Political tug-of-war as Lib Dems criticised for scrutiny chair appointment

Phoenix House is home to Mid Devon District Council
-Credit: (Image: Lewis Clarke)


Friction over which party should chair a key committee in Mid Devon led to a tussle for control and criticism of the ruling Liberal Democrat party.
A debate erupted after the Lib Dems nominated their member - Cllr Lance Kennedy ( Tiverton Cranmore) - to chair the important scrutiny committee.
Opposition councillors nominated the Conservatives' Cllr Rhys Roberts (Cadbury) as an alternative.
Cllr Nikki Woollatt (Independent, Cullompton St Andrews), said she had "expressed her disappointment" at the same meeting a year ago that the ruling Lib Dems had nominated one of their own to chair the scrutiny committee.
"This is something that the Conservatives didn't do when they had a large majority," she said.
She added that the council's own constitution suggested a presumption that the scrutiny committee chair should be drawn from minority groups.
"The past year has demonstrated the importance of those words in the constitution and the dangers of not abiding by them," Cllr Woollatt added.
"It's a matter of public record that the leader influenced the extremely short timescale of the 3 Rivers lessons-learned exercise, which should have been a matter for scrutiny to decide, not the executive."
Cllr Wollatt was referencing the council's investigation into its now closed housing firm, a probe some felt was unfairly constrained in its scope and length, although the council said lessons from the resulting report would be implemented if the council ever launched another company.
Cllr Woollatt said Mid Devon's scrutiny process had been subject to comments both locally and even in the House of Commons, even though she acknowledged that "there may have been politics behind some of the comments" made in Westminster.
Ian Liddell-Grainger, Conservative MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, is a frequent critic of Mid Devon District Council.
Although as a prospective candidate for the new Tiverton and Minehead seat, he will be fighting, among others, Liberal Democrat Rachel Gilmour (Clare Shuttern), who chaired Mid Devon's scrutiny committee until earlier this year.
Cllr Martin Binks (Conservative, Yeo) seconded the nomination of Cllr Roberts, adding that it was "a great shame the Liberal Democrats are demonstrating vulnerability and weakness by trying to find someone in their own ranks to take this position".
Cllr Roberts said that putting forward a candidate to chair the scrutiny committee from their own party essentially overlooked government advice, which stresses that effective scrutiny is critical for accountability.
"Yet again putting forward a candidate from their own governing party, this administration ignores this good advice and established practice, risking its own reputation, and flies in the face of its leader's much repeated principle for greater transparency," he added.
He also said he could find "not one" Devon council that had a scrutiny chair from the ruling party.
Cllr Kennedy took umbridge to seemingly being the target of the comments, outlining his credentials to be a fair and critical scrutiny chair.
"I have a personal reputation of 30 years in the police and 20 in politics and never have I ever been accused of bias, and I certainly won't be while on this council," he said.
"I agree with the description of the position I am applying for and can only guarantee to colleagues and the opposition that it will be done to the very best of my ability, and if that means marking our own homework to the detriment of those responsible, I will do so."
The two candidates were put to the vote at the meeting, with Cllr Kennedy securing the scrutiny committee chairship.