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A committee meeting taking place in the Guildhall

Conservatives do not have a divine right to rule Canterbury

After an acrimonious debate about Canterbury City Council’s 2018/19 budget, the ruling Conservative group accused its Labour opposition of adopting a “militant, hard-left tone” which ended an era of “cross party co-operation”. Here, Labour group leader and Northgate councillor Alan Baldock hits back:

Conservative city councillors are obviously a bit upset that the Labour group, consisting of just four of us, had the temerity to challenge their perceived right to rule our district.

In fact, they seem strangely shocked that an opposition party did not vote in favour of their budget, but abstained instead – in their words abandoning “cross party co-operation”.

I have news for them: Canterbury is a one-party state no more.

I always thought that councils were run on democratic lines. Indeed, it’s the responsibility of the opposition to scrutinize the proposals of the ruling party and challenge those that are unsound.

Cllr Alan Baldock

To simply roll over and co-operate is to go against the interests and views of the many thousands of electors that did not support the Conservatives at the last local election in 2015.

Some challenging questions and debate should be expected both ways, we can agree to disagree, and we often do.

We have been accused by the Conservatives, I paraphrase, of being a radical left wing, Momentum-driven bunch, blinkered by ideology.

Let me be clear: the Labour group is autonomous. It’s in the Labour Party Rules. I will also state for the record that, at the present time none of us belongs to Momentum.

So why is council leader Simon Cook accusing us of a “sudden shift to the left”? Perhaps it’s the Council Budget amendments we presented.

Our first looked at the need to have a step change increase in the building of new council houses.

Although some limited progress has been made, Canterbury City Council still has a waiting list of 2,700 and owns 700 fewer council houses than it did in 2012, so clearly a game-changer was needed.

What the Conservatives are doing here, isn’t working. We simply asked that £50,000 was set aside from the Housing Revenue Account for a one-off project.

The Housing Review Account is money that maintains, buys and builds council housing stock. Its money is generated in the main by rental incomes and the sale of council houses.

The aim was to create a 10-year strategic plan, obviously dovetailing with the work already underway, but setting up the conditions to build 100 new council houses every year in that period starting in 2020.

It would have been a complex plan that needed to pull together partnerships, funding and opportunities hence the necessity of setting aside project funding. Such a plan is achievable and affordable, and we believed would have been worth exploring.

Alan Baldock, left, with MP Rosie Duffield and Cllrs Jean Butcher and Bernadette Fisher

We felt the opportunity for 1,000 new homes by 2030, to be owned by the council, may have been further investigation. The decision was made to reject the amendment. That’s politics. Labour lost.

Our second amendment was to ask for a little extra funding to kick-start local community-led projects reducing single-use plastics and packaging.

Again, Labour lost that amendment as the ruling party felt enough was being done already.

Fair enough. Politics again. Again, sorry Simon, but I hardly think that amendment will be making “Hard Left’s 100 Greatest Policies 2018” – it was just a bit of community-minded social thinking.

Lastly, we proposed increasing from £10,000 to £20,000 money set aside already for residential on-street electric car charging next year.

That £20,000 would have been matched by a further £60,000 of government money from the national “On Street Residential Charge-Point Scheme”.

It would have enabled around 20 car charging points to be installed across the district. We took on board experience from cities much further forward with this technology than we are in Kent and decided this still small number would have given a much more robust start to this great and important initiative in our district.

Cllr Cook did request that we withdraw the amendment so that a more flexible approach could perhaps be taken.

However, regrettably the Lord Mayor, Cllr Rosemary Doyle, had other ideas and closed my response down on a matter of procedure, which she could have relaxed at her discretion.

The matter was sent to vote, which was lost of course – as was the opportunity for electric car owners to have many more places to charge their vehicles.

Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding, always a reasonable voice in my opinion, had made the point that technology on electric-chargers was changing so fast that Canterbury wanted to go gently into its installation programme and wait until the technology settles down.

Sorry Ben, but on this we’ll have to agree to disagree: technology isn’t going to slow down. Welcome to the 21st Century, it’s time to leap in.

So there you have it. Those were the three amendments that the Conservatives were saddened by, feeling that cross-party working was dead.

It isn’t dead, Simon. We are working with you, by being the opposition you so desperately need. Only when failings are pointed out, can anyone – even Conservative-led Canterbury City Council – be helped to do a better job.

The Journal has approached Canterbury City Council’s Conservative group for a response.

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