It had to happen and I am glad that it has happened sooner rather than later. Keith Barrow has resigned as council leader following years of concern about conflicts of interest over his business affairs. Complaints have been made and upheld through the council’s standards procedure. More have been submitted in the last few days. At least one complaint has been sent to West Mercia police for investigation (update: the complaint was dismissed by the police). There has also been growing dissatisfaction over Keith Barrow’s leadership style, which has concentrated power with himself and a few lieutenants.
Now he has resigned to spend more time with his family.
First, let’s begin with some of the good things Keith achieved in his six years as council leader. He established a university college in Shrewsbury. He handled the baby ashes scandal well.
But the main mark Keith Barrow has left on this county is the creation of a centralised, out of touch administration in Shirehall. He has left people working in local government feeling devalued and he has deskilled the council. He has left residents, especially here in the south distrusting, even hating, Shropshire Council.
Back in 2007, voters in Shrewsbury & Atcham, Bridgnorth and South Shropshire voted against a unitary authority in a countywide referendum. Many of the district councillors nevertheless pressed for unitary status. I know that some of those councillors never foresaw what was to happen.
When Shropshire Council was launched as a unitary authority on April Fool’s Day 2009, it adopted the “strong leader” model. This gave huge powers to the leader and the cabinet. The only leader of Shropshire Council to date has been Keith Barrow, the Conservative councillor for Oswestry South.
Keith began well. He wanted to talk and engage with people. He met people in pubs. He argued the case. That doesn’t mean I agreed with him on policy but he had the popular touch.
Then it began to change. I recall his words the first time I saw him in action at Cabinet, sometime around 2011. He turned to Alan Mosley, leader of the Labour group and, after declaring that he didn’t think local government should be political, launched a political attack. And that is the way it is on Shropshire Council. Political. This is the most political local council I have known in my 40 odd years of observing local government.
From around 2012, Keith began to withdraw from open democracy and debate.
Back in September 2013, I complained that Shropshire Council was slipping into a black hole of democracy.
Consultations were often a sham. Remember the two consultations over the closure of the Coder Road recycling centre? Both were unanimously against closure. It didn’t make any difference. The portfolio holder, Steve Charmley, did not even come to Ludlow to talk about what was proposed. The decision to close Coder Road was made in a private session in Shirehall from which the public and press were excluded.
Full council meetings were cancelled and then reduced in number. Keith said there wasn’t sufficient business but that was because decisions were made in private portfolio holder meetings.
Scrutiny committees are chaired by Conservatives and only by Conservatives. In other councils, scrutiny committees are often chaired by opposition councillors. They scrutinise. In Shropshire, most scrutiny committees spend their time talking but not scrutinising. For the last year, there has been a move to shrink the number of scrutiny committees down to just one.
In other councils, opposition councillors can get matters on the council agenda. We have to resort to councillor questions or motions.
Senior officers have been told they cannot brief opposition councillors unless specifically requested to do so by those councillors. If you do not know what is happening, how can you ask a question?
Times are hard. We are facing savage cuts. We need to work together as councillors, not in the divisive way that was the only way possible during Keith’s regime.
Keith Barrow has centralised power on himself. And if you elevate yourself high, you have further to fall. This must a hard day for Keith. But he has his life back by resigning. He can take time to reflect and relax. I wish him well.
Other Barrow Affair Posts
The Barrow Affair (6): Investigation into Barrow costs more than £12K and Shropshire Council is to pay