County councillor resigns from Conservative Party to make case for reform

Councillor Andrew Stevenson

Councillor Andrew Stevenson - Credit: Archant

Hertfordshire county councillor Andrew Stevenson has resigned from the Conservative Party – to make the case for ‘genuine’ local government reform.

Technology entrepreneur Cllr Stevenson believes Hertfordshire’s current two-tier system of local government is too bureaucratic, with too many councils and too many councillors.

He says that much of local government has become “historic theatre” with “more theatre than substance”.

And he says resigning from the Conservative Party will give him greater freedom to speak out as an ‘independent’ councillor.

The move comes just months after leader of the county council Conservative Cllr David Williams openly backed the idea of a single unitary council for the county.

And exploratory work – commissioned by the county council – has already suggested that replacing the existing 11 councils with a transformed ‘unitary’ authority could save up to £142m year.

Cllr Stevenson – who has been the Conservative councillor for the Hertford All Saints division since 2013 – says there is a “compelling” case to abolish the middle tier of local government.

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But in addition he suggests the need for further changes that could include election – rather than appointment – of portfolio holders and local government decision-making that is more open and transparent.

“I have found from my time as a county councillor that sclerotic decision-making processes pervade the whole of local government,” he said.

“Abolishing the district council would be a start, but not the only requirement.”

Cllr Stevenson says that since his election to the county council he has found there to be ‘at least seven stages for each decision’ – with most of these stages, he says, in private and with key decisions not even open to all elected councillors.

“The secretive nature of many of the stages is not transparent and evades genuine scrutiny,” he says.

Currently council leaders –  themselves selected from the members of the majority party – select ‘portfolio holders’ on the cabinet.

But Cllr Stevenson says this practice of portfolio ‘appointments’ by selection can lead to “a culture of personality not competence and closed predetermined, not open-minded, decision making”.

And he believes there is a case for leaders and portfolio holders to be elected on a ‘slate’.

Expanding on the case to abolish the district council, Cllr Stevenson highlights three specific ‘bad decisions’ in East Hertfordshire  where he says the lack of any strategic planning was at the root of the problem.

They are, he says, the inclusion of Bengeo Field in the Local Plan, the approval of the Liberty Rise development in the old police station site and the approval of a McDonald’s outlet on the Rush Green roundabout.

He suggests that most people are “bemused” to find there is more than one council in their area.

But he stresses that he is not seeking to criticise individuals.

And he says: “. . .  there are some good people doing their best under a difficult and outdated system.

“However, It is time to change to a simpler and more effective system of local government that genuinely serves the local community.

“We need a new system of local government that is more democratic, simpler, and more effective as we go forward into 2021 with new challenges.

“My resignation from the Conservative Party enables me to speak out on these issues unfettered by party line constraints of fear of vested interest reactions.

“I speak more directly as a resident and business owner who has lived and worked in Hertford for more than 30 years and then had the experience of being a county councillor.”

Cllr Stevenson will continue to serve as an independent councillor for the Hertford All Saints division – and has not yet decided whether to stand for election in May.

Commenting on Cllr Stevenson’s decision, leader of the county council Cllr David Williams said: “It is for Andrew to set out why he has decided to resign from the Conservative Party,  but he was a valued Hertfordshire County Council Conservative Group colleague and I particularly wish to thank him for his contribution as a Deputy Cabinet member.”