Hopes the new Labour-led Cheshire West and Chester Council would usher in an era of consensual working fell at the first hurdle following a bad-tempered annual meeting.
But last Thursday’s annual meeting saw Conservatives slam Labour’s ‘hasty’ decision to replace six scrutiny committees and a panel with just one overview and scrutiny committee plus a health and wellbeing scrutiny sub-committee – saving around £40,000 a year.
Cllr Charles Fifield, outgoing Tory chairman of corporate scrutiny, unsuccessfully asked the meeting to postpone a decision to allow more consideration.
He said: "I would hope members of the council don’t vote for changes that will effectively abolish dedicated separate scrutiny of children and education, safeguarding and public accounts by amalgamating them all into one single scrutiny committee. This will create a huge overload on this single committee which can’t be a good idea."
There was a danger the new committee would potentially become ‘a jack of all trades and you end up being master of none’.
Cllr Fifield (Weaver and Cuddington) was seconded by the Conservatives’ ‘horrified’ Cllr Jill Houlbrook (Upton). ‘Transparency, care, protection? Not from this controlling Labour-led council!’ she commented.
But Cllr Dixon (Chester City), who was elected council leader at the meeting, hit back at her Tory rivals, saying: "Effective scrutiny was not the hallmark of the outgoing administration. It never changed a decision as a result of scrutiny recommendations and they rarely, if ever, invited pre-decision scrutiny of proposals.
"We will embed safeguarding and protection of vulnerable children and adults into every single committee of this council. We will not put it in a box. We will not tick a box. We will put it at the core of business."
And she revealed the chairman of the scrutiny committee will be the council’s only independent member, Cllr Martin Barker (Parkgate), so Labour and Tory will have equal numbers leaving him with the casting vote in the event of a tied vote.
In addition, Labour will introduce four district committees for Chester, Ellesmere Port, Winsford/Northwich and Rural (including Neston), to meet the needs of specific areas. Policy and performance panels will develop policy in advance of key decisions being taken by the executive and monitor outcomes, but will be chaired by Labour portfolio holders.
Tory Cllr Andrew Dawson (Frodsham) wrote a furious blog after the annual meeting which he described as ‘one of the most brutal’ ever witnessed. "Constitutional norms and conventions swept aside - along with any attempt at consultation," wrote Cllr Dawson, who also criticised Labour for creating a political chairman of the council.
New Lord Mayor Cllr Hugo Deynem (Con, Tarvin and Kelsall) would have expected to take over the council chairmanship but, mindful of its precarious majority of one, Labour voted to separate the roles with outgoing Lord Mayor Cllr Bob Rudd (Garden Quarter) staying on as chair with his potentially crucial casting vote.