Any signs that a tumultuous period in British history would bring Peterborough’s city councillors closer together was comprehensively thrown out the window last night.
Opposition members warned that the ruling Conservatives had ruined any chance for greater co-operation after the Tories voted through a proposal for their councillors to chair all of the council scrutiny committees.
In return, the Conservatives defended themselves against accusations of a “power grab” and accused their opponents of being too partisan to lead any of the 10 committees which scrutinise policies and grill council officers.
Council leader Cllr John Holdich said: “There is a tendency for some members to condemn anything that is proposed from this side of the chamber, whatever that might be.
“Sometimes the tone of that condemnation is inappropriate.
“It is for this reason that, for the time being, my group want to keep the chairmanships of the committees in order that momentum is maintained and there is strong but respectful political debate.”
Cllr Holdich’s ire soon turned on new Labour group leader Cllr Ed Murphy, who began Tuesday’s extraordinary meeting by calling for a “new era of co-operation,” before later accusing the Tories of clinging onto power.
The council leader told the Council Chamber: “All we have is someone slagging off what we do rather than bringing better ideas.
“If you want to be chairs prove to this chamber you are capable of doing it.”
The meeting was called on the back of a by-election in East ward which was won by Matthew Mahabadi of the Labour and Co-operative Party. This took away the Conservatives’ majority on the council, leading to an emboldened opposition to demand that scrutiny committees should decide their own chairs, rather than have them imposed on them by the Conservative administration.
However, with opposition councillors absent from the meeting this proposal was comfortably voted down, provoking an angry response.
Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Nick Sandford said: “What we are seeing here is an unadulterated power grab by the administration.”
Labour member Cllr Angus Ellis said the Conservatives had lost the chance for the two sides to work closer together.
He told the Tories: “If there were local elections in every ward on June 8 we would not have this debate as most of you would not be here.
“The people of Peterborough are not getting their money’s worth tonight.”
The Conservatives, who have now given up six seats on scrutiny committees, defended their actions during the evening, making it clear that the opposition now had a majority on many of the committees and that they would review who chairs committees during the year.
Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald, council deputy leader, said: “We do our best for the city. Scrutiny works well. I can’t see what the issue is.”
Cllr Marco Cereste said: “I was not aware that members of the Conservatives did not take their jobs seriously.”
Earlier in the meeting, Cllr Mahabadi used his maiden speech to say East ward residents had voted for change. He added that the fire at Grenfell Tower, which is to be investigated, showed how important the work of local councillors is.
Cllr Darren Fower, Liberal Democrat member, said: “The idea that the administration should be allowed to scrutinise itself is just not right and fair.”
However, Cllr Stephen Lane of the Werrington First group, said Conservative scrutiny chairs had good experience, and he questioned why there was a need for change.
Opposition councillors also referenced the fact that committee chairs are entitled to extra allowances.
But Cllr Fitzgerald countered by saying that Cllr Murphy will receive more money as he is now a group leader.
He asked Cllr Murphy: “Should the day come, god forbid, when the Labour Party are in charge of this council and bankrupt it like they did previously, will they forego their Special Responsibility Allowances?”
“You’ve just got a new allowance. As leader of the Labour group I trust you’re not going to take that allowance?”