My first month as Group Leader on Woking Borough Council was dominated by the Conservatives rewriting the Council’s constitution to remove the right of the opposition to chair scrutiny meetings.
Despite strong opposition from the Lib Dems, the Conservatives used their majority to push through the change and delete the requirement that the Chairman of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee has to be elected from an opposition party – they then chose a Conservative Councillor to led scrutiny of their own Conservative Executive.
Councillors were scheduled to elect a Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee at its first meeting on Monday 9th June, however the Tories cancelled that meeting until it changed the Council’s rules on who can chair that committee. At a hastily arranged Full Council meeting on 23rd June, the Conservatives made the constitutional change and elected one of their own as Chairman.
I was appalled and frustrated by this power grab – it seems clear that following the recent elections, the Tories felt entitled to every important position on the Council and this was the only one they did not have. Sadly, this is what happens when the Conservatives have a decent majority on local authorities – they abuse their power and act like complete bullies. On Surrey County Council they have used their large majority to give senior Tory County Councillors a massive pay rise, and now at Woking they have stopped all impartial scrutiny of their decisions.
It is accepted best practice in local government that the opposition should chair the Council’s scrutiny work to ensure there is an adequate check and balance to the ruling party’s power. Scrutiny committees on Elmbridge, Mole Valley, Surrey and Reigate Councils are all chaired by opposition parties – appallingly, Conservatives in Woking (unlike their counterparts in those neighbouring authorities) do not want any independent check on their power.
With the Council about to make several important decisions that will impact the future of the Borough for generations to come – on the Green Belt Review, regeneration in Sheerwater and Town Centre developments – independent scrutiny is needed now more than ever.
However, all these arguments and more were completely lost on the Tories. No doubt they were worried about their ability to handle challenging questions and proper scrutiny. They have deliberately and cynically make it harder for the democratically elected opposition to do our job.