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Maidstone will switch to permanent full-council elections

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Voters in Maidstone and the Weald will be going to the polls less often in future.

Last night, the council voted to change its election process from voting by one-thirds to voting for the full council in one go.

Council leader David Burton wanted the change
Council leader David Burton wanted the change

Although each councillor gets to sit for a four-year term, the situation at present has voters in many wards going to the polls every year - one year to elect their KCC representative, and each other year to elect one third of the borough council.

But from 2024, there will be only two elections in a four-year cycle - one for KCC and one for the whole of the borough council.

The switch has been an objective of the Conservative group for some time.

When they gained an overall majority after last year's May elections, one of the first things that the new council leader, Cllr David Burton, did was to hold a vote on the switch.

He achieved a majority, but not by enough then to make the change because as an alteration to the council's constitution the move required a two-thirds majority.

Cllr Paul Harper opposed the switch
Cllr Paul Harper opposed the switch

Last night, he achieved the necessary majority, after the Lib Dem group led by Cllr Clive English decided to abstain - previously they had voted against.

The voting was 39 in favour, five against and eight abstentions.

Labour members spoke passionately against the switch.

Cllr Paul Harper (Lab) said: "Four-yearly elections mean we will no longer reflect the will of the people on current issues."

But Cllr Steve Munford (Ind) said: "If the argument is that elections by one-thirds keeps us on our toes, all I can say is that they are very expensive ballet lessons."

Cllr Steve Munford was concerned not to lose one-member wards
Cllr Steve Munford was concerned not to lose one-member wards

Cllr Munford represents a single-member ward and he was concerned that if the council persisted with elections by thirds, the council would find all its one-member and two-member wards amalgamated into three-member seats in a review currently being carried out by the Electoral Boundary Commission. The Commission has taken the view that it is unfair that voters in three-member wards vote every year, but those in one-member wards only once. The commission would therefore have required a switch to all three-member wards.

He said: "I represent two communities - Boughton Monchelsea and Chart Sutton - but if the ward is expanded, they will become just a group of electors, and two ancient parishes will be turned into just an area."

Although, full elections were alleged to be the cheaper option, Cllr David Burton told the council that was not the reason why he supported them.

He said: "Cost shouldn't come into it."

He said it would lead to a more efficient system of governance and was also what the people wanted.

There's likely to be fewer councillors in future
There's likely to be fewer councillors in future

In a separate debate, councillors also considered what advice it would give to the Boundary Commission about the number of councillors on the council. Currently there are 55.

As chairman of the Democracy and General Purposes Committee, Cllr Jonathan Purle (Con) introduced the committee's recommendation that the number should be reduced to 48, although later when it came to the vote, Cllr Purle himself abstained. The motion was seconded by Cllr Clive English (Lib Dem).

Again Labour were against. Cllr Paul Harper proposed instead a reduction of just one to 54.

He said: "When the number of 55 councillors was established back in 1974, the population of Maidstone was 121,000. Now it is 171,800, up 42%.

"If we kept the same ratio of voters to councillors that we had then, we should actually be increasing the council size to 78."

Cllr Annabelle Blackmore: Digital revolution has made job easier
Cllr Annabelle Blackmore: Digital revolution has made job easier

But Cllr Annabelle Blackmore (Con) responded: "Since 1974, we've had the digital revolution. All councillors are able to deal with far more people now - and far more quickly."

The motion to recommend a reduction to 48 was carried. The final decision rests with the Electoral Commission.

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