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Declarations of independence
Local Government Chronicle – 13 August 2009

Independents and small parties have prospered from public disillusionment over Westminster politics. But can people elected on different, even conflicting, platforms form effective administrations asks Mark Smulian?

Life can be difficult for officers when most of their councillors belong to no recognisable political party, few have been elected on a manifesto that concerns anything beyond their ward and poor personal relationships make it problematic to form an administration.

Who sets a council's policy direction and priorities when the largest group comprises people elected on 20-odd separate platforms? And if these can be set, has the administration the internal discipline to deliver?

Officers can end up, in effect, running the council and the experience can make them leave for more conventional places, as happened to the last two chief executives at Isle of Anglesey County Council.

According to its tourism website, the island offers fine beaches, kite surfing and agricultural shows. According to Wales' auditor general Jeremy Colman, it offers an illustration of how not to run a council and of the need for government intervention for the first time in Wales.

What is significant beyond Anglesey is that the 4 June elections saw an increased support for independents and 'others', given voters' disillusionment with the main parties over the MPs' expenses scandal.

In that situation, independents who claimed to offer 'common sense' or to think only of constituents' 'best interests' could have an appeal.

However, Mr Colman's report makes it plain that large numbers of independents can, if not carefully managed, cause havoc because they have been elected without common objectives.

The 4 June 2009 elections saw independents and 'others' (which includes recognised small parties like the Greens and British National Party) increase their total of English county council seats by 42 to 171, a 32% rise.

Independents could be heading for control of a council near you soon. Just hope they do not behave as on Anglesey.

Political differences tend to be reflected in personal opposition rather than being based on differences of policy.

Anglesey's main political bloc is the Original Independents - which their leader Clive McGregor says includes members of all four national parties even though Labour and Plaid Cymru have their own council groups.

The opposition is Anglesey Forward, who long ago split from the Originals. There are also, confusingly, other unaligned independents.

What drove Mr Colman to recommend intervention, and led Wales' local government minister Brian Gibbons to impose a recovery board on the council, was not these peculiar political arrangements themselves but the paralysis they caused. Mr Colman found that while service delivery was acceptable the council "has a long history of being not properly run". Lack of direction of corporate leadership meant it would be hard for Anglesey to improve.

The auditor general adds: "A small but influential minority of elected members has frequently and persistently shown a lack of respect for fellow councillors and officers," resulting in wasted time, energy and resources.

That could happen in any council given the wrong circumstances. But Mr Colman highlighted how the absence of party discipline had made things worse: "Most councillors are not members of established political parties, belonging instead to one of two main independent groups. Some who do represent political parties are also affiliated to one of these groups. Political differences tend to be reflected in personal opposition rather than being based on differences of policy.

"This limited involvement of 'party politics' within the council has contributed to the frequent realignment of allegiances in order to form a majority administration which is then able to allocate responsibilities and associated allowances on what can only be seen to be a 'grace and favour' basis."

Leaders of these unstable political groups "have been unable to exercise the degree of control or sanction that might reasonably be expected and to enforce the fact that group status confers responsibilities as well as rewards", he notes. A coalition of the Original Independents and Plaid Cymru replaced Anglesey Forward in 2008 but came to power without any agreed policy.

"Twelve months later there is still no agreed sense of direction for the council or comprehensive and consistent policy framework within which to operate." Mr Colman says.

His report painted a picture that Dr Gibbons described as "indefensible", and he imposed the board to ensure Anglesey mends its ways.

Cllr McGregor says: "One of the things that concerned the auditor general is the effects of personality politics.

"Politics in rural areas is very different to urban areas and that is something people have to understand - personalities are far more important than parties." He adds that the council has accepted Mr Colman's strictures even if "we don't totally subscribe to everything in it".

But do councils run by independents, or by minor or localist parties, have to be like this? Given the recent slump in support for the main parties, it's something for officers to think about in case their local political landscape suddenly shifts.

This happened in Boston Borough Council in 2007 when the Boston Bypass Independents (BBI) took control of the council. Rather oddly, theirmain objective was one that the district was powerless to deliver since highways is a county function.

But the BBI ran the place well enough for a research project by Terry Gorman, a principal associate of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, to conclude: "Traditional political activists can easily dismiss this [victory] as a one-off that cannot be sustained when the new group realises the heavy burden it now faces in having to run all aspects of the council. I believe this is not the case in this instant."

Mr Gorman pointed to the quality of the BBI councillors, their leadership's strong relationship with chief executive Mick Gallagher, senior managers' enthusiasm for change and "the fact that all members of the group are focused on the wellbeing of Boston".

Two years on, by-election losses and defections mean the BBI now has a slender majority in the still bypass-less town, and Mr Gallagher has decided to move on. The council has also received a damning annual audit letter, which said did not have the "financial or managerial capacity to deliver its plans".

"When you're elected on a single issue that you can't deliver on, it can be hard to maintain group discipline," one senior local government figure notes.

Independent control can be effective but a less happy story was the chaos at Richmondshire District Council, which saw chief executive Harry Tabiner retire and publish a scathing address likening councillors' political maturity to that of toddlers.

The Conservatives took over that year opposed by the Richmondshire Independent Group, the Richmondshire Alliance of Independent Councillors, and the Independents of North Yorkshire, groups whose ideological differences are a matter for conjecture.

Chris Game, honorary senior lecturer at Birmingham University's Institute of Local Government Studies, who has studied independent councillors, says: "You can never predict how well a council will work and you might guess that one with a lot of independents will be a problem, but it is a matter of local conditions. "It can be difficult though when there is no group manifesto and everything must be negotiated.

"If there are a lot of councillors who cannot form an administration it is for the chief executive to bring people together and explain that they have to find a way to make it work."

Some officers would relish that situation; others would feel it impossible. As Mr Game's research has shown, independents and 'others' have kept around 10% of council seats for the past 15 years, despite regular predictions of their demise. They have some 10% of seats in English districts and unitaries, 30% in Wales and 15% in Scotland. Only in London and metropolitan counties are they peripheral. Reports of the death of independents and 'others' have been exaggerated, and for officers used to dealing with tidy and disciplined political groups they can be both a challenge and opportunity.