Time to reflect as I move from being Council Leader to opposition leader on Sefton Council

It’s time to reflect on a few things after 7 years as Leader of Sefton Council and 23 years as Leader of Maghull Town Council.
May of 2011 will hardly go down as one of the best set of elections for the Lib Dems and sadly they could hardly have been worse but in politics a wise man once said to me that you win things you don’t deserve to win and you lose things you don’t deserve to lose. One could also add that if you can’t stand the political heat don’t go into the political kitchen.

So a few comments on my time leading these two Councils. Firstly, a comment made to me on the day I became Leader of Sefton Council by Labour Cllr. Dave Martin who, like me this May, had suffered in his case a loss of Labour seats and was stepping down as Council Leader. Dave said ‘Within 6 months lad every nutter in the Borough will know who you are’. Well I certainly came across some colourful folks in my 7 years as Leader! In the rest of this posting I will answer questions that have been put to me in recent times:-

But what was it like leading a balanced Council? On the whole quite rewarding but at times very frustrating. I found working with politicians of other parties to be amicable with just the odd difficulty. Being a consensus politician by nature I don’t easily subscribe to the traditional and very childlike British approach of extreme tribalism in party politics.

Do I watch political programme on the TV? Hardly ever, I find them too tribal with far too much petty bickering, a bit like the House of Commons sadly!

What did I enjoy the most as a Council Leader? I think that would be working with the 10 Parish Councils across Sefton trying to get them to be both taken seriously by the Borough Council and to use their collective and individual voices more effectively.

What projects have I fought for both winning and losing? The big pluses must be gaining Meadows Leisure Centre for the East Parishes communities, winning the battle for the Thornton to Switch Island Link Road, seeing Aintree Village get its new GP surgery, fighting for Aintree Davenhill Primary School to be rebuilt and getting Lydiate Village Centre built. On the down side not being able to find a way to get Maghull North railway station built or indeed to get the Burscough rail curves reconnected have been huge frustrations.

Who did I get along with or not? I get along with most folks but some people are worth a mention as being really great to do business with – Barry Smith (former Town Clerk to Maghull Town Council), Charlie Barker (former Strategic Director of Sefton Council), Cllr. David Tattersall (recently retired from Sefton Council), Sheila Nelson, Charles Walker and many others whom I worked with on Maghull Town Council. I deliberately have not mentioned any serving officers and councillors. As to those I did not find it easy to work with I will simply say what my dear old mum used to say – if you can’t say anything good say nothing at all.

Who did I go to for advice when times were tough? The previously mentioned David Tattersall, ever a wise sage as can also be said of Cllr. Anthony Hill, Cllr. Roy Connell, Cllr. David Rimmer, Cllr. Iain Brodie-Brown and my good friends Cllr. Andrew Blackburn and Keith Page.

So what does the future hold? Well I am now in effect the Leader of the opposition on Sefton Council seeing the new Labour Leader of the Council having to take difficult decisions of the kind I once had to make. I wish him luck as it will be tough. I will not be taking the difficult decisions for him and my Lib Dem Group will hold him to account if he takes what we view to be the wrong course in his Leadership. Sadly, I think politics on Sefton Council will become more tribal as I can’t see the new Leader trying to find a consensus; his politics, or at least those of his party are tribal to the core.

On Maghull Town Council I hope our Lib Dem Group can work with the new Labour administration as party politics on a Parish Council can be almost ridiculous when the issues of the day are parks, gardens and other matters that are hard to be defined as party political. In my experience as a Parish Councillor of 26 years and counting I have found that trouble on a Parish Council normally comes from folks who want to be Mr or Mrs Big and they can come from any political direction or none at all.

Will I enjoy opposition politics? Probably not as much as being a Council Leader as opposition can by its very nature be a negative process especially in our so odd and tribal British political culture. We will see……………………….

And finally two things that make it all worthwhile no matter how tough it gets. Firstly, I never forgot my Liberal values in my time as Council Leader and today my good friend Iain Brodie-Brown has posted on his Birkdale Focus Blog (check out the link in my list of useful links) about the core values of Liberalism – thanks Iain always a good idea to bring such thoughts to the surface every now and again because that is what drives us Liberals forward. Secondly, in the post today (and just as I was finalising this posting) came a lovely letter from the Clerk of one of Sefton’s 10 Parish Councils. The letter was a personal one thanking me for my efforts as Sefton Council Leader to promote the interests of the smaller communities within the Borough. I will long treasure the letter as it seems to define what I was always trying to achieve as Council Leader and the fact that someone has taken the trouble to compose it made me feel that all the late nights dealing with one crisis in the Borough or another were worthwhile.

Photovoltaics

Energy generation is becoming ever more important with fuel prices always on the increase and of course we all need to be living greener more environmentally friendly lifestyles if we are to save the planet.

Having looked at how my family can both save money and be a little greener we have opted to have photovoltaic cells fitted to the roof of our new home. Regular readers will recall that we are moving about quarter of a mile down the road we presently live on.

This is what the cells look like and 13 of them have been installed today:-

On a community basis both Maghull Town Hall and Lydiate Village Centre are having such cells fitted this year and with Maghull Town Hall being an older building (opened 1984) it is also having its mansard roof made more thermally efficient so that heat loss is minimised. Both these projects have been Lib Dem led so we don’t  just talk about the environment we do something about it. The Aintree and Maghull Champion newspaper covered the Town Hall project last week although I thought the article headline was rather negative when the project is a ‘spend to save’ one that will deliver benefits for years to come for a one off investmnet now. By the way both Maghull and Lydiate’s ‘green’ projects have gained lottery grants to support them.

Maghull Community Association and Maghull Town Hall

Blogging about Maghull Community Association getting involved in Maghull in Bloom reminded me of a story I was told some time ago about why Maghull Town Hall is called a ‘Town Hall’ instead of say ‘Community Centre’ which is in reality what the building is.

It seems that when the former Ratepayers Party, who ran the Town Council in the early 1980’s, wanted to name their new building (opened in 1984) they realised that if they called it a ‘Community Centre’ (a name that was all the rage for new community buildings back then) it could be confused with Maghull Community Association’s building in Green Lane Maghull hence the rather grand sounding title of ‘Town Hall’ was chosen.

A grubby affair – Sefton and Merseytravel

Yesterday what we expected to happen did happen i.e. the Tories on Sefton’s Cabinet backed Labour in their grubby bid to gain an extra seat on Merseyside Integrated Transport Authority (Merseytravel). Of course Sefton Tories have form here in that they have a history of backing Labour when it comes to Merseytravel.

But now may well be the time for a bit of history to be revealed which shines some light on the potential motives for Labour’s power grabbing.

Ever since it became clear that Merseytram was on the rocks there have been serious concerns about Merseytravel who promoted the failed tram project which, we are told, cost £70m of public money. Those concerns were, I understand, held by senior councillors and council officers across the County and I include Halton here as the adopted Merseyside Council from Cheshire.

Let me be frank, it was very clear to me that soeme in the Labour Party wanted to clip the wings of Mark Dowd the Labour Chair of Merseytravel indeed some Labour people made it clear to me that they felt it was time for him to go. This concern manifested itself in the City Region Cabinet setting up a Transport Portfolio which, as you may guess, went down like a lead balloon with Merseytravel! Relationships between the City Region Cabinet and Merseytravel have been strained ever since and that is being polite about it. I have been at meetings where you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Let me suggest a possible explanation for the Labour Party’s behaviour and the likely connection between it and recent history. It is all to do with political power in my book and the need to ensure that another Dowd loyalist is placed on Merseytravel so that when the challenge comes to unseat Mark Dowd it can more easily been seen off. Strangely, as Labour has gained a large majority on Merseytravel their Chairman has seemingly become more vulnerable from his own Labour Party benches. In fact he was probably more secure when he was being propped up by the Tories in the days when Labour was not the largest Party on the Authority (and the Lib Dems were) but the Tories kept Labour in power.

The need to act must have been urgent as events show that on 9th May 2011 the Labour Leader on Sefton backed (as did I and the Tory Leader) what we call the Political Conventions document which all 3 party leaders had originally signed up to on 29th March 2010. This document had within it the methodology for allocating seats on Merseyside’s ‘Joint Boards’. The other two Joint Boards for these purposes being the Fire Authority and Waste Disposal Authority. Yet only a few days later on 17th May and out of the blue Labour did a u-turn and said they wanted to back out of what they had just agreed to. Clearly, things were moving and it is my belief that it had become apparent to Labour people who support Mark Dowd that others within the Labour Party had the knives out for him again. Such was the concern that Sefton Labour found itself having to back out of what it had just agreed to but fortunately for them the Tories were willing to lend a hand.

And there you have what I think were the causes of the row at Sefton’s Cabinet yesterday. Are things starting to fall apart already with Labour leading a 3 party Cabinet? Well yes it seems that they are and frankly we Lib Dems will not be putting up with any more power grabbing. If the Tories do want to try another coalition with Labour as they did in 2008 then they should just get on with it. Yes, they failed spectacularly then as the Lab/Con coalition lasted less than 2 months but we Lib Dems are more than happy to provide the opposition on Sefton Council should they want another stab at it.

Green Belt – Battle lines are being drawn

Tonight at Lydiate Parish Council’s meeting campaigners who want to defend the Green Belt attended to ask for the Parish Council’s support. They got that support and of course we Lib Dems have already launched a petition to try to stop development on Grade 1 and 2 agricultural land in the East Parishes.

The attending campaigners have their own petition going and now the public consultation phase of this battle for land, which comes under the vague title of ‘Core Strategy’, has commenced.

The issues at stake here are huge and when they are finally resolved the future and nature of Sefton’s communities will be set for many years to come. I hope that Sefton residents will engage in the consultation process but as was pointed out by the volunteer campaigners tonight there is a fear that Joe and Jane Public have not so far had the significance of the process made clear to them. As I said ‘Core Strategy’ is hardly a catchy stapline or one that readily indicates what the real issues are. We will see but the bottom line, especially here in the East Parishes part of  the Borough, will be defending the Green Belt from development