Regime Change at Rother: The First Hundred Days
Doug Oliver has enjoyed his first hundred days as leader of Rother District Council. The previous Conservative administration, ousted in elections across the board in May, had been, in his view, politically partisan, keeping all cabinet posts for Tory councillors and failing to recognise the ideas and potential contributions of other groupings. With no party in overall control now, and a large number of council members, including himself, with no national party affiliation, Oliver has put together a new regime founded on cross-party co-operation, styled the Rother Alliance.
The first thing he did was to trim cabinet numbers from ten to eight. (“That saved around £10,000 in costs on Day 1,” he says). Of those, five are independents, two Liberal Democrats, and one Labour, each selected on grounds of experience and readiness to work in harmony. The new Planning committee chair is Cllr Jonathan Vine-Hall, an independent. But Paul Osborne, conservative councillor for Eastern Rother, has been retained as chair of the Scrutiny committee.
There are 17 new councillors out of 38 in all. Oliver says he has attended every new member training and briefing session and has been impressed by their quality: “They show a real desire to serve – which of course I should have expected.” He thinks this is already having a knock-on effect in their relations with council officers – “who have welcomed their involvement”.
The main policy plank of the independent councillors in Bexhill who swept to electoral victories in May over sitting Conservative members was a resolve to set up a separate Bexhill Town Council. This remains a priority for Oliver, who aims to get it functioning as a forum for addressing planning and other issues local to Bexhill by 2021. But obviously the District Council, whose jurisdiction spans the territory from Bexhill in the west to Battle and Robertsbridge in the north and Rye and Camber in the east (excluding Hastings and St Leonards between) has many other concerns.
The requirement imposed on Rother by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is to grant planning permissions for 365 new units of housing per year across the district. And prime responsibility for the planning process, including consideration of housing development projects such as those at Barnhorn Green, Spindlewood and Clavering Walk in Bexhill; Blackfriars in Battle; and Gullivers Sports Ground in Sidley, remains at district level.
But Oliver is also keen to develop closer relations with East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and with leaders of neighbouring councils – Peter Chowney at Hastings and Bob Standley at Wealden. The South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), with its local federated board branded as Team East Sussex, provides a forum for these council leaders to thrash out strategic priorities with business, social enterprise and education chiefs. Oliver feels that the fact that he is not one side or the other of the Tory/Labour faultline is a big advantage.
“We are joined at the hip with Hastings,” he says, pointing to the developments around the Combe Valley ring-road, to 1066 tourism projects including the country park, and to combined NHS medical provision, “but we have failed to work together previously because of political division.”
Closer to home, there is one issue – car parking throughout the various town centres of the district – which has the potential to divide opinion between the interests of residents, shopkeepers and visitors. Oliver says that the civil parking enforcement regime implemented under the previous administration has been subject to community consultation, and that most people accept that the scheme introduced by ESCC at the request of Rother enhances the safety of all road users. It is subject to annual review in order to identify appropriate operational changes. All surplus revenue, once the set-up costs are covered, will be returned to the county council for the benefit of highways and transport funding.
As with all local authorities the key issues are financial – how to generate economic growth, and maintain and improve services, while keeping expenditure within the council’s budget. “We will spend money as if it’s our own, not someone else’s,” says Oliver, “in order to provide services expected by Rother residents.”
A Note From History
The first hundred days of a new administration is a concept borrowed from American political history. President Franklin Roosevelt, from his inauguration in March 1933, enacted 16 major legislative bills within 100 days, a level of frenetic energy that all subsequent incoming US administrations have been measured against. The starting point for Roosevelt’s New Deal was national financial catastrophe and the threat of societal breakdown. Not quite the context for the new regime in Rother – or perhaps it is.]
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