Cllr Ricky Bower is an East Preston Ward Councillor on Arun District Council. He is a former Cabinet Member for Planning and Chairman of the Development Control Committee. 

Until the Local Elections of May 2019, Arun District Council had been a highly regarded Conservative controlled Council. It is now on the verge of being a basket case.

Control was taken in May, on the back of the disastrous policy of Theresa May on Brexit, by an alliance of Liberal Democrats and Independents – the overwhelming number of whom had served on Parish Councils and had never faced a ballot box election.

Following the May 2019 election, the Liberal Democrats had twenty two seats, the Independents were in two sub-groups – one of seven seats – and one Independent who refused to join the others in a group. The Conservatives had twentyone seats, Greens two, and Labour just one. Subsequently, one Lib Dem resigned from the Lib Dem group, and one was suspended pending a legal issue, making the Conservative group the largest on this Lib Dem/Independent council.

The members of the larger Independent Group had mostly stood at the Election on parochial platforms – to return the Council to a Committee-based decision-making system and revoking the 2018 adopted Local Plan.

Here’s the rub. The Arun council officers have disabused these independents of their plans for the Local Plan – it being a statutory policy document that if revoked would result in planning by Appeal Inspector. The Lib Dems have more or less persuaded the Independents to accept preparation of a five year review of the Local Plan but in the meantime the Independents voted last September for a motion in full Council that included an expression of no confidence in the Local Plan. (None of the Independents or the Lib Dems who voted for that motion have withdrawn from the Development Control committee. They are therefore voting to apply Local Plan policies they don’t agree with.)

The decision to implement a Committee system was bulldozed through the Council following a process of review of decision making that was neither open nor transparent. It, in itself, could in no way be described as conforming to the main articles of the Councils Constitution – that decision making should be open and transparent. In fact, it points to the way Liberal Democrats operate. The evidence is clear. The Lib Dem Leadership set themselves an objective without conducting an open critical review of current processes and without public consultation. Even the Audit and Governance committee (tasked under the Constitution to ‘Independently’ oversee the Council’s Governance arrangements) called for an all council members seminar. This was overruled by the Lib Dem leadership with the LD Chairman of the Audit and Governance Committee reversing her committee vote. Indeed, it became apparent at the Full Council meeting that both the Lib Dems and the larger Independent Group had been whipped.

It appears the Lib Dems think, that as the Council has taken the decision, however the decision was reached, Arun District Council is locked into a committee system for the next six years without the possibility of review.

The fact is that council members have been forced to take this decision without fully assessing the costs or staffing implications of such a change. This means that while officers are working up the operational detail any ‘game stopper’ would have to be overcome without the possibility of reviewing the decision. As for the larger Independent Group, their leader said in one closed meeting ‘Hundreds of Councils up and down the country operate the committee system so why can’t Arun just change’. It was pointed out that the Committee system was made illegal by the Local Government Act 2000 and it didn’t apply to parishes.

Obviously he hadn’t done his homework before promising his electors this change in his manifesto. Yes the Localism Act allowed for such a change – but that doesn’t excuse treating council members like sheep.

One thing that is clear: with so many new members whose only experience of Councils is Town or Parish – they have an aim to turn a District Council into a replica of what they know as council processes.

In a debate about the future of a civic gardens site, one Liberal Democrat Cabinet member was asked ‘where is the business plan’ for what was being proposed? He replied ‘A Council is not a business it is a service’. With 87 lines of statutory business at District level, and only one line at Town/Parish, it is hard to accept the naivety of this new breed of Liberal Democrat.

Liberal Democrats and the Independents are struggling to prevent members resigning for fear the Conservatives will regain control.

Certainly the Conservatives on Arun have no fear of by-elections.