Published: 15:14, 01 July 2020
| Updated: 15:52, 01 July 2020
A Kent council could axe a third of its councillors to save £1 million.
A total of 54 councillors were elected to serve Tonbridge and Malling residents in the most recent borough council elections 14 months ago, but plans are now underway to cut the local authority's membership to 35.
Tonbridge and Malling council's Conservative administration says around £1m would be saved over a 10-year period. Opposition councillors say the cuts will be "bad for democracy" and criticised the "cabinet's stranglehold" on the council.
Cllr Nicolas Heslop (Con), leader of the authority, which is expected to suffer a £5m shortfall from the coronavirus crisis this year, said: "Reducing councillors from 54 to 35 will save residents over £100,000 each year."
Tonbridge and Malling council has the third highest number of councillors out of the county's 12 district authorities, just behind Maidstone's 55 and Thanet, which has 56. Tonbridge would drop to the third lowest with the cuts, ahead of Dover's 32 and Folkestone's 30.
In a written statement to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Cllr Heslop added: "At the last local elections, the Conservative Group stood on a manifesto commitment to further lessen the size of the bureaucracy at Tonbridge and Malling by reducing the number of councillors by a third.
"Over a number of years, we have reduced the cost of running the borough council and it is only right that the number of councillors should be addressed too as part of this process."
His comments were made less than 24 hours after Tonbridge councillors were told about an upcoming review of electoral wards in the borough, which will start this September. This was presented to them in a virtual cabinet meeting.
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England says a review of Tonbridge and Malling's 24 wards is necessary following concerns of an "electoral imbalance" across the borough.
In a letter from the commission published to Tonbridge council on June 10, the chair, Professor Colin Mellors, stated: "The initial tasks for the council will be to develop thoughts on proposed council size (i.e. the number of elected members) alongside assembling five-year electorate."
A main area of concern relates to two councillors representing Burham and Wouldham ward, which has 32% fewer constituents than the rest of the authority's average.
Several other divisions have a lower proportion of constituents compared to the council's average, including Kings Hill, Wateringbury and Snodland West.
However, Green Party member, Cllr Mark Hood, of Judd, said: "I'm not sure people would want to see less councillors, but there are more simple ways to cut costs than cutting down the proportion of councillors."
Cllr Hood added: "The stranglehold the cabinet has on the council is unbelievable."
The majority of elected members on Tonbridge and Malling council have a basic allowance of £5,000, according to data published by the authority for the financial year from April 2019 to April 2020.
It means that removing 19 councillors, as suggested, would save around £95,000 each year for the local authority, according to the council figures.
Tonbridge council's main opposition leader, Cllr Anita Oakley (Lib Dem), who supports the motion, said: "I think it's a sensible idea in the current climate, although the local people do need to have a voice and be well represented."
However, Cllr Mike Taylor, the leader of Tonbridge council's Independents, said he was "not comfortable" with the proposal being put forward and said removing officers rather than councillors would reduce the red tape.
He added: "Cutting the number of councillors is counter productive and bad for our democracy."
All 54 elected members are expected to be consulted in a private briefing this September ahead of the start of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England's review.
The electoral boundary changes are expected to be implemented by May 2023, according to a Tonbridge and Malling council dossier.
More by this authorCiaran Duggan, local democracy reporter
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