Opposition and scrutiny are essential parts of the democratic process. They are duties that residents rightly expect are carried out on their behalf by their elected councillors.
On Brighton and Hove City Council, the Conservative group is the only group providing this opposition and scrutiny that the people of Brighton and Hove deserve.
Our 13 Conservative councillors have been working hard on residents’ behalf to fulfil this crucial role.
Here’s an example of the work that the Conservative team has been doing this year and the battle we have had to ensure proper scrutiny of a failure in service delivery.
This month, after a year of determined work by our Conservative councillors, an official report was handed down into failings in the Home to School Transport service.
This report was instigated by the Conservatives councillors to investigate how a council service relied upon by children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) collapsed.
The failure cost local taxpayers over a million pounds and it left vulnerable children and their families, who rely on this vital council service, devastated.
It was terrible failure for the council that first began to unravel in the autumn last year.
But as the problems emerged, the Labour administration repeatedly tried to sweep the issue under the carpet.
First, the Labour administration refused proper questioning and scrutiny when officers told the Policy and Resources Committee what was happening in July last year.
Then, after complaints from families began to mount and a panel was finally set up to investigate the issue, Labour tried to have it disbanded before it had finished its work.
The “official opposition” – the Greens at the time – were no better. The Audit and Standards Committee, chaired by a Green councillor, originally only authorised a “light touch” desktop study of the concerns raised and subsequently refused an independent audit saying that it would be frivolous.
But the Conservatives were determined that this matter would not be swept under the carpet as Labour wanted.
We believed that it was vital, given that vulnerable people had been affected and taxpayers’ money had been lost, that the matter be investigated and lessons learnt.
Thanks to the relentless work of Councillor Lee Wares and Councillor Mary Mears, who worked tirelessly with the families who and been affected and who would not give up, two official reports have been published.
The reports resulted from an external review and an internal review, including an independent investigation by the Local Government Association (LGA).
The council has also received a report by a specialist barrister, as yet unpublished, into serious claims about a contractual aspect of the saga.
The independent recommendations provided by the LGA report were vital.
For example, while early calls by Conservative councillors Mears and Wares to include home to school transport on the council’s “corporate risk register” were initially refused, the service was included in the register in March after a recommendation from the LGA in its independent report.
Will lessons be learned?
Because of the scrutiny and oversight of the Conservative group, the service is now improving.
This is good news although the service has a long way to go and at best has only recovered to where it was before the self-inflicted damage was caused.
It is certainly the case that had there been greater scrutiny at an earlier stage, the damage would have been less.
But as this saga has unfurled over the past 18 months, it has taught us something else about the value of scrutiny.
The words of Councillor Wares from the November meeting bear repeating. He said: “Had the previous Labour chair had his way, we would not have been able to report today to ensure the lessons are learnt and that children are put at centre of decision-making.
“Why did we have to make four or five attempts at committee for this matter to be taken seriously?
“Why did it take parent carers to come to full council to ask for and support the creation of a scrutiny panel?
“When councillors lack a desire for scrutiny, mistakes – in this case on an epic scale – are made.
“When councillors fail to hear what is being said, those they are here to serve will no longer trust them or the council.
“So as lessons are being learnt, I hope colleagues will reflect on how they may have dealt with this better and what they might do next time something like this happens.”
The lesson is clear – scrutiny should be coming from all Councillors, not just Conservatives.
Councillor Steve Bell is the leader of the Conservative group on Brighton and Hove City Council.
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