Prove me wrong about revenues and benefits : 16 June 2006

Many people say there should be no politics in local government. I disagree. All free societies depend on choice, and political parties give voters a choice. However, I do agree that local politics is all about what is best for the local community, and so politics should be kept in its place and Westminster style politics have no place in local government. That is why I have always opposed Labour's imposition of cabinets or "executive style" administration.

The essence of Westminster politics is the Whip system. This means that all decisions are made behind closed doors, and the actual parliamentary debate is no more than a pantomime performance with a foregone conclusion. MP's don't have to listen to the pantomime debate, or even be in the chamber - so long as they're in the voting lobbies when the division bell rings. This used to be alien to local government, where members are not expected to vote, unless they have heard the whole debate.

Unfortunately, Westminster politics have arrived in Ryedale. Ryedale is a hung council. However, if the political group with the largest number can all be whipped into voting together, and the other groups have no whip, it will always be possible for one group to impose its will on the others. This is a wonderful situation which can give one political group an extraordinary degree of power out of all proportion to their actual voting numbers, so that little can happen without its support. So, if the Council makes an unpopular decision, the whipped group can be the power that gets it through, and then claim they were not responsible. So, it is a case of power without responsibility. In Ryedale, the group with the whip is the Conservative Group.

Consider, for example, the decision taken on 18th May to outsource Ryedale's Revenues and Benefits function to a "partnership" which is to be managed by Hambleton from Northallerton. A government consultancy provided advice on this proposal. I studied this advice, and, after reading it through several times, I concluded that the new partnership's steering committee had decided not to follow the Consultant's main recommendation. This seemed to invalidate the consultant's conclusions - including the very tentative conclusion that there might possibly be some financial savings in three years time - it was as vague and dubious as that.

I decided to test my view. So I told the Council on 24th April. Later, I sent an e-mail to every Council member, showing my logic at length step by step. On 18th May I told the Council again that the consultant's main recommendation was not being followed. So far, nobody has disputed this - either in public or privately. In such circumstances, one might have expected the proposal to have been voted out.

Not so. Understandably, opinion within the Council was volatile, and the LibDems and the Independents were divided. Now, if these two groups were divided, one might have expected the Tory Group also to have been divided. However, the Conservative Group voted by the whip and not according to their conscience, and that is why the decision went through. The consequence is the threat of expensive high court action and open confrontation between members and staff. Make no mistake: the Conservative Group is responsible for this.

So why did they do it? I hold a copy of a press article dated 13th May 1999. In this, Conservative Group Leader Keith Knaggs is reported to have referred to Ryedale's reserves as "an attractive dowry in the guise of reserves". Since then, I have suspected that the Conservative Group would like Ryedale to merge with Scarborough or another Council, and hand all our money over to the newly merged authority to be spent, as the saying goes, "where resources are most needed". I put this allegation to the meeting of 18th May, and Councillor Knaggs duly dismissed it as a "conspiracy theory".

So, what is really going on? I believe people can reasonably be expected to intend the natural and probable consequences of their actions. The more functions Ryedale outsources, the less viable Ryedale becomes, and the greater the pressure for a merger. If there is a merger, be under no illusion: very little (if any) of the Council's 8.5M reserves will be spent in Ryedale. This is what I think the Conservatives want. That is why Ryedale has spent little of its reserves since 1996 and continues to build them up at the taxpayers' expense.

Ryedale Conservatives can easily prove me wrong by agreeing to reverse this outrageous decision.

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