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It's not fair, says Sheppey councillor Cameron Beart in Swale council committee shake-up

Swale council's new and much-trumpeted committee system came into force on Wednesday last week after the former cabinet was scrapped.

But the result hasn't pleased everyone.

Cllr Cameron Beart
Cllr Cameron Beart

Both the outgoing coalition leader Roger Truelove (Lab) and his replacement Mike Baldock (Swale Independents Alliance, SIA) predicted it would be fairer and pave the way for "more inclusive" governance involving councillors of all parties.

But at the council's annual meeting where it was launched only one opposition Conservative councillor received a top job - and he was already in place.

Cllr Cameron Beart (Con, Queenborough and Halfway) said: "Having listened to the grandiose speeches by the outgoing cabinet members you may have been mistaken that the aim was to create a more inclusive and cohesive council with more cross-party working to benefit residents. In reality, nothing has changed. It is very much business as usual.

"The cabinet members have received a new corporate rebrand and are now called committee chairmen. Their deputies have become their vice-chairmen and the whipped party line voting continues as before."

In the shake-up which wasn't, deputy leader Monique Bonney (Ind, West Downs), formerly cabinet member for economy and property, now chairs the regeneration and property committee.

All change at Swale House
All change at Swale House

Likewise, Ben J Martin (Lib Dems, Watling - housing) is in charge of housing and health, taking over health duties from Sheerness Labour councillor Angela Harrison. Leader Mike Baldock (Ind Alliance, Borden and Grove Park) who was in charge of planning and reform, now takes the lead in policy and resources. Julian Saunders (Lab, St Ann's) retains his grip on environment.

Cllr Beart said: "The Conservatives, who supported the move to the committee system unanimously, put forward several nominations for chairs and vice-chairs all of which were voted down by the coalition en mass.

"It even reached the point where some coalition councillors ended up chairing two committees. One member was made vice-chair of two and was still nominated for a third.

"The desire to block any attempt at cross-party working was obviously spreading their diminishing numbers thin."

Cllr Baldock also chairs the urgent decisions committee (who knew?) and Cllr Derek Carnell (Ind Alliance, Kemsley) now chairs both the audit and licensing committees.

Ups and downs of council life: Swale council leader Cllr Mike Baldock, left, with Carlos Christian on the Master Blaster ride at Smith's funfair, Barton's Point, Sheerness
Ups and downs of council life: Swale council leader Cllr Mike Baldock, left, with Carlos Christian on the Master Blaster ride at Smith's funfair, Barton's Point, Sheerness

Cllr Beart added: "We also held votes on nominations of councillors to sit on the boards of outside bodies and at the start of the debate we heard how councillors should be elected based on their skills and expertise and not on party political grounds.

"In this spirit, the Conservative group nominated a frontline NHS worker to sit on the board of Medway Maritime Hospital and a former borough commander to sit on the police and crime panel - both highly qualified for the respective roles and both rejected by the coalition."

Sheppey, he pointed out, remained underrepresented with coalition members only holding three of the 14 seats on the Island.

However, he was voted vice-chairman of the Sheppey area committee and fellow Tory Ken Ingleton remains as chairman.

When Cllr Baldock was elected leader last month he said: “The move towards a new committee system is an exciting opportunity to make sure every elected councillor, regardless of party-affiliation or location, can be genuinely involved in issues affecting their residents.

Cllr Mike Baldock is Swale council's new leader
Cllr Mike Baldock is Swale council's new leader

“We all have serious challenges ahead. I believe the best way to approach them is by working together and making sure debates and decisions are fully informed and focussed on supporting people and our local communities."

After hearing of the complaints, he hit back.

He said: "This demonstrates a real failure by Cllr Beart to understand the new system. Cabinet members no longer have executive powers and cannot make decisions outside of the committee they chair.

"Those committees are politically balanced and all members are able to contribute to decision making, including the Conservatives. To describe this as a simple 'rebranding' is utter nonsense. Also, there are just five committee chairs whereas there were eight cabinet members."

But he added: "The Coalition, however, does remain the administration and has a majority of councillors. We, of course, do have a programme for governing, just as any council has. The difference is that the decisions now lie with cross-party committees. So, plenty has changed."

Cllr Monique Bonney (Independent) for West Downs. Picture: Swale council
Cllr Monique Bonney (Independent) for West Downs. Picture: Swale council

He also accused the Conservatives of "playing party politics" when it came to voting for representatives on outside bodies.

"The very first vote was on nominations to Action For Communities in Rural Kent. We have three seats I had one of them previously along with Monique Bonney. The Conservatives had a seat as well.

"This year I was too busy with other duties and stood down. There were four nominations for the three seats - one coalition candidate and three Conservatives.

"Each of the three Conservative nominees received votes from Coalition councillors. In the final vote, not a single Conservative voted for Cllr Bonney despite her already representing the council and having been a councillor since 2007."

Full line-up

Communities chairman Richard Palmer (SIA), vice-chairman Elliott Jayes (SIA); Environment Julian Saunders (Lab), Tim Valentine (Green); Housing and health Ben Martin (Lib Dem), Angela Harrison (Lab); Policy and resources Mike Baldock (SIA), Monique Bonney (Ind).

Regeneration and property Monique Bonney (Ind), Sarah Stephen(SIA); Eastern Area Denise Knights (Ind), Julian Saunders (Lab); Sheppey Area Ken Ingleton (Con), Cameron Beart (Con); Sittingbourne Area Steve Davey (Lab), Mike Dendor (Con); Western Area Corrie Woodford (SIA), Sarah Stephen (SIA).

Audit Derek Carnell (SIA), Mike Henderson (Lib Dem); Licensing Derek Carnell (SIA), Tony Winckless (Lab); Planning Tim Gibson (Lab), Elliott Jayes (SIA); Standards Hannah Perkin (Lib Dem), Steve Davey (Lab); Urgent decisions Mike Baldock (SIA), Monique Bonney (Ind).

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