By Richard Fleury
A coalition of Swale Borough Council's former opposition groups has taken overall control from the Conservatives, promising a radical shakeup for the council.
The new administration, comprising the ten-strong Swale Independents group, the 11-strong Labour group, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats has called itself The Cooperative Alliance.
A five sided coalition, or “rainbow alliance” as some are nicknaming it, is a unique development in Kent politics.
“I regard it as a pentagon really, a five-sided fortress,” said coalition leader Roger Truelove (Labour). “Though not with the military connotations.”
At a post-election Press conference at Swale House, leaders Roger Truelove (Labour), Mike Baldock (Swale Independents), Ben J Martin (Liberal Democrats), Tim Valentine (Green Party) and Monique Bonney (Independent Group), signed the new coalition agreement.
Councillor Truelove said the election results were “a clear signal for change” on major local issues and promised five changes in direction that Swale will experience in the next 12 months. They are:
1. A radical new approach to planning – See our story
2. A plan to tackle homelessness and the need for affordable housing
Roger Truelove: “It's a very high priority. We've already got more access to better temporary accommodation for people who are homeless within the borough. We're already moving in that direction.”
Mike Baldock: ”Homelessness isn't just about housing. There's a whole wider social range of factors and we recognise that.”
3. Commitment to tough action on environmental concerns, health issues and promoting safe and inclusive communities
Tim Valentine: “We want the council itself to be a beacon of good practice. So we want to achieve net zero energy use earlier, generating and buying electricity from renewable sources, investment in electric vehicle infrastructure to encourage the transition from the internal combustion engine to zero-emission vehicles. Swale at the moment is a complete desert for rapid charging.”
“We're looking at the possibility of low-emissions zones where we could prohibit the most polluting vehicles from areas where pollution is worse. But we're also interested in exploring new ways of reducing traffic, to try and get people out of their cars and making journeys on foot, by bike and on public transport.”
4. Changing the way Swale makes decisions to give elected Councillors and the public a better say
Mike Baldock: “We want to bring back the committee system so councillors have a greater input into decision-making. Everybody should feel that their councillor has a role in policy-making, that their voice will be heard. So we'll do away with the cabinet system in about a year's time. We also want to include more localised decision-making, so we are looking at the possibility of setting up area committees. Local Engagement Forums with teeth and decision-making. The hope is that people will start to get more involved.”
Roger Truelove: “Local Engagement Forums were a waste of time. There was no engagement, there were never entirely local and they weren't a very good forum. If we have area committees, we will have members of the council in those areas, making decisions for those areas and with the public able to engage with them.
Monique Bonney: “Those of us that have been in opposition for many years certainly feel that it wasn't previously very transparent. Nobody really knew what was going on, because of the cabinet regime and the onus is really on the council to make it transparent.”
Roger Truelove: “There would be a lot more decision-making coming up rather than, as everybody knows, it just came down in the last couple of years or more. Under the local government system established by Tony Blair, you had a cabinet and you had a scrutiny system for the opposition to scrutinize, to be led by the opposition. That was taken away from the opposition on this council and now we are giving it back to the opposition. So the chairmanship of scrutiny will be a Conservative, not one of us. Because that is the right way to do things.”
5. Creating a dynamic economy across the whole borough based on better jobs through training and further education
Monique Bonney: “We're going to drive the economy using our natural resources: the amazing countryside. We've got the AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), we've got the wildlife reserves, so there's definitely going to be a push on tourism which had been completely ignored apart from a very preliminary framework. Our town centres have been somewhat neglected and it needs to be much wider than one development going on in Sittingbourne. We've got Sheerness and Faversham and they each have a key role as local service centres, places of business and education. And we'd also like to higher education possible opportunities that we can explore to benefit the wider community. Things that we think have been neglected over the last 17 years.
“The employment we want to see created is not the lowest-paid, working in a warehouse unit that takes up loads of employment land space. We would like to see jobs created that have a higher pay scale. We can't dictate that but we can encourage it through networking employment sites and we can use our clout as a partner in various ventures to make sure our business partners pay their staff properly. We are going to look at combining and pushing forward regeneration. We've got amazing beaches. We've got huge marine capacity and we've got fantastic history and we want to bring all those strands together.”
SWALE BOROUGH COUNCIL
Leader: Roger Truelove (Labour)
Deputy Leader: Mike Baldock (Swale Independents)
Finance: Roger Truelove (Labour)
Planning: Mike Baldock (Swale Independents)
Community: Richard Palmer (Swale Independents)
Economy and Property: Monique Bonney (Independent)
Environment: Tim Valentine (Green)
Heath and Well-Being: Angela Harrison (Labour)
Deputy Cabinet Members;
Finance: Derek Carnell (Swale Independents)
Planning: Alastair Gould (Green)
Community: Julian Saunders (Labour)
Economy and Property: Sarah Stephen (Swale Independents)
Environment: Eddie Thomas (Lib Dem)
Heath and Well-being: Hannah Perkin (Lib Dem)