Labour-Lib Dem coalition talks break down at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council

PUBLISHED: 11:14 14 May 2019

The Conservatives look set to remain in charge of Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council after talks between Labour and the Liberal Democrats broke down. Picture: Archant

The Conservatives look set to remain in charge of Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council after talks between Labour and the Liberal Democrats broke down. Picture: Archant

Archant

The Conservatives look likely to remain in charge of Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council after coalition negotiations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats broke down on Sunday.

Liberal Democrat group leader Malcolm Cowan. Picture: Chris FlanaganLiberal Democrat group leader Malcolm Cowan. Picture: Chris Flanagan

Both parties entered into talks after the Conservatives lost their narrow majority at this month's borough council elections.

Labour, now with 13 seats, and the Lib Dems, with 12, discussed joining forces to take control away from the Conservatives - who have 23 councillors so could be out-voted if both parties worked together.

But several points proved a huge barrier for Labour and the Lib Dems.

The biggest sticking point surrounded a locality budget, proposed by the Lib Dems, which allocates borough councillors money for them to spend on local projects in their ward in a similar vein to what is already in place at Hertfordshire County Council.

Labour group leader Kieran Thorpe. Picture: Chris FlanaganLabour group leader Kieran Thorpe. Picture: Chris Flanagan

Lib Dems group leader Malcolm Cowan said: "It would have been 0.02 per cent of the budget, to allow individual councillors to deliver significant benefits to their local communities without every penny having to be signed off by Labour."

It would have needed to be agreed in a formal meeting by the borough council, but the Labour group said they could not accept this unfettered access to the budget without continual council oversight.

"I am disappointed in the behaviour of the Lib Dems in trying to ensure they could plunder taxpayers' money for self-promotional activities away from democratic oversight of the wider council," said Labour group leader Kieran Thorpe.

The two parties both told the WHT they did agree to each other's demands and put a lot of effort in making the talks work.

Cllr Tony Kingsbury, the current leader at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. Picture: WHBCCllr Tony Kingsbury, the current leader at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. Picture: WHBC

"For the sake of Welwyn Hatfield residents we were prepared to let Labour have the positions of leader of the council, the borough mayor and the cabinet member for resources, along with a number of other concessions, all on the back of a single councillor advantage (13 to 12) - but that wasn't enough," said Cllr Cowan, who represents WGC's Peartree ward.

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Labour, for their part, believes they acquiesced to the Lib Dems demands by allowing council cabinet positions to be equalised between the two parties, the council budget to be shared and for both of them to oversee Local Plan work.

"We accepted every demand they asked for and they said no," said Mr Thorpe, with the Hatfield South West councillor asserting that "any agreement was subject to the approval of the entire Lib Dem group," and executive party members.

Liberal Democrat group leader Malcolm Cowan. Picture: Chris FlanaganLiberal Democrat group leader Malcolm Cowan. Picture: Chris Flanagan

Cllr Cowan disagreed with this interpretation and has said the Lib Dems do not need any regional permission, but that Labour would need it if they had come to an agreement.

The council is now likely to end up with a Conservative-controlled minority administration, Cllr Cowan thinks, and lays the blame squarely at Labour.

"Instead it looks like no change," he said. "Voters will be furious that we will have to wait at least another year to remove Conservative control when a deal was within our grasp."

The current leader of the council, Conservative councillor Tony Kingsbury, is now preparing to lead a minority administration for the next municipal year (2019/20) and take the leader of the council position.

"We realised that the election results meant a coalition could be formed between Labour and the Lib Dems and we considered it their prerogative to try to work up a deal in the first instance," said Cllr Kingsbury, who represents Welwyn West.

"Given another grouping cannot be formed and we are by far the largest party, we intend to form a minority administration."

The council leader will then in turn appoint cabinet nominations.

"It is expected that this will consist of Conservative councillors, with other committees being represented in proportion to total seats on the council after the recent elections," a spokesman for the borough council stated.

Cllr Kingsbury added: "Although we will clearly need to work constructively with other parties over the next 12 months, important decisions will need to be made, and we must focus on what is right for our communities, and the people who live and work in Welwyn Hatfield. That is what is expected of us, and that is what I hope we can deliver."

The mayor, deputy mayor, cabinet and other committee positions are also set to be confirmed at the annual council meeting from 7.30pm on Monday, May 20.

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