We knew there had been some shenanigans within the Conservative group on Shropshire Council but we weren’t quite expecting members to be so obvious about their tensions in public.
At today’s meeting of the full council, Peter Nutting was voted in as leader. That was a foregone conclusion as he had been elected Conservative leader days before. But three or more members of the Conservative group sat on their hands and failed to vote for him. Later there was an extraordinary outburst from one Tory councillor who was outraged by the paucity of councillors from the south of the county in cabinet positions or chairing the key scrutiny committees.
I sympathise with Councillor Tindal’s point when he angrily told the meeting: “It is an absolute disgrace that there is only one representative from the south” on the cabinet. The cabinet has swung further to the north. That’s going to make it more difficult for the voice of the rural south of Shropshire to be heard.
There were reassurances from Peter Nutting that it would be a countywide administration – not just about Shrewsbury. The jury is currently out on that. He promised to consult with market towns and town and parish councils.
On the almost all new cabinet, he said: “There are a lot of new faces. We need to move on. That’s the way of the world.” Only the deputy leader, Steve Charmley, and Lee Chapman continue from Malcolm Pate’s administration.
Nutting was unrelenting about the Tory grip on scrutiny committees. All five will be chaired by Conservatives. He said he wanted to “shake scrutiny up”. Two scrutiny panels will to continue scrutinising – performance management and health. The other three – young people, communities and place and enterprise – would become “overview” committees. We need more clarity on this proposal to split overview and scrutiny. They have generally been talked about in the same breath in local government. I fear it could reduce the teeth of scrutiny, which was meant to be an essential counterbalance to the centralised power under the cabinet system of local government.
Turning to council officers, he said very pointedly: “Council officers say the right thing but somehow it doesn’t come across in their actions.” That was an unfair comment as officers cannot respond in council meetings. I fear a return to the Barrow era, when there was no trust between leader Keith Barrow and his officers.
Peter Nutting said better things about planning. The ambition of the council has been to reduce the number of planning committees from three (North, Central and South) to one, or at best two. Nutting says he wants to retain the current three committees and expand their remit to include highways. I am not sure what he means about highways but I welcome the statement that the number of planning committees will not be reduced. We need detailed local knowledge for planning, as well as enough time to study planning applications in depth.
Leader and strategy: Peter Nutting (Ward: Copthorne, Constituency: Shrewsbury & Atcham)
Deputy leader and corporate support: Steve Charmley (Whittington, North Shropshire)
Portfolio for communities: Joyce Barrow (St Oswald, North Shropshire)
Portfolio for culture and leisure: Lezley Piction (Tern, Shrewsbury & Atcham)
Portfolio for finance: David Minnery (Market Drayton West, North Shropshire)
Portfolio for planning and regulation: Robert Macey (Gobowen…, North Shropshire)
Portfolio for economic growth: Nicholas Laurens (Meole, Shrewsbury & Atcham)
Portfolio for children’s service and education: Nicholas Bardsley (Ruyton and Baschurch, North Shropshire)
Portfolio for health and adult social care: Lee Chapman (Church Stretton and Craven Arms, Ludlow)
Portfolio for highways and transport: Steve Davenport (St Martins, North Shropshire)
People and young people: Peggy Mullock (Whitchurch North, North Shropshire)
Health: Karen Calder (Hodnet, North Shropshire)
Policy and performance management: Claire Wild (Severn Valley, Shrewsbury & Atcham)
Place and enterprise: Gwilym Butler (Cleobury Mortimer, Ludlow)
Communities, rural and environment: Cecelia Motley (Corvedale, Ludlow)
Five sector champions are planned. It is not clear how these fit into the current council structure. Three champions have been announced.
Infrastructure support: Roger Hughes (Market Drayton, North Shropshire)
Income generation: Alexander Phillips (Bagley, Shrewsbury & Atcham)
Communities: Clare Aspinall (Oswestry East, North Shropshire)
Chairman: Ann Hartley (Ellesmere Urban, North Shropshire)
Speaker: Vince Hunt (Oswestry West, North Shropshire)
. See the House of Commons Library briefing Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government.
. The scrutiny names here are those used by the Conservative party. They have yet to be agreed by the council.