Cheshire West and Chester Council may be three years into its bid to become a flagship Conservative authority but the newly reinvigorated Labour opposition along with the trades unions have a different take. David Norbury reports.
AGAINST a background of controversial decisions including Gypsy and Traveller sites, a reduction in funding for travel to faith schools and to colleges, the future of the Connexions youth service and changes to staff terms and conditions, Labour opposition leader Cllr Justin Madders believes ‘the council shows a style of leadership that the Labour group would not want to continue’.
His views come a year after respected former Labour leader the late Cllr Derek Bateman marched his then 12 colleagues out of the same Winsford council chamber in protest.
Cllr Madders, who heads up a reinvigorated 32 strong Labour group firmly finding its feet following massive gains in last May’s elections, commented:“Of the two main options for local government suggested for Cheshire prior to reorganisation I believed that the East/West split represented the best balance between the economies of scale that unitary government offered and the need not to be remote from the communities they represent.
“However, I believe this council has already forged a reputation as one that does not connect well with its communities.
“All of the public sector is facing a tremendous challenge with the Government's austerity agenda and there is no doubt that by 2015 what this council can deliver will be radically different.
“In these changed circumstances it is more important than ever to bring people with you”.
He emphasised:“A Labour council in Cheshire West would look to be inclusive, listening and a real driving force for prosperity for all.
“The current industrial action, following on from a number of controversial decisions from the council, shows a style of leadership that the Labour group would not want to continue.
“Our late leader, Derek Bateman, set the tone for the culture we would want to see in the council - kindness, dignity and inclusivity and I hope I can continue to honour those qualities he demonstrated so well in the face of a very different world”.
Referring to the industrial unrest he said:“The shoehorning of a number of different workforces into one has inevitably meant the leadership needed to provide a clear direction of travel but it has also to be inclusive.
“Clashing with the unions so soon is an indication that the approach is wrong”.
Cllr Madders is also concerned that ‘many of the council's assets’ including County Hall, Backford Hall and its farms ‘are being sacrificed in a short term dash for cash to fund grandiose capital projects which will also put the council into a significant amount of debt and represent a significant gamble with the council's finances’.
“I am concerned that this approach will only make a difficult position worse and that the council will have no financial flexibility by 2015.
“With the current reductions in local government finance and the council's extensive capital programme there will be little spare cash around for the incoming leadership after the local elections.
“This means if we are going to make a difference we will need to be innovate and radical.
“Economic prosperity through regeneration, education and new jobs will be our aim, all necessary to compete to attract the businesses of tomorrow on a global basis.”
Looking to the role of the opposition he commented:“After the 2011 elections we went up from a group of 13 to 32 overnight and whilst we are still not in control we are now big enough to put forward an alternative in the council chamber.
“There is still a tendency from the controlling group to adopt a dismissive attitude to our proposals and initiatives and this reflects poorly on them - a willingness to listen to others should be taken as a sign of strength not weakness.
“Challenge and openness are vital in a healthy democracy and it is something of a disappointment that scrutiny in Cheshire West does not often appear to be given the weight and respect that it should be by the ruling group.
“Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom and a mature and confident organisation will recognise that.
“Following the increase in group numbers we were given two scrutiny chairs, arguably as the opposition we should have them all, but at the moment the Tories still have the majority of scrutiny chairs and I believe there needs to be greater opposition involvement.
“Councils should respond to criticism positively and not see it as an irritation or irrelevance”.
He explains the opposition has set up its own executive with councillors appointed to ‘shadow’ the Conservative portfolios.
“We meet once a month to discuss the council executive agenda but we have already set in train the work on our manifesto for 2015 which our shadow spokespeople have begun work on.
“We aim to hit the ground running in 2015 with an innovative and radical agenda for the council.
“ I firmly believe if we do the preparatory work over the next three years then every day of our term in office after 2015 will be productive.”
Cllr Madders believes ‘that pound for pound the shadow executive is more able than their Tory counterparts and outperforms them at every opportunity’.
“We have the vast experience of councillors like Pat Merrick, David Robinson and Alex Tate but also excellent new recruits such as Ben Powell and Julia Tickridge.
“Both have been on the council for less than a year but have picked up their portfolios with consummate professionalism.
“And beyond the shadow executive we have a wealth of talent that will come to the fore over the next few years- we truly have an exceptional team that I am proud to lead”.
He points out the newly enlarged Labour group is also geographically more comprehensive with Chester’s representation, for example, growing from three councillors to eight across the city.
“This means a strengthening of links with constituency parties and a really ‘in touch’ group which is responsive to local communities.
“I hope to see those links grow.”
Meanwhile protests continue at the council’s changes to the terms and conditions of its workforce, described by the trades unions as ‘savage’.
All 8,600 staff are now said to have signed up, apart from four who did not accept the new terms, with some lower paid accepting special one off payments, but union opposition remains.
The council says the new contract is necessary to harmonise the varying terms and conditions of the four previous authorities.
Unions claim the council has taken £4m out of their members’ pockets
The cuts are said to have given rise to the loss of enhancement for weekend working, removal of some shift premiums and the removal of the majority of Bank Holiday premiums.
On the prospect of a High Court injunction by the council over proposed industrial action at Easter, Maria Moss, Unison regional organiser said:“The High Court proceedings were never even served.
"This is yet another example of this council being more concerned with their public image than the treatment of their staff, clients and services."
Activists from across the north west were encouraged to gather at Winsford ahead of the council’s most recent meeting amid fears Cheshire West and Chester’s terms could spread to other authorities.
The Labour opposition claims staff morale is at an all time low but this is denied by the council.
The unions describe the change as ‘a massive attack’ on staff and question if it can be achieved without ‘destroying’ the morale of the workforce.