The Medway Tory leadership race is on

The Medway Conservative Group are now looking for a new leader after Cllr Rodney Chambers announced he is to step aside.

As the Conservatives have an overall majority, following last Thursday’s election, the victor will also ascend to Leader of the Council on 27 May, when Cllr Chambers will officially step down after 15 years in charge of Medway Council.

Cllr Chambers said:

I am enormously proud to have been the leader of Medway Council for the past 15 years. In this time the council has delivered many successful outcomes, which have positively changed Medway, benefitting the place and the people – our residents and businesses.

Much has been achieved that I am so proud of, and Medway undoubtedly has a very bright future. I am confident my successor will build on the record of the last 15 years and take Medway on to new heights.

I will continue to serve the people of Medway as a councillor following full council and I will offer my support to the new leader and look forward to seeing more success for Medway in the next few years.

The decision sparks a short leadership race which, almost undoubtedly, will take place behind closed doors. However, the reality is that there are few likely winners amongst the current ranks (one potential contender left last week to fight an election campaign in East Kent) and whoever wins will need to ensure the constituency splits which sadly occurred from time to time are kept to an acceptable minimum, although the debate has already started:

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The new leader will also need to bear in mind that, whilst the number of Conservative councillors rose again last Thursday, the average share of the vote per candidate1 dropped to its lowest level since they first took overall control of the council in 2003, as the graph from Medway Elects shows (below).

Average Vote Share

The new leader will be wise to accept that, whilst a(n increased) majority remains, the electorate should not be taken for granted. On average, 66% of voters did not want a Tory councillor2 – and a change of leader is the perfect opportunity for a change of direction to win over the voters who did not receive their support.

I congratulate Cllr Chambers on his long period of dedicated public service, and hope that his successor is able to bring about a positive change for the Tories and for Medway.

Whoever it is, and whatever path they carry Medway along, rest assured that I will be scrutinising them just as closely as ever!

Notes:

1. I calculate vote share as an average of the number of votes received by each candidate. This is, I believe, the most accurate reflection of both the fact that many people may not have been able to vote for their preferred party, and that all but one of the council’s 22 wards are multi-member, allowing multiple and often split votes and making it impossible to see how many people actually support a party in each ward.

2. Do not mistake my mention of a majority voting against the Tories for advocacy for proportional representation at a council level. Whilst I support PR for parliamentary elections (and always have done), at a local level, councillors really are, first and foremost, their constituents’ representatives – and that strong personal link between councillor and constituent must be maintained. The national PR argument is another argument for another day!

EXCLUSIVE: The Tory administration’s lost vote

When it comes to making difficult decisions affecting Medway’s residents, the Conservative Group can always be found uniting behind their leadership.

When it comes to taking flak from a handful of residents because they are not happy about this policy or that proposal, the Conservative Group councillors take it on the chin, and support their leadership.

But that appears to be changing. In part one of my examination, I showed how one councillor made his concerns public – and how the Deputy Leader of the Council responded in kind with a polite, but public, dressing down.

What happens in public and what happens behind closed doors are two different things, you might say, with frequent Group meetings to iron out any issues and vote on Group policy there must surely be some conflict away from the prying eyes of the media and citizen journalists?

That may be so; we all remember when Councillor Craig Mackinlay challenged Councillor Rodney Chambers for the leadership and lost. But that example highlights the supposed strength of the Conservative Group: when all is said and done, if the leadership want a vote to go a certain way in Group meetings, it always goes that way.

In 14 years in office, the leadership has, to the best of my knowledge, never lost a vote.

Until now…

I have heard, from more than one source, that at the Group meeting before last week’s Full Council, a proposal was put forward by a backbench councillor to alter the council’s policy on affordable housing.

It was not groundbreaking, it was not earth shattering, but it was, at its heart, conservative. It would have meant that some housing developments would have higher quotas of affordable housing and some lower, or none at all. It would create areas desirable to executives Medway should be trying to invite in. It had the support of one of Medway’s MPs, who made the case for the proposal at the meeting, and, most importantly of all, it would have still allowed Medway to sit comfortably within government guidelines on affordable housing.

But the leadership didn’t like it. Cllr Diane Chambers, Chairman of the Planning Committee and wife of the Leader of the Council, was against it. As with all proposals, it was put to the vote, which the leadership expected, as they always do, to win.

Except that’s not what happened. When it came to the crunch, the leadership lost. It may only have been by a small margin (I don’t have the exact figures), but when the votes were counted the proposal was accepted.

Amongst those supporting the policy was at least one member of Cllr Chambers’ cabinet, whose portfolio would be affected by any policy changes with regards to affordable housing.

As with Cllr Turpin’s stance on Rochester Airport, this may not seem like a big deal. But it is. For the first time, Cllr Chambers’ authority has been successfully challenged. And now that it has happened once, members of the Conservative Group will be less hesitant to do the same thing again.

The Conservative administration has done a lot of good things for Medway in the past 14 years, but it has also done things which have annoyed a lot of people, including some of their own councillors. The frequency of the negative decisions seems to be increasing, and support for the administration waning.

It is now, so obviously, an administration that is on its last legs. The current direction can only continue so much longer, or 2015 will become the year the Conservatives lost control of Medway Council.

There is a sea change sweeping across the country and across Medway. Councillors of all sides, but particularly within the Conservative Group, sense what is happening. Opinion of the government, and of the council, is not improving, despite the strengthening economy.

Councillors are desperate not to be on the wrong side of that change, and, as time progresses, they will do whatever is necessary to ensure that they are, once again, on the right side of public opinion.

Medway Tories rip up Human Rights convention

Bad news for those who support the European Convention on Human Rights in Medway, as this week the Tories wilfully ignored it.

Article 10 states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

However, following the decision of Cllr David Carr, newly-appointed cabinet member for community safety, to use his Article 10 rights to impart his opinion on the much-despised traveller communities, Tory council leader Cllr Rodney Chambers instead decided that, in fact, Cllr Carr had no such rights and suspended him from his cabinet duties – less than two weeks into the job.

In an interview with the Medway Messenger shortly after his appointment, Cllr Carr said:

I would have no hesitation in strategising a solution for travellers if travellers were going to be responsible community inhabitants, but that in itself is questionable against their name – ‘travellers’. If they’re going to travel they can hardly become part of the integrated community.

They move on and turn it into a building site. They crap all over the place, they p*ss over the field, they throw rubbish all over the place.

The majority of comments on the linked article are in Cllr Carr’s favour, leading to speculation once again that the Tory council is out of touch with the ordinary, hardworking Medway taxpayers. Instead, Cllr Chambers has chosen to respond by Labour’s party political hijacking of Cllr Carr’s comments by suspending him and holding a review of the incident before deciding whether to reinstate him or replace him so soon after his initial appointment.

Most people who know me will know that I remain broadly supportive of the local Tory council in many areas, although I would of course campaign and vote for UKIP in a local election, but actions such as these lead me to question whether my trust in the Tories on Medway Council is, instead, entirely misplaced.

Cllr Les Wicks sacked as schools supremo

As far as political inevitability goes, the departure of Cllr Les Wicks from Medway Council’s cabinet ranks pretty highly.

However, the surprise is that it has taken until last night’s annual meeting of Medway Council for the Leader of the Council, Cllr Rodney Chambers, to show Cllr Wicks the door.

My position on this issue has been clear for a long time. Back when my blood ran in the deepest blue imaginable, I argued that Cllr Wicks and the relevant Director should resign in the best interests of Medway’s children. She left, but Cllr Wicks stayed.

This sorry saga has become a drawn-out embarrassment for the Conservative Group and was one of the few local issues which influenced my decision to leave the party. Cllr Wicks’ continued presence on the cabinet became one big distracting sideshow, while the children in Medway suffered, partly as a result.

It may be that Cllr Chambers hoped that the furore would die down in time, but bad news kept piling on the pressure and the anger from parents in Medway never subsided. At last month’s full council meeting, yet another petition of 800 signatures was presented, calling on his resignation. Cllr Chambers continued to praise his embattled cabinet member, but the writing was surely on the wall.

When I wrote my notorious post calling for Cllr Wicks to resign in 2011, I did so with a heavy heart, because he was a councillor I respected. Such respect has been severely dented after he hung on to his post far longer than he should have.

Now that Cllr Wicks and his cabinet colleague for children’s social care, Cllr David Wildey, have gone, I hope that we can finally put this matter to bed and support the pairing of Cllr Mike O’Brien, taking both jobs, and cabinet newcomer Cllr Kelly Tolhurst, taking a newly created Educational Improvement portfolio (under the direction of the Children’s Services portfolio holder), as they settle into their new roles.

Only time will tell if they are the right people for the job, but I wish them the very best of luck and will reserve judgement for a suitable period of time. After all, change doesn’t happen overnight.

But if it change doesn’t happen at all, it is only the children of Medway who suffer.

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Other changes were introduced to the cabinet last night. In moving to the Children’s Services portfolio, Cllr O’Brien vacated the Community Safety and Customer Contact portfolio he inherited from Cllr Rehman Chishti when he became an MP in 2010. This portfolio has been taken over by another cabinet newcomer, Cllr David Carr.

Meanwhile, veteran Cllr Tom Mason has been removed from the cabinet as his Corporate Services portfolio was abolished. The functions he carried out have been split amongst the remaining portfolio holders, of which there are now nine (down from ten).

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The new cabinet looks as follows:

Leader – Cllr Rodney Chambers
Deputy Leader and Finance – Cllr Alan Jarrett
Adult Services – Cllr David Brake
Children’s Services (Lead Member) – Cllr Mike O’Brien
Educational Improvement – Cllr Kelly Tolhurst
Community Safety and Customer Contact – Cllr David Carr
Front Line Services – Cllr Phil Filmer
Housing and Community Services – Cllr Howard Doe
Strategic Development and Economic Growth – Cllr Jane Chitty

Allen announces starting XI

Gillingham’s championship-winning manager Martin Allen has announced his starting XI for the final gane of the season.

As the Gills travel to Burton Albion with little left to play for besides pride, Allen is seeking to give development squad players a runout before the record-breaking centenary season concludes.

The team will be Forecast, Romeo, Davies, Frampton, Muggleton, Gregory, Dack, Allen, Grant, Birchall, Weston.

Allen said “we have a combination of some senior and younger players. This is a big game for a lot of our players, and we are ready.”

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At the Medway Council meeting tonight, leader Cllr Rodney Chambers reiterated the council’s congratulations for the Gills’ success, and his remarks were echoed around the council chamber.

Cllr Chambers added that they had offered to facilitate a victory parade, but unfortunately the club was unable to take that up.

Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Geoff Juby described the club’s decision as a shame.