South Hams 'jilted at the altar' by West Devon

By Bob Rogers   |   Reporter   |
Friday 3rd November 2017 1:13 pm
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SHDC's Follaton HQ, left, and West Devon's home in Tavistock ()

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South Hams District Council has been jilted at the altar after West Devon Borough Council rejected a controversial council marriage proposal which would have seen the formation of a single local authority stretching from Tavistock to Totnes.

And, in the fall-out from the decision, councillors from both authorities are no longer talking to each another.

South Hams councillors voted to go ahead with the merger, even though it would clobber South Hams householders with a 40 per cent increase in the district council’s tax bill and 86 per cent of people in the district who took part in a month long consultation exercise rejected it.

But on the same evening, West Devon councillors voted in the opposite direction amid concerns over a lack of information and time to consider the major move and the loss of almost one-third of their council seats as a result of a merger.

South Hams council leader John Tucker said the day after the surprise West Devon decision: “The merger is now dead in the water. Even if we could revive it there would be no enthusiasm to do so.”

And he said that while the two councils would continue to share services, the elected councillors will no longer be working together.

He said: “It has put a big strain on relationships. At the moment any joint working between members will be suspended, although officers will continue to work across both authorities as they have done for years.”

Simultaneous meetings were held at South Hams’ HQ at Follaton House in Totnes and West Devon’s HQ at Kilworthy Park in Tavistock on Tuesday evening.

South Hams voted by 19 to eight, with three councillors abstaining, to agree the merger and ask the Government for the final go ahead.

But in West Devon, councillors voted by 18 to 13 to reject the idea of a single council – effectively killing off the merger plans.

In a short statement, issued immediately after the two competing decisions, South Hams said: “This means that the proposal to create one new council for South Hams and West Devon will not be submitted to the Secretary of State.

“Councillors from both authorities now need some time to regroup and talk to their members before making any further statements about what this outcome means.”

Speaking from his home the following morning, Cllr Tucker said: “The 24 Conservative members of South Hams District Council, at least, are gutted over it.

“Even the ones that did not want it to go ahead are unhappy and we need to sit down and review what has happened.”

But opposition councillors, who had opposed the merger plans from the word go, were delighted that West Devon delivered what they failed to do at their meeting on Tuesday.

Cllr John Birch, Liberal Democrat, said: “At least West Devon councillors listened to their residents, which is more than can be said for the Conservatives at South Hams.

“It really is good news. Effectively South Hams has been saved by the West Devon councillors, which reflects very badly on the Conservative councillors who supported the motions and completely ignored public opinion.”

And he said he believed South Hams Conservatives would “pay dearly” at the next district council elections, due to go ahead in May 1919.

Meanwhile, Cllr John Green, Green Party, said: “It is good that South Hams residents will not have to foot the bill to tackle the financial problems that West Devon Borough Council have got themselves into. The South Hams Conserv­ative councillors voted against the wishes of the residents of the South Hams in order to prevent the failure of the neighbouring Conservative-run council in West Devon.”

Totnes constituency Labour Party issued a statement saying: “During a lengthy consultation from August to October, an overwhelming majority of South Hams and West Devon residents who participated declared that they were opposed to this merger.

“Notwithstanding that, South Hams Conservative councillors voted overwhelmingly in favour of the merger proposal at the full council meeting.

“In contrast, West Devon councillors appear to have listened to the views of their residents when voting against the merger proposal.

“This failed merger plan is another example of the administrative incompetence of the Conservative group in control of South Hams District Council.”

Supporters of the merger argued it was vital for the future viability of South Hams District Council as it faces a major budgetary black hole as the Govern­ment finally withdraws all rate support grants to local authorities.

It is predicted that the South Hams would face a budget gap of £800,000 and West Devon Council £1.9m by 2020, while a merger would result in £500,000 “staff efficiency” savings and an extra £2.5m a year in council tax receipts.

Through August and September, 85.9 per cent of the South Hams residents who took part in online, telephone and paper surveys said they were against a merger of the two councils.

In West Devon, a much smaller majority of 55.46, said no.

However, in a telephone survey – designed to be statistically representative of the local populations through age etc – 58.6 – said no in the South Hams, while a majority – 61.1 per cent – in West Devon said yes.

At the sometimes stormy South Hams meeting, it was pointed out that just over four per cent of the population of the South Hams and three per cent of the population of West Devon had taken part in the process.

Cllr Nicky Hopwood, Conserv­ative, said there had been “such a poor response” that “maybe the majority of residents are looking to us to make the right decision on their behalf”.

Meanwhile, Cllr Rufus Gilbert, Conservative, warned that rejecting the merger could result in cuts to frontline services, including closing toilets and emptying bins every six weeks, instead of every fortnight.

“When people come to realise the benefits of one council they will come to realise that it is not a bad thing at all,” he said.

Ahead of the meeting, around 10 placard-carrying members of the Totnes constituency Labour Party staged a protest outside Follaton House.

More than two dozen members of the public crowded into the council chamber and at several points during the meeting council chairman Cllr Kathy Cuthbert warned people they would be ejected if they did not keep quiet.

At one point during the meeting, Cllr Jacqi Hodgson, Green, put forward an amendment to the merger proposals, calling for a South Hams-wide public referendum to give people the chance to vote themselves on whether they were prepared to accept a 40 per cent council tax increase to facilitate a single council – or a smaller increase to ensure a continuation of council services.

The amendment was thrown out by by 24 votes to six after councillors condemned the cost of a referendum and claimed it would short circuit the democratic process which involved elected councillors making decisions.

Keith Baldry, Liberal Democrat, warned that if the merger was allowed to go ahead, the council leader would leave a legacy as “the person who abolished South Hams”.

He warned that the public feared the merger decision was a “done deal” and “fixed’, even before the councillors had met to make a decision. And he said that if the decision was to ask the Government to agree to the merger, it would not be the end of the battle.

He said: “Rest assured, it will be the start of the process. The people of the South Hams will make it clear to their MPs and to the Secretary of State that we are not in favour of this. There will be overwhelming lobbying from the people of the South Hams.”

He said that through the consultation process the people of the South Hams had “made their views clear”. He added: “I have been hard pressed to find a single member of the public in favour of this proposal.”

Cllr Robert Vint, Liberal Democrat, condemned a “lack of democracy” and “fake consultation” and claimed a vote for the merger would be a “betrayal of the people who have elected you”.

At West Devon Borough Council, during a lengthy debate that lasted nearly two and a half hours, councillors raised issues over council governance; how a reduction in councillors for West Devon from 31 to 20 could lead to poorer constituent representation; and whether councillors had sufficient time to consider the proposals properly.

They expressed concerns that the move had been brought forward to give the proposal a chance of being accepted and a new council formed by April 2020.

Among those most vocally against the move was Cllr Robert Oxborough, who initially made a proposal to defer the decision for 12 months which was voted down by fellow members.

He said: “It is not a simple, straightforward, easy decision. Despite what impression I may have given other members tonight, it is a 52/48 decision for me.

“I am just not convinced we know enough about key areas affected by such a decision.”

Meanwhile, Cllr Ric Cheadle was also against the decision. He said: “My experience is that bold decisions like that are made best when there is a full command of the information required. Is the council absolutely sure it has checked every corner of its finances and has no other choice but to plunge into a new future like this? My answer would have to be no.”

The South Hams councillors who voted in favour of the merger were: Hilary Bastone, Con; Ian Blackler, Con; Daniel Brown, Con; Basil Cane, Con; Kathy Cuthbert, Con; Richard Foss, Con; Rufus Gilbert, Con; Jonathan Hawkins, Con; Michael Hicks, Con; Nicky Hopwood, Con; David May, Con; Karen Pringle, Con; Rosemary Rowe, Con; Michael Saltern, Con; Peter Smerdon, Con; Robert Steer, Con; John Tucker, Con; Keith Wingate, Con; and Simon Wright, Con.

Those who voted against were: Keith Baldry, Lib Dem; John Birch, Lib Dem; Julian Brazil, Lib Dem; John Green, Green; Jacqi Hodgson, Green; Elizabeth Huntley, Lib Dem; Trevor Pennington, Con; Robert Vint, Lib Dem.

The councillors who abstained were: Ian Bramble, Con; Thomas Holway, Con; and Judy Pearce, Con.

Cllr Bill Hitchins, Con, was absent.How the story was reported in Tavistock: http://www.tavistock-today.co.uk/article.cfm?id=422081

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