Every year each local authority has to have an annual council. In most years this is nothing more than a yearly formality. However last night's meeting at Chester's Town Hall was one of the most brutal I've ever witnessed. Constitutional norms and conventions were swept aside - along with any attempt at consultation.
Labour took control of the council at the elections with, what appears on paper at least, to be the slenderest of margins:
In theory this gives them a majority of 1.
The reality on the ground, at least so far as those of us on the Conservative benches are concerned is that we suspect the independent will largely vote with Labour - in effect giving the ruling party a 39-36 majority. Slim - but workable. Actions will show whether, in fact, our suspicions are justified.
When CWaC was created there was a desire to keep the Lord Mayor of Chester. However as the Government at the time indicated that the Royal Prerogative would not be exercised to enlarge the Lord Mayorship to the entire Borough something of a compromise had to be created. There was no desire to have a Mayor of CWaC and a Lord Mayor of Chester side by side - so CWaC would be represented by the Chairman of the Council, who on the basis of the convention established would also be Lord Mayor of Chester.
The Lord Mayor would be a-political - and by convention the Chairman of the Council would and should be a-political too. This compromise kept the historic Lord Mayorship of Chester and allowed CWaC to minimise cost by having one person and one civic team representing the Borough. Whether he or she wore the Mayoral Chain at any particular event would depend on whether the event was within or outside the old Chester District boundary.
These arrangements have been maintained throughout the 7 years since CWaC was created. We have had Labour and Conservative Chairmen and women who have also served as Lord Mayor of Chester.
For the 2015-16 year, under the convention, the next scheduled Chairman and Lord Mayor of Chester was to be Conservative Cllr Hugo Deynam. Last night Labour threw that convention away and created a political Chairman of the Council. Last year's Lord Mayor and Chairman Cllr Bob Rudd was re-appointed Chairman. Cllr Deynam did become Lord Mayor.
To my mind this step was unnecessary constitutional vandalism - that will breed resentment and difficulties for years to come. It may also have increased the costs of civic representation in the Borough. We don't know whether it has or not - as this appears to be one of those details which has not yet been worked out. There is also the question whether those of us living outside the old Chester district would value a political figure attending our events as opposed to an a-political figure.
An a-political Chairman rarely, if ever votes at Council meetings. This would mean that a Conservative Chairman would, in effect put the Conservatives 1 down - entrenching Labour's majority. Now Labour would be worried whether the Conservative Chairman would ever be called upon to exercise a casting vote. However the convention followed by most councils and Parliaments is that the a-political Chairman should vote to support the status quo - or vote to support the ruling group.
To my mind Labour could have negotiated this, and further entrenched their majority. However they chose instead to create a political Chairman... and we saw that last night where Cllr Rudd, exercised his vote on several occasions. He even commented that he was doing it - sensing internally I'm sure, that this was a departure from last year when he was an a-political chairman. Labour also appointed a Labour Deputy Chairman. In my view this was a mistake as Cllr Deynam could have been retained as Deputy Chairman and thus been allowed to act as the civic representative for the entire Borough by being the Deputy. This would have been a workable compromise - and in fact is the model we followed in Frodsham when separating the Chairmanship of that council from the Mayor of Frodsham role.
Now the decisions about who will be the Lord Mayor of Chester, the Deputy Lord Mayor and the Sheriff of Chester are not made by CWaC - but are made, instead by the Charter Trustees. These Charter Trustees are in essence the councillors from the old Chester District part of the Borough, who have the power to co-opt Councillors from outside the old Chester area onto the Trustees - thereby enabling these 'outsiders' to become Lord Mayor or Sheriff of Chester.
CWaC can proffer nominees for co-option and as part of the brutalist approach by Labour they nominated 3 Labour Councillors to join the Charter Trustees - and no Conservatives.
Until last night the Charter Trustees had a 15:13 Conservative Majority. The Charter Trustees last night declined to accept 2 out of the 3 Labour nominees. So whilst this allowed the expected incoming civic team to take their places (two of whom are Labour Councillors) this also meant that 'business as usual' was not maintained.
Personally I want to see sense prevail rapidly and with a return to the conventions. This would see Cllr Hugo Deynam placed as Chairman of the Council and the honour of fulfilling the civic roles offered on rotation to the next senior councillor who had not fulfilled the role before irrespective of party. If this doesn't happen we could have the bizarre situation of someone attending a council meeting expecting to leave as an ordinary member - however instead they may leave as Deputy Lord Mayor or Sheriff of Chester!
Now not everyone sees the performance of civic roles as important - and I can understand the point of view... but the vandalism didn't end there.
The Labour group brought in, without any meaningful consultation, or any semblance of explanation wholesale changes to the committee structures. They greatly reduced the number of scrutiny committees - dispensing, at stroke, with detailed scrutiny of the finances, children and vulnerable adult safeguarding. They also dispensed with a tradition I fought hard to create - giving Chairmanships of scrutiny committees to the opposition party. The Conservatives have been given no Chairmanships in spite of the fact we are the largest ever opposition group on CWaC.
The Labour group has appointed the one independent member as Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny. However, if we are right, and that this independent isn't really as independent as he might at first sight appear, then this would appear to be nothing more than further cynical manipulation by Labour. I hope I'm wrong about this.
It would have cost Labour nothing to have followed the norms and conventions. They could have used the first 2-3 months to work out what they wanted to do - and made the necessary changes at the July Council, or indeed a special council meeting called for that purpose. They could have generated goodwill by doing so. Instead we have seen a brutal ripping up of conventions, norms and niceties.
With such a slender majority working by consensus would have made sense in my view. Clearly Labour have signalled that they have no intention of seeking consensus or the middle ground.
Now that we have a political chairman I wonder how I will address him? Is it comrade, commissar or perhaps convenor? Whatever it is, it is with a great deal less respect than was due to the a-political Chairman he once was. It was and is all so unnecessary. It was and is so disrespectful.