer has now confirmed that the meeting is not a formal decision making meeting but that it is for councillors themselves to decide whether it is held in public. I simply don’t understand why the Leader of the Council was so certain that the meeting had to be held privately and I am glad she has now agreed with me that it should be webcast.
“Clearly this whole process needs to be reviewed before next May, but I am delighted that the press and the public will be able to see local councillors discussing who should lead Stockport for the year ahead before coming to an informal decision that will be formally ratified at the Annual Council Meeting next week.”
The Liberal Democrats at Stockport Town Hall have called for the crucial meeting this Thursday evening currently scheduled to be held in secret, which will determine which political group forms the administration for the year ahead, to be held in public, saying it would be inappropriate for such a decision to be taken behind close doors.
Cllr Hunter, the Leader of the Lib Dems in Stockport, wrote to the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer to this effect last week but has not yet had a response to this request.
The issue has been covered today by the Manchester Evening News, which you can access through the link below.
As the Liberal Democrats emerged from the local elections on 6th May as the largest single party, we reached out, over the weekend, to all Groups now on the council with a view to forming a minority Lib Dem administration. Given the outcome of the elections, we were optimistic of a consensus around this positive way forward.
What seems to have become clear in the past 24 hours, however, is that some kind of Labour/Conservative agreement has been formulated, the details of which have not been shared with us, and we now await further developments at the informal council meeting on Thursday of next week.
If the council were to remain under a Labour-led administration, this would be the first time Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council was led by anything other than the largest single party since it was formed in 1974. Labour were also the only group to move backwards in terms of number of seats last week.
Following an evening of mixed results with gains and losses for all parties, the Liberal Democrats are now the largest single party on Stockport Council, whilst the council remains in No Overall Control.
Speaking on Sunday, Cllr Mark Hunter, Leader of the Lib Dems at Stockport Town Hall, said: “As the largest Group on Stockport Council it is incumbent on us to start the process of trying to form a minority administration. Between us, Lisa Smart, my Deputy Leader, and I have spoken to all four of the other parties now represented on the council.
“The early signs are that there is support for a change of administration, recognising the fact that Labour have fallen back from a dead heat on seats with us and no longer have the casting vote of the Mayor.
“In 2016 Labour asserted the right of the largest Group to form an administration, and we are now using those established principles to do the same. I hope that Labour will recognise this and that there will be an orderly transition to a new open, transparent and accountable Liberal Democrat administration to take Stockport forward.
“There is much to do as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and Stockport now needs a fresh team who are willing to recognise that, as a minority administration, they need to work co-operatively with other Groups, not take decisions behind closed doors as has happened too often in recent months.
“I believe the Lib Dems are that team, and I look forward to the challenge of turning around the recent drift under Labour and to getting Stockport moving forward again, punching its weight as one of the largest local authorities in Greater Manchester”.