Dodgy Dombey’s ‘squalid and disgraceful’ committees stitch-up

On Sutton Council, the opposition groups are fighting for fair representation as the Liberal Democrats, after winning just 53% of council seats, want to instal themselves in more than 60% of committee places. Ahead of tonight’s first meeting of the new administration, BELLE MONT reports on moves that could see all council business blocked as a consequence

Bunfight: LibDem efforts to gerrymander the council committees has angered Tories, Labour and independent councillors

It’s a weird world where Sutton’s illiberal Liberal Democrats can instantly unite all the opposition parties against them even before the first council meeting of the new term.

But that’s exactly the prospect tonight, where an almighty bunfight is expected after the LibDems awarded themselves the bulk of council committee seats – and extra council allowances amounting to more than £660,000 – despite their vote share being slashed in the local elections earlier this month.

Until last month, Sutton’s LibDems held 61per cent of the council’s 118 committee seats, close to the 61.1per cent of the councillors elected across the borough at the last local elections in 2018. The Tories had 33.1per cent of the seats against a councillor count of 33.3per cent, while the Beddington independents had 5.9per cent of committee seats against representation of 5.6per cent. Everyone may not have been happy about it, but most agreed that the division of responsibility was, at least, fair.

It’s not always possible to achieve precise proportionality, but Section 15 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 says that councils should use all means “so far as reasonably practicable” to ensure that the proportion of seats is fair. It’s a decision based on law, not politics, so that the electorate’s votes are fairly reflected in the composition of council committees.

The Act dictates that the council group with the most councillors must have a majority on all committees, but how this is achieved is not specified.

Gerrymandering: LibDem politicians have instructed council officials to go against the provisions of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989

But last week, ahead of tonight’s largely ceremonial “Mayor making” annual meeting, it began to emerge that Sutton’s LibDems – presumably their leader Ruth Dombey and the recently promoted Jake Short – had ordered council staff to keep the same committee structure, with one notable exception that assists the LibDems in maintaining its majority.

The council report, to be voted on tonight, says: ‘The administration has advised that no changes to the current structure of committees are being proposed.

“Therefore committees recommended for establishment listed below reflect the 2021-2022 arrangements.”

The report was only published on Friday afternoon, and comes despite heavy lobbying by opposition parties for a fairer system.

Dodgy: Ruth Dombey, the LibDem council leader, is up to her old tricks

Sutton’s committee system was introduced in 2012, when there was a large LibDem majority in a two-party council. Then, there were 43 LibDems and 11 Tories, so achieving proportionality was simple. Elections in 2014 and 2018 saw political fortunes ebb and flow, without any real challenge to the LibDems’ one-party state.

The outcome from this year’s elections, however, even though the LibDems remain the largest single group on the council, sees Dodgy Dombey’s majority much-reduced.

With the LibDems now with a working majority of only two, and four political groups in the mix, the old committee structure look ripe for a bit of an overhaul.

In Sutton, power and money are vested in the chairs and deputy chairs of various committees. Special Responsibility Allowances paid to the LibDem committee chairs and deputies – with all appointments in the gift of Dombey – amounted to £667,000. The average allowance for a LibDem councillor was £20,265.

Last week, the borough’s opposition leaders, representing 20 Conservative, three independents and three Labour councillors, requested that the committees should be enlarged to achieve a fairer degree of proportionality that better reflects how the electorate in Sutton voted. They have met a wall of silence from the LibDems and from officers.

Sutton Lib Dems appear to be pretending it’s business as usual. And even if the electorate have withdrawn their support by their thousands, Dombey and the LibDems appear determined to gerrymander their way to maintaining the old status quo.

The new committee proposals see the LibDems retain more than 60per cent of committee seats, against a councillor share of just 53per cent. The Conservatives, despite increasing the number of councillors to 20, or 36per cent of the council, get just 31per cent of committee seats. The independents and Labour contingents, both with three councillors, have 5.5per cent of elected councillors. Under the proposals going forward tonight, they get only 4.1per cent.

“The people of Beddington now understand they are at the very bottom of this council’s food chain,” said Tim Foster, the leader of the independents.

“The residents of Beddington and Hackbridge have passed their opinion on issues such as the incinerator and SDEN, but their democratically-elected representatives are denied the opportunity to represent them fairly.”

Opposition: independent Tim Foster

The LibDems have been kicked out of the north-east of Sutton, where Beddington and Hackbridge wards returned independent and Labour councillors and St Helier West elected two Tories and one Labour councillor.

Inside Sutton understands that Sutton Conservatives approached council officials and Dombey’s LibDems to propose replacing 10-member committees with 13-member committees, which might comprise seven LibDems, four Conservative, one Labour and one independent, adhering to the law on proportionality while still giving the LibDems a majority on every committee.

Labour suggested 15-member committees, for an even closer adherence to the proportionality requirements, and this is being proposed as an amendment to the LibDem proposals tonight.

“The ruling LibDem group has a narrow working majority overall of just two,” Foster said.

“Their intransigence to our perfectly sensible proposals on committee sizes is either deliberate or incompetent. Nothing in between. To translate that overall working majority of two into a majority of two in nearly every committee, and three on one, is far from democratic and against the principle of residents having balanced representation.

“We fully expect the LibDems to force through this undemocratic proposal. But we will carry on our objections to the Secretary of State or the judiciary.

“In the meantime, we will operate within the precise parameters of the constitution. We believe that the Monitoring Officer, Tim Martin, is fully aware of the weakness of that constitution in making this illegal and immoral road that officers, in league with the LibDems, have chosen to take, actually work.”

Monitored: Tim Martin, the council’s senior legal official, should be aware that the committee proposals go against the law

Tom Drummond, the leader of the Conservatives, told Inside Sutton that he found the situation “squalid and disgraceful”.

Drummond said, “We’re in a situation where we increased our proportion of councillors but get fewer committee places.

“There was an opportunity, endorsed by all opposition parties, to make some committees larger so that proportionality could be properly and fairly achieved. This certainly meets the ‘practicable’ test laid out in the Local Government Act. It must be practicable, because the LibDems have authorised an increase in the size of the People Committee, which suits them.

“But given that Sutton LibDems ignore the wishes of over 90per cent of residents in consultations, can we be surprised that they are abusing the committee system, and ignoring the Sutton electorate? It’s a slap in the face for democracy, and It feels like a form of gerrymandering to me.”

Sheldon Vestey, one of the first Labour councillors to be elected to Sutton Council in 20 years, said, “The mandate from the residents of Sutton is clear – listen to us!

“These residents have spoken and demanded a change in representation. To fail to acknowledge that in the face of the legislation and after such a significant vote swing will be unpalatable for many. We have reached out to the council leader to discuss this but have not heard back. At this point, we can only assume that she is indisposed.”

If the Secretary of State or the law courts won’t sway Dombey’s LibDems, Foster’s independents and the new Labour group led by Vestey are proposing to provide a roadblock to LibDem council business.

The council constitution requires that the signatures of four members are required to requisition any council committee’s decision to full council. Labour and the independents, with six councillors, have the numbers required to requisition every decision on every committee. It could see council business grind to a halt within weeks.

Read more: Dombey survives but Sutton results leave LibDems scarred
Read more: Sutton accused of ‘misleading’ over SDEN and the Heat Trust
Read more: Heat network’s plan depends on 75 homes that don’t exist
Read more: Half of Sutton LibDem councillors quitting at May’s elections

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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