Council’s no overall control a ‘challenging position’

Friday Politics column, July 7, by Cllr Stuart Dark, leader of the Conservative Group

Hello everyone, I hope you’re well. This is my first column since May’s West Norfolk Council election.

The result saw the borough council, the fifth largest in the country, go in to ‘no overall control’. A challenging position. Despite remaining the largest single political Group with 21 out of 55 available seats and over 40% of the total votes cast my Group now finds itself unusually ‘in opposition’.

Cllr Stuart Dark
Cllr Stuart Dark

The Group (Independent) that finished a clear second with 18 seats chose, post-election, to combine with two much smaller Groups (Greens and LibDems) to form a new partnership increasing their numbers marginally, thereby allowing them the chance to form a minority administration and take the lead for our essential local services, major projects, housing, events and the region’s immediate future.

Now please don’t think I am about to go all ‘Trump-like’ on you here and argue the result. The electorate are always right and such a post-election action when numbers are tight is entirely permissible. Clearly, the results nationally were not good for our party, reflecting frustration at the national situation and national politicians and we locally who have worked so hard and achieved much for West Norfolk and others are saddened by it, chastened by it and learning from it.

But, I believe it is worth stating for the future record, the following key points as this new administration commences:

Terry Parish
Terry Parish

• The new Council Leader, the Leader of the then Independent Group and those advising him, did not even try to talk with myself and the largest single Group of Councillors on the borough who had 40% of local votes cast behind us and had steered this council effectively throughout the pandemic, the cost of living crisis, war in Ukraine etc with years of experience as the ‘administration’ and resultant detailed knowledge of this council, local issues, services and strategic partnerships re any potential ‘middle ground’ collaboration, before instigating and delivering this combined smaller group ‘take over’.

• He has since explained that there were several dominant voices in his Group and in these smaller Groups who wanted ‘control’ and the Conservatives removed, seemingly at all costs and those who might have wished to explore this possibly most stable option in the difficult prevailing ‘no overall control’ circumstances, at least even before discounting it, were silenced. I.e.: This was a clear, conscious choice to start entirely afresh with a low knowledge base across all key Leadership positions at this widely recognised, particularly challenging, crucial time for West Norfolk by a small number of councillors, not a decision by the electorate. This also potentially does not bode well for the regard that will be paid to my large Group’s input and the 40% of locals who voted for our record and manifesto going forwards. This outcome was by the councillors behind its choice and we feel it’s only right they must now step up to the plate, work hard and deliver well, or they and they alone must directly and fairly own any negative consequences.

• Despite an unprecedented, demanding four years, my Group has left the incoming new administration with a published, funded budget and associated financial plan for at least the next three years and residents paying the 179th lowest council tax out of 182 shire districts in the country – at a rate of just over 4p in every tax pound raised locally for all the council does. A budget and plan that was confirmed as sound by the council’s financial officer in February 2023, that had no amendments or alternatives offered up against it and was actually voted for by the council’s new/current Leader.

Charles Joyce
Charles Joyce

• A budget with funding lines in place that supported all current service levels, significant transformational projects, major events, such as the recent excellent Festival Too (Saturday was the busiest I’ve ever seen it), upcoming King’s Lynn Festival, Fawkes in the Walks and Hunstanton Soap Box Derby to name but a few and support to communities and partners. With an additional £200k secured from Central Government recently to deal with ‘in year’ IDB pressures and projected underspends in the outturn report due this August this well-managed financial position is most likely to become even more stable. Again, we believe this means that any future reduction in our council’s services, projects, aspiration or support to outside bodies or conversely any increase in local fees and taxes are another conscious choice of those in the new administration, not a legacy based necessity, they will similarly have to own.

• The advertising slogan ‘better connected’ is widely known. Our council’s outwards facing relationship with the county council and central government had been evidently strong, recently bringing significant interest, investment and support into West Norfolk. The new administration will now be responsible for keeping these crucial strategic relationships at a similar level.

Related to this developing situation, I read with interest, Charles Joyce the Leader of the Labour Group’s column in this paper last week. The Labour Group is currently supporting the new minority administration’s numbers in an arms length ‘confidence’ arrangement.

He wrote kindly of myself and my Group (thank you Charles) but referred to his Group ‘taking a chance’ on the new Leader and then went on to write that ‘evangelical fundamentalists (in the new administration) will quickly learn Labour will be a brake’. You might ask yourself as I did why did he consider these comments necessary so soon? What is he already seeing/fearing?

Likewise, the new Council Leader in his recent introductory article to residents, also in this paper, drew attention to the fact that he was having a ‘steep learning curve’, that he was uncertain how long he would remain Leader for and gave little away re: his specific plans and priorities, nor any real clarity as to how he would get a divergent and new Group of many views to agree and bring forward cohesive strategy, policy and delivery whilst retaining his overall accountability.

Whilst we fully understand it is early days and that any new administration needs time to bed in, all the above and the things we are currently seeing and hearing behind the scenes give us genuine concern for the near, medium and longer-term future.

Winston Churchill’s famous quote springs to mind. Those who were in long-standing ‘opposition’ and saw the seemingly attractive chance to grab the wheel might just be quickly beginning to realise that: “Criticism is easy, achievement is difficult.”

We, as the council’s new principal Opposition Group, will now do our utmost to try and help steer the new administration in the right direction, safeguard existing services, schemes and projects from potential harm and hold them to account for negative actions they chose to take. I’ll come back to you in a few weeks and let you know how we are getting on…

Thank you for reading this. Take care.