Lewes District Council’s Tory group accused of secrecy

The “rosy picture” painted of greater public involvement in decision-making at Lewes District Council has been thrown into question.

Views expressed by Council Leader Cllr James Page in an article for Guardian Professional, used in part by the Sussex Express, have come in for criticism.

Cllr James MacCleary, Leader of the Lib Dem Group on the council, accused his Conservative rivals of being secretive.

“There is little doubt that public authorities struggle to connect with their residents, but Cllr Page’s claim that his leadership has improved this situation is more than a little off the mark,” said Cllr MacCleary.

“Let’s just use two flagship policies that he and his Conservative colleagues have pushed through in the last year.

“Firstly, there has been the sell-off of a recreation ground in Newhaven as a precursor to a potential waterpark development in the town. Newhaven does not have enough open spaces like parks and recreation grounds so you would think that selling off such a site in the town should be cause for a major public consultation.

“Wrong. Cllr Page made the decision himself behind closed doors after giving local people a very short period of time to make their views clear. Despite strong opposition from the Town Council and those local people who had time to respond he went ahead anyway. Now it’s sold and the people of Newhaven can do nothing but sit tight and see what happens next. Not exactly a model for greater public involvement.

“In fact, ‘behind closed doors’ is a phrase that is sticking to Conservative administration. Nothing exemplifies this better than the mysterious Nexus Board set up soon after Cllr Page became leader. This group, which is chaired by the Leader, meets in private, does not publicly publish agendas or minutes, and is not even advertised to other councillors.

“Members of the public are most certainly not welcome to attend, and since only action points are published afterwards it is impossible to know what was discussed. When Cllr Page talks about innovation and openness, we can only presume that this is what he means.”

Cllr MacCleary added: “An effect of the Nexus Board has been to reduce Cabinet meetings (which are open to the public) to rubber stamping exercises in which most agenda items are just nodded through with no debate. Of course, this is also an outcome of the Conservatives’ decision when they took power to abandon the cross-party Cabinet system they had inherited.”