Year in Review: St Albans Conservative group leader looks back on 2021
- Credit: Archant
Their remit is to hold the Liberal Democrat administration in charge of St Albans district to account.
But how have the Conservatives in opposition fared this past year, through the challenges of Covid, Charter Market and road closures, and what are their plans for the future?
We spoke to Tory party leader Cllr Mary Maynard to find out her thoughts.
"The biggest challenge has been to be an effective opposition, with a ruling party who do not seem to want to work with us. It is challenging as information is hidden or withheld and reports are only circulated an hour or so before decision making meetings.
"We also cannot trust the information we are given. When we read that 50 market traders made a standards complaint about lies told by a Lib Dem councillor, we were not surprised. Road closures in the city centre is a highly contentious issue, and we discovered that the views of emergency services, the business community and others were not being accurately reported. We had to go out, talk to people and find out their views. Shining a light on the facts on many issues has forced changes to decisions to the benefit of our residents."
She said local politics started getting more hostile following the 2019 elections, when the Liberal Democrats took power, and the situation has been getting progressively worse.
"Meeting rules have been changed to silence Conservative voices. We find the atmosphere during meetings and particularly at council, aggressive and unpleasant. Intimidation has no place in council meetings and leads to a terrible atmosphere.
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"This is also impacting staff, who are voting with their feet. The ruling party/opposition model means that they can be put under a huge amount of pressure in public to justify actions. Four market officers have left. Other key officers have left or resigned, including most of the senior management team. I suspect they would rather work proactively and cooperatively with all councillors in a friendlier environment.
"Conservatives are trying to restore civility and cooperation. On the market, we agreed to work collaboratively and will do so if agreements are honoured and civility maintained. I contacted the Liberal Democrat councillor concerned about refugees and we have agreed to work together on this. However, our offer to work on the budget with the Lib Dems was summarily rejected. We later found they had been working on it for six months without involving us."
She said she was proud of highlighting the issues of our most underprivileged and vulnerable residents, stopping initiatives that would have bankrupted the council - particularly buying up High Streets when retail is in decline - and forcing rethinks on the Charter Market, road closures and the needs of business following the pandemic.
But she wished she had approached the issue of recognising the contribution of Covid front line workers in a completely different way.
"In July we failed to get the Lib Dems to agree to waive their new green waste tax or give a 50 per cent discount on parking season ticket permits for such workers. Instead, the Lib Dems are having a party where they will patronise a few hand-chosen individuals. We should have got the public behind the ‘give a bit back’ idea in advance of the meeting, putting pressure on the Lib Dems to agree it."
She also highlighted the "fiasco" surrounding SADC's audit committee: "We thought it was an issue of the Lib Dem administration trying to reduce the authority of a Conservative chair. However, we gradually realised it was more serious, viz, removing this powerful committee’s ability to call the council to account.
"Audit staff time was reduced, audit projects were being quietly blocked and fraud that might embarrass the council was not reported or downplayed. If we had realised this earlier, we would have demanded an external review."
Coping with the impact of Covid is going to have repercussions for many years to come, and she expects SADC to have to swallow many bitter pills in 2022.
"There is a huge budget gap - the council is short of money. This is of course partly because of Covid, which has impacted all councils, but much of that impact will likely reverse.
"However, the government has given SADC £4M, reimbursing most Covid losses and there are other funds that can be accessed like the £130k received from the ‘Welcome Back Fund’. Conservative councillors ensure the council knows about and accesses these funds.
"We should not have had such a severe financial problem. There are financial reserves to cover shortfalls; however, the Lib Dems ate into them for projects that never happened. Also, the commercial projects Conservatives started to deliver revenue in 2022/3 are all late and are cumulatively £12M over budget.
"Cuts will impact services and critical new initiatives like climate change mitigation projects may be delayed or not happen at all. We have worked collaboratively with the Lib Dems in their recruitment of a new top team but are worried that so many of the council’s senior staff are voting with their feet."
She said how SADC looks at the end of 2022 will depend on what party runs it, but paints a grim picture should the Lib Dems remain in control.
"There will be a city that is heavily congested because key arterial routes have been closed and a dying High Street and market in St Albans.
"There will be much less democracy, for example, the Lib Dems are proposing a massive reduction in the ability of residents to have councillors (not just planners) decide planning applications."
But if the Conservatives win in May, she pledged to work with all parties to deliver low-cost services, reduce carbon in a more sustainable district, encourage thriving High Streets and build houses for young families.
"Specifically, we will listen to residents on issues like where houses should be built, the Charter Market, road closures, better walking and cycling routes, parking, and café culture in our High Streets. We need a cultural centre and Civic Centre that work for people. We need more affordable homes for people who want city living. We need public spaces for relaxing and meeting friends.
"We will get some pragmatic thinking into the climate change agenda, identify key projects that will make a difference, stop talking and do them, build much needed homes whilst not imposing hundreds of developments in Green Belt all over the district, and finally, sort out the mess that is Verulamium Park Lake."