January 24, 2020 1.22 pm This story is over 21 months old

Local Democracy Weekly: Does party politics actually work in local councils?

Council leader Aaron Spencer has gone independent after stepping down

The resignation of a council leader this week brought to light fallings out in the upper echelons of the local Conservative party. But would a different system of independents work better?

It’s often been said that party politics should play little-to-no part in local councils and the debate has clearly raised its head again following the departure of Boston Borough Council leader Aaron Spencer.

The reasons are debatable, depending on which side you listen to – it’s clear that party and councillor did not, in the end, align.

For longer than I’ve covered Boston (more than a decade now), the authority has fluctuated over who is in charge and several times, “independent” councillors have come together to form various groups – often successful at local elections but invariably finding themselves falling apart.

These include the Boston Bypass Independents (who controlled the council for four years), the Better Boston Group, the Boston District Independents, and the Bostonian Independents Group.

Councillor Aaron Spencer has stepped down as the leader of Boston Borough Council.

One of the big problems is that if you wanted true independents to be able to make a decision, you would have to scrap the rule that says only those in groups can have committee seats.

This rule has been the bane of several councillors – just a few years ago former Labour councillor Paul Gleeson found himself aligning with an indy group after his colleague, the now acting leader Councillor Nigel Welton, left him alone to join the Conservatives.

To have a truly independent led council would require an entire overhaul of the political system.

Other councils have tried a different tack with North Kesteven District Council forming the NK Administration after 2019’s local elections.

In 2018, North East Lincolnshire’s Labour Group gave the Liberal Democrats a stake in running the authority through a confidence and supply arrangement – however, this was an obvious bid to cling on to power after its budget was previously rejected.

None of this helped last year, however, when in May the Conservatives swung the party into power.

North East Lincolnshire Council full council. Photo: Daniel Jaines

But even when you have independents able to take control it doesn’t necessarily mean the authority will work.

Humans are mainly social animals, we often display herd or pack behaviours, and wherever there are groups of people there are cliques of those with like minds – even when you don’t mention what colour you’re nailing to the mast.

In 2011, Anglesey council – which for many years had been run by independents – saw Welsh Government commissioners sent in to take over after years of infighting, petty politics and corruption allegations since its establishment in 1996.

Forced to act, the government restored power in 2013 but was forced to shake-up the boundary and reduce the number of councillors by a quarter.

In Devon, two of the districts are run by independent groups but Local Democracy Reporters from the area have reported a number of issues since May.

The leader of Torridge District Council quit after falling out with officers and her group, while in East Devon, two of the Independent Group – who are a minority administration to start with – resigned in protest at decisions the group has made.

Independent councils sound like an ideal way forward – free-thinking people making decisions based on their own communities needs and desires – but really it could be just as fraught with issues. – DANIEL JAINES

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