The precarious balance of power on Lewes District Council will be tested when the council meets for the first time since the ruling Conservatives lost their overall majority.
With votes in the East Sussex County Council elections being counted today (Friday), the political emphasis shifts on Wednesday when the district council holds its annual meeting.
And there will be one significant change in personnel, when Chris Bowers takes over as leader of the 18-councillor Lib Dem group.
Cllr Bowers, who replaces Cllr James MacCleary as Minority Group Leader (effectively leader of the opposition), will be shadowing the council’s Leader James Page at a time when he cannot call on a majority in council. The Conservatives have 20 seats, the Lib Dems 18, but two Tories have defected to UKIP, and there is Ruth O’Keeffe, the Lewes independent.
Under the ‘strong leader’ model used by the council, Cllr Page can continue to govern as long as he is not ousted by a vote in the full council to replace him. Cllr Bowers says he has no immediate intention of pushing for one. “It’s important to respect democracy,” he said, “and the fact is the Conservatives won the last district elections in 2011. Therefore, it’s right that they continue to govern – whatever we may think of what they’re doing – unless they reach a point where they’re falling apart to such an extent that another party has to step in.”
At the moment, for the Lib Dems to take over the council they would have to rely on the votes of the two Tory defectors to UKIP, Cllr Donna Edmunds and Cllr Philip Howson, in any vote on the council’s Leader. Cllr Bowers is reluctant to do this.
He said: “While we are hardly surprised that people are leaving the Conservative party, the UKIP position is so far removed from our core beliefs that neither I nor my party would want to do any deal with them. I understand the frustration with politics that leads some people to support UKIP, but the UKIP platform is universally negative and with some unsavoury elements. So we are happy to play the important role assigned to us at the last election, that of main opposition to the Conservatives.
“We will continue to be constructive in our opposition, acknowledging when we think they have got things right, but criticising them when we feel they are taking the district in the wrong direction.”
One of the first issues the new Lib Dem Leader has to deal with is the question of St Mary’s Social Centre in Christie Road, Lewes, which will come up at next week’s meeting. This is one of a package of 48 council-owned sites that is being farmed out to a private partner for management and possible redevelopment.
Regarding St Mary’s, cllr Bowers said it was “immensely frustrating” an issue as important as asking a private partner to manage and develop publicly-owned sites was decided by the cabinet and not the full council.
He said: “I don’t think we can realistically expect the council to remove any site from its list. But what it can do is to signal in any contract with a private partner the centre must be maintained in its existing or an improved form, and must be allowed to function without interruption.”
The Lib Dems are putting forward a motion calling for such a guarantee.