Lib Dems challenge Tory control of Dorset Council

dorset councilTORY control at Dorset Council is being challenged by the Liberal Democrats in a move which could eventually lead to a public referendum.

The tactic was tried in the past with the former West Dorset District Council and was successful.

The Liberal Democrats, the biggest opposition group on Dorset Council, have tabled a motion calling for a change from the present Cabinet model, where all key decision are made by ten Conservative councillors, to a more inclusive committee system.

The motion, which has been accepted as legally valid, will come before the next full council meeting this month.

Given the Conservative majority on the 82-strong council it is unlikely to succeed.

Council leader Cllr Spencer Flower said if the idea has to be considered, now is not the best timing.

“We are just coming out of the worst global crisis for 100 years, which will have a long tail,” he commented.

“COVID-19 has left this council with significant additional burdens and financial pressures and has caused disruption to our planned transformation programme.

“Changing the council’s constitution would require a major re-write which would divert already stretched officer and member resource away from the transformation programme and day to day service delivery.

“This would have a serious negative impact on our commitment to always put the interests of our communities first.

“This is not the time to debate the merits or otherwise of the changes set out in the motion. The risks I have outlined are just far too great.

“My view is that this sort of radical change to governance should be at the beginning of a term, not halfway through a term. However, this is a matter for all members to decide at full council on July 15.”

Lib Dem leader Cllr Nick Ireland, from Owermoigne, said that if the motion fails his group will go to the next stage and try and gain enough support for a public referendum for an all-elector vote on the preferred system for the council.

The Lib Dems and other opposition councillors, mainly independents, have complained since the council came into being in 2019 that the current system is not inclusive enough, and that some councillors have only been offered one or two committee seats

Tory group leader Cllr Spencer Flower has allowed some concessions with a handful of positions being offered to non-Conservative councillors, but the Lib Dems argue that this does not go far enough and all committee seats should be allocated in accordance with political proportionality.

The 2016 West Dorset referendum was triggered when the group Public First gained more than 6,000 signatures, in excess of the minimum five per cent of West Dorset electors, needed for a referendum.

In a ballot, said at the time to cost £95,000, the public vote supported the council switching from cabinet to committee style, forcing the Conservative group to make the change.

Public First said at the time that the cost of the referendum could have been saved by the controlling group on West Dorset District Council volunteering to change, as other councils elsewhere in the country had done, when threatened with a referendum.

When West Dorset merged with other district councils to form the unitary authority Dorset Council in 2019, the cabinet system was adopted again.

The Cabinet system was imposed on all but the smallest districts under the Local Government Act 2000.

The Localism Act 2011 allowed councils to opt for the committee system and created a route for communities to call a referendum on governance arrangements.

The power has only been used a handful of times, including in West Dorset.

Sheffield City Council is one of the most recent to use a public referendum and in May 2021 agreed to revert to a committee system of governance when voters backed the committee system over a leader-and-cabinet model by 89,670 votes to 48,727.

The referendum was called in 2019 after the It’s Our City group collected enough signatures. It was postponed from last year due to the pandemic.

By Local Democracy Reporter Trevor Bevins

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