Unity Alliance’s rainbow administration comes to an end
After 16 months in power, time is up for BCP Council’s Unity Alliance administration. The opposition’s second attempt at deposing Leader Cllr Vikki Slade (Lib Dem, Broadstone ward) paid off when their motion of no confidence was carried at last week’s Full Council meeting. Cratus looks back over the Alliance’s fascinating and tumultuous journey and ponders the way forward.
The challenge was always going to be huge. Leading a brand new unitary authority, representing the biggest reorganisation of local government in the UK for 35 years, made up of three different Councils – one of which resisted the merger all the way to the High Court – with a coalition formed on a tiny majority and comprised of members representing all political views under the sun. To say Cllr Slade was dealt a tough hand is a bit of an understatement.
But she made do. Under her leadership the ‘Unity Alliance’ administration took on some big and ambitious projects, such as the multi-million regeneration bids for Poole town centre and Boscombe, the introduction of the Beryl Bike and other sustainable travel schemes, the acquisition of the Holes Bay power station site, revitalising seaside hospitality venues including the Mudeford Beach Café and the Bistro on the Beach in Southbourne and fast-tracking a conurbation-wide new Local Plan.
To the dismay of the opposition, the Unity Alliance made changes to a number of projects inherited from the former Conservative-led Councils, the most eye-catching one being the A338/Wessex Fields road works, part of which were put on hold. Then Covid hit and the administration had a pandemic to contend with, taking decisions such as calling a major incident in June to deal with the thousands of beachgoers violating social distancing rules. In the minds of the Conservatives, these and a raft of other actions demonstrated the Unity Alliance’s ‘dithering’ and lack of governing experience, and they brought their first motion of no confidence in the Leader at June’s Full Council meeting.
Politically it was a gamble, and it did not play out well for the Conservatives. However, politics is a numbers game and it was felt that the risk was worth taking. Over the previous months the Unity Alliance’s numbers had decreased, partly because of a number of defections, further exacerbated by the untimely passing of an Alliance councillor. The vote resulted in a 37-37 tie and was decided on the Chairman’s casting vote. The Alliance scraped through by the skin of their teeth.
The escape turned out to be short-lived. A loophole in BCP Council’s Constitution, which does not include the usual stipulation that motions of no confidence cannot be called within 6 months of one another, allowed the opposition to have another go. Since June, another Alliance-backing member had sadly passed away and under current Covid regulations, by-elections cannot be called until May next year, leaving two vacant seats on the Council. This meant that the Unity Alliance had to depend on the support of a small group of non-aligned, independent councillors.
The second no-confidence motion was brought on the back of disagreement between the administration and the opposition regarding the implementation of active travel schemes. September’s Full Council meeting saw this motion passed, with 39 out of the total 74 members voting for it, 33 voting against and 2 abstained. An extraordinary meeting will take place on 1st October to elect a new Leader. Until then, the Unity Alliance’s former Deputy Leader Cllr Mark Howell (Poole People, Poole Town ward) is the acting Leader.
It is expected that Cllr Drew Mellor (Conservative, Talbot & Branksome Woods ward), who has been at the Conservative group’s helm since March, will take over as Leader, turning the BCP authority area blue once again. The political situation remains uncertain, given that the Conservatives’ 36 seats would only be enough for a minority administration. The two vacant seats on the Council may well be taken up by Alliance-supporting candidates again next year, further equalising the current numbers. And what will the next step be for those unaligned independents? Promises will have been made to secure their support and keeping those will be vital in exchange for enduring political allegiance. Back in the driving seat, the Conservatives will need to make dramatic budget cuts, weathering the storm of the ongoing pandemic and dealing with the increasing pressures on the retail and hospitality sectors which are so important to the local economy.
Going forward, Cratus will be closely monitoring this intriguing Council’s every twist and turn. If you would like to have a chat about what all this may mean for your business interests in BCP, please get in touch with Cratus Southampton, on [email protected]us.co.uk or 023 8214 0916.