A coalition for district council?

Joseph Bulmer

Negotiations are underway to overthrow Tory majority with Lib Dem-Independent administration

NORTH Devon Council is bracing itself for a change in political direction following the result of Friday’s local elections.

On a day when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both took hits at the polls, it was the independents who struck gold at the ballot box and stuck one in the eye for party politics.

Independent candidates won 11 seats on the council and some are now actively pursuing negotiations to form a coalition majority with the Lib Dems.

Independent Roundswell and Bickington councillor Rodney Cann, who resigned from the Tories in 2009, said negotiations with the Lib Dems were progressing “rapidly”.

“Things are looking very positive and we are very close to being able to provide a very strong administration to benefit the people of North Devon,” said Mr Cann, leader of a group of four independents from Fremington, Bickington and Roundswell who formed the New Wave party.

“It is highly likely that our group will have a role to play in the next administration of the district council.

“There are stormy times ahead but we will support an administration that does not have a strong political agenda. Our focus is to support the interests of local people and North Devon before party interests.

“We’re hoping to put an end to all the in-fighting and bickering on a level I’ve never before experienced in all my 35 years in local government.”

Although the Lib Dems would only need the support of five independents, Mr Cann said he thought there were 23 councillors willing to stand in a coalition.

Despite winning the most seats, the Conservative-controlled administration saw its majority slip from 22 to 18 seats, while the Lib Dems lost three members, winning 14 seats on the 43-member council. Former Lib Dem councillors Malcolm Prowse and Yvette Gubb were both re-elected as independents.

Leader of the local Lib Dem group, Brian Greenslade, who retained his seat in Pilton, said his group had met on Saturday morning to discuss the way forward.

He said: “After speaking to my colleagues, they have made it quite clear that they do not wish to entertain the idea of a coalition with the Conservatives locally. It would be a very easy thing to do but it won’t happen.

“Either the Conservatives stay as head of the administration with the support of some independents, or the Liberal Democrats get enough independents on board to form a majority, which is clearly something we’d like to achieve.

“If that is not possible, the only way forward would be for the three groups to share responsibility proportionate to the number of seats they have on the council.

“Nobody would have a majority but we would hopefully be able to cooperate in the best intentions of North Devon.”

Mr Greenslade said he hoped the situation would become a lot clearer by the time the new council meets up for the first time on May 19.

“At the minute, we’re just having conversations with our independent colleagues but as the week progresses, we should have a clearer view of which scenarios are possible and which aren’t,” he said.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a situation like this in North Devon for a very long time because there is usually a very clear majority but the important thing is to make sure that we all continue to talk.”

While the Torries made a number of gains around the country – including five seats in neighbouring Torridge – the losses in North Devon were at odds with the national picture.

North Devon Conservative group leader Des Brailey said it was “early days” but admitted his party was playing a waiting game to see what happened in the next week or so.

“We are where we are and we will have to live that,” he said.

“We have lost four seats but we are still the largest party and we’ll have to wait and see how things pan out in the next seven to 10 days.

“We have looked at the various scenarios and although we can’t go into details at this stage, we are actively talking to everybody.”