It has not been a good few weeks for Shropshire Council with the sudden resignation of its leader, Keith Barrow. Everyone has been asking: “Where will the council go from here?” Now we know one part of that. Councillor Malcolm Pate, the representative for Albrighton, is to lead the unitary council at its most difficult time since it was created from five district councils in 2009.
The new leader was elected tonight by the Conservative group in private session. Deputy leader Steve Charmley had publicly thrown his hat into the ring. Many thought he would get the leadership. But as BBC Radio Shropshire reports on Facebook tonight, Malcolm Pate was elected subject to the ratification of full council.
A former leader of Shropshire County Council, Malcolm brings experience and stability to the council at a time at a time when it needs just that.
He could and should change the way this council is run.
I hope that he will recognise that strong leadership is not about concentrating power but about sharing responsibility. I hope he sees that opposition councillors can be a resource and should not be driven to the margins as happened during the Barrow era.
I would plead with Malcolm to reinvent scrutiny committees. They should operate like parliamentary select committees, which was the original intention when the strong leadership model was introduced. He should ensure that scrutiny sessions are chaired by councillors from across the political spectrum, not just by a handpicked group of Conservatives.
The days of a single cabinet member making decisions that affect the future of this county should end. Decisions should no longer be made in sessions from which the press and public and excluded. They should be made by cabinet in public (subject to the usual exemptions).
Alternatively, Malcom could be even bolder and persuade his colleagues to abandon the strong leader and cabinet model. He could reintroduce the committee governance that served councils so well for more than a century.
One of his biggest tasks will be to win back the trust of town and parish councils. They have felt ignored, often abused, as power and funding has been centralised in Shirehall after unification. He should work towards ensuring that decisions that only affect one place should be devolved to that place.
Malcom’s first priority should be to launch a cross-party review of the council’s future finances. Do we need to cut so much after the Autumn Statement? Can we raise more money?
Up high on his priorities also, must be reform of ip&e. The company should become an innovation hub for the council. It needs to be an incubator where new ideas are generated and passed back into the main council and town and parish councils around the county. It should concentrate on new ways of working, not overambitious plans to make profits.
The new leader will be ratified at a council meeting on 17 December. That vote will almost certainly be a technicality. There are 47 Tories on the council, easily outnumbering Lib Dems (13), Labour (9) and Independents (5).
I wish Malcom well in what is a very challenging job indeed.