July 11, 2022 5.09 pm This story is over 16 months old

Call for scrutiny of council leader as critical report finally released

Councillor claims SK “Conservatives are afraid of asking questions”

A councillor has called for South Kesteven’s leader to face greater scrutiny after the release of a long-awaited report.

An independent review found that there wasn’t regular scrutiny of leader Councillor Kelham Cooke, and some councillors didn’t read documents before meetings.

The report was commissioned by the council itself at a cost of £5,000, but had been kept under wraps for nearly a year, prompting opposition councillors to demand its release.

The final document, which was produced by an independent auditor from the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, said there was “clear commitment to scrutiny” at the council but highlighted some gaps.

It recommended that there be more frequent challenges to the leader at committees, and that the number of committees be reduced.

South Kesteven District Council said an action plan will be produced soon to address the recommendations — despite almost a year after receiving the report.

Independent Councillor Ashley Baxter claimed the release proved that the ruling Conservative group weren’t holding their leaders to account.

“This report makes uncomfortable reading for Conservatives, which may be why it’s taken a year for it to be released. It has taken constant lobbying by myself and others to bring it into the public domain,” he said.

“It highlights how the leader and deputy leader don’t face scrutiny. Many items don’t fall under the remit of the committees, meaning the leader can make decisions without challenge.

“Conservatives are afraid of asking questions of the administration or they will be sent to the back benches and lose their position.

“If they seriously wanted to hold the council accountable, we wouldn’t have set up and then shut down a £3.5 million company in InvestSK, or created a company that failed to deliver in Gravitas.

“We can see from the recent changes to the constitution that Conservatives are still trying to make it harder for councillors and members of the public to ask questions in committees. Whenever that happens, it’s an attack of democracy.”

The report, which was originally received in August 2021, said the leader was “keen to rectify” to lack of scrutiny.

However, Councillor Baxter says he hasn’t noticed any improvement a year on, and doesn’t expect to.

The report also made recommendations to create a “politically neutral” environment in committees, with the best person being elected the chair rather than political appointees.

Most councillors were eager to engage but some “do not prepare sufficiently for scrutiny meetings, leading to the presentation of officer reports that should have been read in advance and missed opportunity for insightful questioning.”

The council said it was delayed while a comprehensive action plan was drawn up, which has yet to be disclosed.

The CFGC’s report is available online to read.

UPDATE: At 10.30am on Tuesday, South Kesteven District Leader Councillor Kelham Cooke responded to say the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted on the release of the report. He added that the report did not only apply to “just Conservatives”.

“As the Conservative administration we invited the Centre for Governance & Scrutiny to undertake a review into the cross party Overview and Scrutiny undertaken at South Kesteven District Council,” he said.

“At the time the report was received we were still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic supporting both our residents and businesses at a critical time. Following this, we completed a successful peer review into the organisation led by the Local Government Association, and the constitution committee were completely overhauling the constitution of the council, this was completed at our last full council meeting.

“Now we have a new constitution in place, alongside a restructured democratic services team, we can focus our attention on the findings of the scrutiny review, which will be debated at the next constitution committee meeting.

“Rest assured we have robust meetings at South Kesteven, myself and fellow cabinet members are invited to attend and present at our scrutiny meetings where members ask a range of questions on numerous topics, all members also have the opportunity to ask questions at full council and join our cabinet meetings as well as the call in process for decisions made. This report is how we can continue to improve our scrutiny process which involves all members of the council not just Conservatives.”