An ’embarrassing’ debate about its new cabinet painted a less than stellar picture of the way business is conducted at Arun District Council.
When leader Cllr Dr James Walsh announced there would be eight seats on the cabinet rather than seven – with Independent member Cllr Hugh Coster filling the new role – a floodgate of complaints was opened.
Introducing the new portfolio – commercial and business development –Cllr Walsh said: “It’s very important that we have new money raising in the council, developing a commercial strategy, generating income ideas; with myself and the cabinet, planning the financial recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, and also to oversee the implementation of the governance change from cabinet to a committee system that we already voted as a council to undertake.”
The council is set to switch to the committee system next May – a decision that has proved hugely unpopular with members of the opposition.
It was one of many issues discussed throughout the evening.
For a huge chunk of the five-and-a-half hour meeting they argued, with a string of points of order being raised about everything from allowances and the conduct of cabinet members during the pandemic, to accusations of lying and whether a new portfolio was even needed.
Cllr Paul Dendle (Con, Arundel & Walberton) claimed there was ‘no real governance or scrutiny’ in the council, accusing Dr Walsh of making all decisions in conjunction with CEO Nigel Lynn.
Calling for monthly reports from all portfolio holders, he said: “We don’t really have any governance in the council at the moment. We have two people at the top making all the decisions and the cabinet members are not.”
Cllr David Edwards (Con, Felpham East) was one of several opposition members who felt the appointment of Cllr Coster to the cabinet added up to a coalition council.
This was denied by Cllr Walsh, who accused the Conservatives of showing ‘feigned irritation and indignation’.
He said: “There is no formal coalition. We’ve appointed a member from a different group on the council to the cabinet.
“Cllr Coster remains an independently elected member of the council and will bring that perspective to the cabinet.
“It’s the first time that a cabinet on this council has included somebody from outside the leading group.
“That is a first to be welcomed and it’s to help to prepare us for the move to the more inclusive committee system that will be coming in next year.”
Mr Lynn pointed out that the council’s constitution allowed senior officers and group heads to take necessary decisions in an emergency situation.
He told the meeting an emergency planning team had been set up early on, meeting daily and now weekly, and that cabinet members, the leader and deputy and group leaders had been kept up-to-date.
He added: “This is no different to any other emergency. The only issue really is the length of time this emergency is taking.
“A typical emergency will last a matter of days or maybe a week and this one has lasted several months. I think that’s why we’re getting these difficulties about decisions being made.”
An hour into the increasingly testy debate, with some councillors appearing unable to agree on the colour of grass, there was a call from Cllr Tracey Baker (Ind, River) to ‘pack it in and move on’.
She said: “With respect, I just wonder what this looks like to the public. It’s quite frankly embarrassing. We should all be working together jointly across parties.
“We’re in a global emergency right now. We should be focussing on the good of the district and what we should all be working together on.
“This is just tit-for-tat political scoring and I just urge you to pack it in a move on.”
Chairman Cllr Amanda Worne agreed, telling members there was ‘a lot of time-wasting going on’.
She added: “This is going out live to our residents at a time in their lives where were facing a lot of challenges and we need to be see to be supporting them.”
While the point was correctly raised that members had a right – and a duty – to discuss and question the goings on of the council, it was pointed out by officers that some of the many interruptions had not been genuine points of order.
One point of order that was genuine came from Cllr Grant Roberts (Con, Arundel & Walburton) who asked whether the eight new cabinet members should be allowed to take part in a later debate about allowances, including theirs.
Members were told it was up to them to decide whether to ‘step out’ of the meeting or not – but only Samantha Staniforth, the new cabinet member for neighbourhood services, chose to do so.
There were hints from some corners that a complaint to the standards committee might follow.
The cabinet allowances for this year will be lower than previously, with the £58,240 budget being divided by eight, rather than seven.
This adds up to an allowance of £7,280pa rather than £8,320, with the leader and deputy receiving an extra £5,176 and £2,080 respectively.
Dr James Walsh – leader of the council and economy
Francis Oppler – deputy leader/corporate support
Martin Lury – planning
Gill Yeates – community wellbeing
Matt Stanley – technical services
Pauline Gregory – residential
Samantha Staniforth – neighbourhood services
Hugh Coster – commercial & business development.
By Karen Dunn, local democracy reporter