The 13 NOC counties and unitaries: who will govern?

Copied from Local Government Chronicle online
28 May, 2013 | By Chris Game

Interesting comment regarding the current situation on LCC. Highlighted in bold below.

In May 2010 prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg took just five days to form their national coalition. By contrast, starting in June 2010, the Belgians took 18 months to form theirs. English local government falls between the two.

Three weeks after the local elections, most of us still don’t know, for at least some of the nine counties and four unitaries conveniently lumped together as ‘NOC’ (No Overall Control), the answer to that basic question the elections were supposedly about: who will actually govern?

This column attempts to fill some of the gaps. It’s a kind of ‘runners and riders’ guide to the 13 county and unitary councils in which no single party has a majority of seats: how they got that way, and what will or might happen in the near future.

The county councils
First, the counties. Cambridgeshire was one of the previously staunchly Conservative counties that became hung largely through being UKIPped. This was actually a much patchier experience than some commentators suggested – with 7 of the 27 counties still having no UKIP councillors at all and only 4, all in the south and east, having more than 10.

In Cambridgeshire, the Conservatives’ new leader, Martin Curtis, favoured their carrying on as a minority administration, but the Independents ruled that out, while Labour and the Lib Dems refused to join UKIP in supporting an Independent-led non-Conservative rainbow coalition. Eventually, the Conservatives got half their cake: Curtis will head a minority administration for 12 months, but then UKIP’s preference, for ‘opening up’ council decision-making, kicks in and cabinets will be replaced by all-party committees.

In Cumbria, the elections reversed the standings of the Conservatives and Labour, the latter regaining their customary position as largest party, leaving the slightly strengthened Lib Dems as potential kingmakers. Under a new leader, Jonathan Stephenson, they opted for coalition with Labour, deputy leadership of the council, and four cabinet posts.

East Sussex is much smaller than Cambridgeshire, but the party arithmetic is broadly similar. Here, though, the other parties seemed readier to accept a Conservative minority administration, and, as in Cambridgeshire, although a Conservative-UKIP deal could have produced a majority, none was apparently seriously pursued.

Gloucestershire was hung from 1981 to 2005, with Lib Dems generally the largest group – before, in 2009, the Conservatives suddenly took 42 of the then 63 council seats. With the reduction of 10 seats and accompanying boundary changes, those observers predicting a return to NOC were proved right. The Conservatives, though, will continue as a minority administration, and the Lib Dems as the main opposition, miffed at a suspected Con-Lab deal over Scrutiny Management and other committee chairs.

Lancashire is Labour territory, and the party was hoping to regain majority control in one go. Sensing a lifeline, the Conservatives tried talking with anyone who might be interested in a presumably anti-Labour coalition. But the Independents don’t want an alliance with anyone and the Lib Dems seem undecided, which leaves a Labour minority administration looking the likeliest outcome.

Lincolnshire Conservatives are unused to coalition politics, but they reacted quickly to their heavy loss of seats by negotiating a Con/LD/Independent coalition. Splitting the Lincolnshire Independents in doing so was a bonus: three of them signed up with the coalition, one with a seat in the cabinet, and there are rumours that others could follow.

In equally traditionally Conservative Norfolk, life for the dominant party is more fraught. At a full council meeting, the Conservative leader, Bill Borrett, apparently thought he had an agreement that the Lib Dems would at least abstain in any vote, enabling him to head a minority administration. He hadn’t, and nor could he nail down a more explicit coalition agreement with the Lib Dems involving some key specified posts. For the present, then, the running of the authority is, as the phrase goes, in the hands of officers.

Before the Conservatives took control in 2005, Oxfordshire had been hung for 20 years. Labour’s comeback was limited, and, on a smaller council, the Conservatives came within one seat of retaining their overall majority – a position they’ve restored through a Conservative/Independent Alliance. No cabinet seats are involved, but three Independents will work with a Conservative minority administration in the kind of ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement that many thought was as far as Cameron and Clegg would dare to go back in 2010.

In Warwickshire Labour, though never the majority party, have regularly run the council as a minority and were hoping to regain this position. They didn’t, but they did do a deal with the Conservatives, the outcome being a Conservative minority administration, headed by the council’s first woman leader, Izzy Seccombe, with Labour holding the Scrutiny chairs, and the Lib Dems and Greens out in the cold, complaining of a stitch-up.

The unitaries
Now to the four hung unitaries. In Bristol Labour became again the largest single party and, reversing its position last November, agreed that two of its members should join mayor George Ferguson’s all-party cabinet, which will now comprise 2 Labour members, 2 Lib Dems, 1 Conservative, and 1 Green.

In Cornwall a much-discussed multi-party rainbow coalition has become in practice an Independent/Lib Dem coalition with the more or less positive support of Labour, UKIP and Mebyon Kernow (the party for Cornwall), the Conservatives having rejected as tokenism a scaled-back offer of two cabinet seats.

The Isle of Wight will be run again, for the first time since 1973-77, by what are nowadays known as the Island Independents, but this time as a minority administration.

Having dominated the former county council, Labour will run unitary Northumberland for the first time as a minority administration, with the support of the three independents – one of whom will be back as chairman of audit, the post she held as a Conservative councillor before resigning from the party following alleged victimisation by a senior colleague. And to think, there are some who say the local government world is boring.

Chris Game, Institute of Local Government, University of Birmingham

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