Conservatives have been accused of trying to ‘mark their own homework’ during a disagreement over who should sit on two scrutiny committees at Chichester District Council.
Since May 2019, when Chichester had a hung council, the 11 seats on the overview & scrutiny committee have been split six-five in favour of the various opposition members.
During the annual meeting of the council on Tuesday (May 19), that position was switched to represent the fact the Tories had since won the Loxwood by-election, giving them a majority of one.
While the opposition recognised the legality of the decision, as laid out in the Local Government & Housing Act, they called on the Tories to leave things as they were – essentially giving up one of their seats on the committee.
Stressing the need to hold the executive to account, Cllr Sarah Sharp (Green, Chichester South) said: “If the scrutiny members are too closely aligned to one view point, group-think might set in.
“One has to ask how easy it is to mark one’s own homework.”
Leader, CllrnEileen Lintill (Con, Petworth) made it clear her party had no intention of giving up a seat on the committee.
She said: “A year ago the council was different in that it was hung. We now have a majority, albeit small, but we do.
“I see no reason why scrutiny cannot still operate in a really effective way, so I would not wish to give away one of the Conservative seats.”
There was also concern from opposition members that Cllr Dr Kate O’Kelly (Lib Dem, Harting) was to be replaced as chair of the corporate governance & audit committee by former leader Cllr Tony Dignum (Con, Chichester North).
While it was pointed out that her record as chair was excellent, others felt Mr Dignum’s expertise would be needed post-coronavirus.
Cllr Alan Sutton (Con, Fittleworth) said the council needed ‘the best person possible’ to aid its financial recovery.
He added: “I believe that Tony Dignum is the right person to do this, not least because of his long experience. I really don’t think you can challenge his credentials or the fact that he is scrupulously fair.”
That decision left the Tories with a majority on one scrutiny committee and the casting vote on the other – something that did not sit well with the opposition.
Cllr O’Kelly said: “I think the best decisions are made for residents when the executive is scrutinised effectively.
“Our job as opposition is to scrutinise all decisions and I would say that an effective and confident council should not feel threatened by the opposition parties chairing the scrutiny committees.
“They should, in fact, welcome it. And this is best practice in councils across the country.”
Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Adrian Moss said he thought it was the wrong decision and was made ‘against the better interests of the district’.
The next meeting of the overview & scrutiny committee will be held virtually, on June 30.
Vice-chair Cllr Kevin Hughes (Lab, Chichester East) said: “Overview and scrutiny at local government level is a very good indicator of a healthy culture within councils.
“This is why it is worrying that the majority party in the council wants to take advantage of a very slender majority, enabled by one by-election, when it is essential to have transparent decision making.”