Cllr Vivienne Michael is the Leader of Mole Valley District Council.
2018 was, undeniably, a year of rancour and division, not just in national politics but in the country as a whole, a year when we seemed more divided and less tolerant than ever. So, it was no surprise that, as we entered 2019, commentators were urging politicians to set aside their differences and come together in the national interest. As I write, our MPs may not be setting aside differences but they are certainly casting off traditional allegiances to form new cross Party alliances in an attempt to extricate us from the Brexit stalemate.
At the local level, there have always been people who believe that Party politics have no place in local democracy. From the perspective of the South East, this view seems, once again, to be gaining traction with Independent candidates and councillors challenging the traditional Parties, driven by what they see as the need to represent local people, place and community, rather than Party.
I am, and always will be, a Conservative but, since becoming Leader of Mole Valley District Council (MVDC), I have consistently called for councillors of all political parties (and of none) to work together in a spirit of collaboration. I have done so for one simple reason – when I talk to residents, most of them tell me that’s what they want to see.
Of course, when we lost our slim Conservative majority last year, we didn’t have much choice but to engage with other Groups in the Council and our early discussions were, understandably, tinged with some suspicion on both sides. However, when we talked with the Independent Group it really didn’t take us long to identify common ground – we were all united in wanting to do our best for our respective communities and for the District as a whole. In short, we could do business with these people.
The outcome of those talks was a Cabinet of three Independents and six Conservatives including myself as Leader and we faced our first test early on – which Group would hold the Deputy Leadership? We agreed a creative compromise – we would retain the Deputy Leadership but the Independent Group Leader would join us in a new “top team” of three meeting regularly with the CEO. This has worked well and I like to think that it set the tone for our subsequent working relationship.
It was clear that Independent Cabinet Members, all of whom had been councillors for a relatively short time, would face a steep learning curve – but so too did those of us with more Cabinet experience as we adapted to working in the very different environment of a coalition. So, very early on, we brought in the LGA to facilitate training for the entire Cabinet and senior officers. This helped everyone’s understanding of how the Council worked and the way in which policy was developed and we identified some significant improvements that needed to be made to our decision making processes. The training sessions also helped officers understand the Members’ perspective – something that becomes much more important in a coalition.
Just as valuable was the chance for Cabinet Members to get to know each other, something that has helped break down barriers to an honest discussion in our private Cabinet meetings and avoid overt disagreement in public. If this all sounds a bit touchy-feely to those who thrive on the adversarial style of politics, it’s really not, it’s just pragmatic and effective politics. After all, isn’t politics all about people and the art of compromise.
Our biggest challenge as a coalition – finalising the Local Plan – is still to come and I won’t attempt to predict how that will play out. But having just succeeded in putting forward proposals for a balanced Budget – one that keeps Council tax low, invests in key areas and secures medium-term stability, all without cuts in services – I’m allowing myself to be cautiously optimistic.
Mole Valley councillors have taken the spirit of collaboration one step further recently with all three Groups unanimously opposing County Council proposals to close Children’s Centres and Community Recycling Centres in the District – perhaps this is a sign that even our most tribal Opposition colleagues now realise that, at a time of great uncertainty, when local government is facing so many financial and social challenges, we can be stronger and more effective when we work together and speak with one voice.
What, if anything, can others learn from the MVDC experience? I would say it’s that engagement and collaboration can’t be superficial or a last minute add-on. You have to start early earning trust with openness, honesty and a lot of work on both sides.
Finally, does any of this signal a significant shift in the local political landscape? I suspect it does. Nationally, people now seem to identify as Remain or Leave rather than Conservative or Labour and they are, clearly, increasingly frustrated by our MPs reluctance to work together in difficult times. So, how long before the public’s expectations of their local politicians change just as radically? And are we as a Party ready for that?