‘New broom’ begins to sweep at Gosport Town Hall

By Chief Correspondent Rob Thomas

FIRMLY in charge following the local elections, the Liberal Democrat group has moved quickly to introduce changes in the policies and processes of Gosport Borough Council.

As reported in The Globe, on Wednesday the Lib Dems rejected Mayor-Elect Councillor Zoe Huggins (Conservative, Alverstoke) and Deputy Mayor-Elect Councillor Kevin Casey (Conservative, Alverstoke) and replaced them with Liberal Democrats – Councillor Jamie Hutchison (Hardway) becoming Mayor and Councillor Martin Pepper (Peel Common) Deputy Mayor.

Then, in Thursday evening’s Council meeting the Lib Dems proposed a reduction in the number of boards and the number of councillors on each board.

Four boards instead of six

Instead of the previous six boards, there will be four boards:

  • Policy and Organisation Board
  • Community and Environment Board
  • Housing Board
  • Regulatory Board

The major change is the role of P&O Board which takes over the reference and functions of the former Economic Development Board and now has responsibility for many of the policy responsibilities of the former Community Board – including recreational, cultural, heritage, allotments, cemeteries, community safety, and anti-social behaviour.

While the policies come under P&O board, the new Community and Environment Board will still be responsible for the operation and management of recreational, cultural, sporting and leisure facilities, cemeteries and other amenities, and it picks up the reference and functions of the former Climate Board.

The references and functions of the Housing Board and of Regulatory Board are unchanged.

‘efficient decision-making’ versus ‘democratic accountability’

Whereas previously boards had up to 13 members, the four new boards will have seven members with the allocation of seats to each of the three political groups being based on the number of seats it has on the Council. This means the Liberal Democrats will hold the majority on each board for the next two years at least.

The former Standards and Governance Committee – which will have five members – has been replaced by a Standards and Audit Sub-Board reporting to the P&O Board.

In the debate, the new Council Leader Councillor Peter Chegwyn (Liberal Democrat, Forton) said the aim was to produce, “a leaner, more efficient decision-making process”, with, “less waffle”.

However, while accepting the reduction in the number of boards, the Conservative group wanted to amend the constitutional changes so that each board had 14 members.

Their argument – and formal amendment proposed by the group’s leader Councillor Graham Burgess (Lee East) – was based on what Councillor Stephen Philpott (Peel Common) said was, “democratic accountability”.

This was interpreted by his Conservative colleague Councillor Tony Jessop (Grange and Alver Valley) as with only seven members on each board, it meant each councillor was involved in only one board and 25 per cent of the decision making, but with 14 members on each board, each councillor would sit on two boards and thereby be involved in 50 per cent of the decision making.

The amendment was voted down and with the support of the two Labour councillors, the Liberal Democrat proposed board changes were accepted by 18 votes to 10.

‘bring life back into the town’

Later in the meeting, Councillor Chegwyn outlined the approach the Liberal Democrats will pursue now they have overall control of the council.

While admitting some changes would take time, he said the immediate policies were to: “Regenerate the High Street and bring life back into the town; look after our heritage; improve children’s play areas and look at car parking charges.”

Much of this approach will be via P&O Board, the agenda for the first meeting of which is on Monday, May 30. It lists as substantive items: Community Skips, Car Parking, Levelling Up Procurement, and Beach Road Car Park Community Trigger.

However, the agenda does not as yet have any accompanying papers setting out the precise proposals for discussion.

Representatives on outside bodies

The Council meeting also appointed the members of each board and sub-board, and the members who will represent Gosport Borough Council on outside bodies such as, Gosport Community Safety Partnership Strategic Board and Gosport Heritage Open Days – the council’s website lists 40 such outside bodies on which it is represented though in the discussion, questions were raised about the continued existence of some of them.

When contested, the vote went in favour of the Liberal Democrat councillor(s).

The final item for the Council to consider on Thursday evening was the setting up of an independent remuneration panel to consider the allowances paid to councillors because there are now 28 councillors representing the people of the borough as against the 34 previously.

The Borough Solicitor and Monitoring Officer’s report to the Council indicated that the independent panel will consist of three people – one from each of the education sector, the voluntary/community sector, and the business sector.

However, before councillors could start to consider how much better off they will be, Councillor Chegwyn pledged the aim was to reduce expenditure.

Photograph (top): Gosport Town Hall now under Liberal Democrat control.