The balance of power on Cambridgeshire County Council

After Thursday’s remarkable local elections, Cambridgeshire County Council now finds itself with no party in overall control. In an earlier article I confidently predicted “the Conservatives are likely to retain control of the County Council by a comfortable margin”, but as it turned out the high level of UKIP support, particularly in the north of the county, meant the Conservatives were unable to hang on to outright control. This is the first time the Council has been in this situation in its present form – before 1998 it also covered Peterborough (now a unitary authority) which tended to elect more non-Conservatives than the rural areas.

The shock result of the election was the defeat of Council group leader Nick Clarke in Fulbourn by his Lib Dem opponent John Williams. Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Kilian Bourke also faced a tough challenge in his Cambridge seat of Romsey, but won through. The prize for unluckiest candidate in the elections must go to veteran Lib Dem John Batchelor, who lost his seat in Linton to Conservative Roger Hickford by just one vote. Last year he lost the District Council election in Linton, also to Roger Hickford, also by just one vote.

So what does the result mean for the Council? Here’s the balance of power after the last County elections in 2009:

Cambs County Council 2009

The Conservatives had a comfortable majority of 15. Over the four years that followed, this was reduced a little by various defections and by-elections. Just before last week’s elections, the Conservatives had a smaller but still comfortable majority of nine:

Cambs County before the 2013 elections

Here is the new Council as chosen by the voters on Thursday:

Cambs County 2013

The combined non-Conservative councillors now outnumber the Conservatives by five, but the three other parties do not quite have enough seats to control the Council between them (quite aside from the implausibility of a Lib Dem/Labour/UKIP alliance). It looks as if the four Independent councillors could play a key role in deciding the policy of the Council. They are:

  • John Hipkin of Castle ward in Cambridge
  • Mike Mason, who represents Cottenham, Histon and Impington
  • Derek Giles and Steven van de Kerkhove, of St Neots Eaton Socon and Eynesbury. Both are former Liberal Democrat councillors.

I expect they are having a busy weekend of it.

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10 Responses to The balance of power on Cambridgeshire County Council

  1. Rupert Moss-Eccardt says:

    The ‘Strong Leader’ model means that the only times this power balance will really manifest itself is at the meeting on the 21st where the Leader is elected. Once that happens the only other votes will be few and far between, although it could be possible for a cluster to get together and vote through a constitutional change to make things different at a later council meeting.

  2. I will be interested to see for how long the UKIP group remains 12-strong. The party has a pretty weak philosophical identity and few policies, and it has grown quickly with little screening of its council candidates. As a result its councillors may find that they have little in common, and several will split off as independents or join other parties over the coming months/years.

    And will they even turn up? Perhaps some never thought they would win, and they won’t be prepared for the effort involved in being a councillor. I suspect the Conservatives won’t find it all that hard to cobble together a majority.

    • Edward Carlsson Browne says:

      It’s also worth noting that at present UKIP does not operate a whip in local government. Indeed, several of their candidates made great play of this in their leaflets. I suspect this stems from a misunderstanding of what the whip is actually for (ensuring consensus, not forcing people to betray their principles for the hell of it) and that they will revisit this policy once they realise you actually need something to make sure that the group behaves as a group.

      In the meantime, however, they could find themselves splitting several different ways.

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  5. Any thoughts on the north-south divide in Cambridgeshire? I had a look at it here http://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/cambridgeshire-county-council-elections-hoo-wun-wot/ – but wondered if you or others had further thoughts. Is it a cultural divide? An economic divide? A transport infrastructure divide? An urban/rural divide?

  6. You’ve written an excellent review.

    I wish all the new councillors best wishes in what is likely to be a steep learning curve. I heard Lisa Duffy the UKIP mayor of Ramsey Town Council on BBC Sunday Politics East this morning – saying the answer to cutting costs at the County Council is by things like not having allowances for cllrs and having the chief executive working for free and cutting back-office staff. Easy to say, far harder – if at all possible to achieve and the realities of things like employment legislation cannot simply be ignored.

    What Rupert Moss-Eccardt says about the “strong” leader model, is often missed – the real power is now with the leader – and cabinet/executive. I’ve experience from this in practice as Milton Keynes has been NOC since 2006, first under Lib Dems and now Conservatives. The “strong” leader model which has applied since 2011 is even clearer on this and once the Leader is elected they are in place for 4 years and they select who is in the Cabinet and what their portfolios are.

    In reality, the full council has very little say in what happens on a day-to-day basis after the budget is set for the year. The budget needs to be set, so a realistic approach needs to be taken by the opposition which ultimately means they will allow the administration budget through, perhaps by one of more groups abstaining in exchange for some compromises on the budget. If the council does not set the budget then ultimately the government will.

    So assuming a rainbow coalition is not on (seems very unlikely) the Conservatives will choose their leader and everything will flow from that. The meeting on 21st May well be interesting, but as likely it could end up be a stage-managed effort. Hopefully somebody will video and broadcast the meeting.

    All new cllrs of any party will have a lot to learn – and quickly. Like many counties, Cambridgeshire meets during the day which can make it hard for many working people to be cllrs – unless they work in public sector and/or have supportive employers willing to allow time-off. Whilst the law is generally on the side of time-off, reality can be somewhat different as many cllrs across the country have found to their cost in the past.

    I agree with what Edward Carlsson Browne has said about the effect of a whip – in general. We have political parties at principal councils as it is one of the most effective ways of actually getting things done.

    Where opposition cllrs (and indeed ‘back bench’ cllrs in an administration) can however do, is work through the Audit and the Overview and Scrutiny (O&S) functions. Whilst I’ve little direct knowledge of what happens on these in Cambridgeshire the detail at http://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/council/democracy/overviewandscrutiny/aboutscrutiny/ does not given an impression of the sort of strong functions there is in some other councils (see http://www.cfps.org.uk/ to learn more with some good examples). Looking at minutes of a selection of O&S/Audit meeting agendas and minutes for the past year does not given an impression of the then opposition doing very much to hold the administration to account.

    So Perhaps over the coming year the opposition parties will give the administration a “run for their money” and really hold them to account as the system allows.

    One thing that all the opposition “groups” could do is work together to ensure they have “control” of all the main committees by dividing the chairman posts between them. Or perhaps the Conservatives doing this with one of more of the opposition “groups” so cutting out the others.

    One other “power” the opposition has is to hold the administration to account by “calling-in” decision of the cabinet (for some years Milton Keynes has also allowed cabinet decisions to be called-in by a parish council or 20 residents).

    Something else that I believe offers some scope is the what is being published as the “forward plan” of forthcoming decisions, this does not appear to be as detailed as it out to be. Changes introduced last year have complicated this process, with, for example, more notice being needed for meetings which it is proposed should be help in private. At a quick glance it does not look as if County are following the current legal requirements. In particular new regulations came into force in September 2012 which brought in a new presumption of openness for decision-making meetings, saying that meetings of “decision-making bodies” must be held in public. Public can be excluded but only as specified and notice requirements must be followed. For anyone who wants to follow this up in more detail, start with briefing at http://bit.ly/ZJkzlf for more details. As the briefing says, these are the same regulations that covered the right of bloggers and citizen journalists to report from meetings, and to record them.

    Certainly Cambridgeshire is a council to watch with interest over the coming months, particularly as to how the UKIP group performs and delivers.

  7. As a result of a valid point made to me by @stevetierney what I say about leader should be clarified. Whilst with the “strong leader” model (which has been law since 2011) the leader is elected for four years, it is possible for a leader to be removed by “resolution of the council”.

    In a council with election in thirds (as many district councils such as Cambridge City and Unitaries such as Milton Keynes which I’m very familiar with) if the majority party changes following a subsequent election then the leader may well change – as the balance of power on the council will have changed.

    However in County Councils where all councillors are elected in all-out elections every fours years it is very unlikely the balance between parties will change between elections – unless there is only a small difference between parties and changes happen through defections, resignations etc. If the balance between parties does not change then it is unlikely a challenge to the leader will be successful – unless of course the leader’s own party decides to go with someone else!

    For some guidance on the “strong leader” model, see http://bit.ly/15muJNl (from Milton Keynes by chance has it happened to appear early in a google search I just did). As it was required by law, I’d have expected a similar paper to go before Cambridgeshire County Council in 2011/12 – and appropriate changes made to their constitution.

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