Local councils with a dominant political party are often an emulation of Latin American caudillismo – strong-man politics where loyalty and not competence is rewarded. Ahead of the May 2019 local elections, the Saffron Walden-based Residents for Uttlesford party stated “We will review and improve or replace the current Cabinet system to make the District Council fairer and to ensure that all voices are heard”.
Yet, the Uttlesford council chamber remains a Ruritanian charade propping up a bloated cabinet where the Peter Principle is advanced to its fullest. R4U’s ascendance has proven that nice platitudes and tall talk of residents’ involvement by political parties rarely, if ever, manifest in reality. A promised unitary authority, possibly covering Uttlesford, Harlow and Epping Forest, will not offer any change in culture, although there would no longer be any political purpose for “Residents for Uttlesford”.
Since the 2019 local elections, the number of cabinet members in Uttlesford is at the maximum number allowed under law and has witnessed the creation of a plethora of portfolios, some of which go well beyond the council’s legal remit, such as education and policing. A much-vaunted review of governance has proceeded at a snail’s pace with a third of its meetings cancelled before the lockdown and no meetings planned, even by Zoom, since February. Meanwhile, R4U’s latest “Residents Charter” gimmick has dropped all mention of governance reform, the system has been entrenched and expanded, rather than abolished and replaced, and changes in governance are de-prioritised.
Cabinet members earn a £3,240 special responsibility allowance (SRA) on top of their £5,255 annual basic allowance and expenses – the council leader gets more than £18,000 in total allowances per annum. Committee chairs get an SRA of £3,436. The size of the Cabinet for a district council is at its maximum allowed by law. According to the membership allowances data, 15 R4U councillors received SRA in the 2019/20 financial year (excluding the three who defected to the Greens), equating to two-thirds of the council group of 23 councillors. It looks like a gravy train.
An expensive, bloated cabinet system would be justified if we saw progress and action. However, the council has been in policy stasis on vital areas of local government, particularly over the local plan. R4U claimed to have an alternative to the Tories’ local plan ahead of the 2019 election, but their voters will be disappointed to see only a policy vacuum and inertia. Months have passed since the government inspectors panned the previous local plan, which prompted R4U to conduct a scorched earth policy of withdrawing it entirely instead of ascertaining what can be salvaged.
With little progress and an end-2023 deadline fast approaching, the district is likely to witness a tsunami of speculative an unsustainable planning applications. UDC risks its reputation being fatally damaged if Whitehall takes control in the increasingly likely scenario that it is unable to meet the deadline. There is a fundamental tension between R4U’s Nimby impulses and the statutory duty to plan for new housing development. Either R4U breaks its pledges on saying residents have full control over how much house-building they want in their communities (inevitably, far lower than the levels the government requires) or the council fails.
Other areas of serious concern include the council’s parlous finances, amid Tory austerity measures and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The council is responding to the multi-million pound fiscal black hole by increasing borrowing for commercial investments from £100mn to £300mn to snap up real estate around the country despite great economic uncertainty. Through leveraged investment, the council hopes to earn an income that replaces funding from Whitehall. This gamble defies R4U’s previous opposition to a strategy that only focused on commercial real estate acquisitions, pointing out the inherent dangers of tying council finances to investments determined by councillors who lack a background in investment asset management.
In yet another breach of R4U’s past pledges, the council has not appointed an independent panel of experts but instead created an “investment board” – in reality, a working group of councillors appointed by political affiliation who have had no formal training or qualification on investment and asset management. The leader continues to serve as “interim” chair the “board” despite R4U’s previous objection to the leader chairing working groups that are set up to advise him. R4U Cllr Joanna Parry had said “it does not seem good practice for the Leader of the Council to be a member of a working group (which reports directly to the Cabinet), let alone Chairman of it. He will be reporting to himself!”
The political culture does not change when power is won. Politicians high and low are reluctant to cede and delegate power and be forced to compromise – or even listen. In my personal experience, most R4U cabinet members and deputies are more remote, more tribal, more closed minded and more intolerant to criticism than even their Tory predecessors, yet sometimes it’s hard to understand what they do in return for their allowances. Regime change at Uttlesford has been a disappointing back step, a deepening of bad habits in local politics.
Having spent years claiming that “Westminster politics” have no relevance to Uttlesford and that somehow the district will be made a special case if it was in power, R4U has had a slap of reality. Its raison d’etre is falling apart and it is looking increasingly rudderless and adrift as the Tory government prepares to consolidate and emasculate local government, turning it into a commercial property developer in hock with developers with a sideline in bin collection. Likely a one-term administration of a zombie council facing abolition, R4U has little to say and nothing more to offer than banality and bromide. What a sorry state.