In part two of our look at Durham County Council’s first ‘joint administration’, its leaders reject the accusation it is little more than Conservative-led coalition.

DURHAM County Council’s leaders believe they have answered a regular request from the people – less politics in local government.

Councillor Alan Shield, leader of the Durham group, says: “A lot of my residents have often asked, ‘Why do we have the level of politics in local government? Why can’t you all collectively work together, whatever political persuasion?’

“Well, we have developed that.

“We have four different groups and we follow a simple principle that we have objectives, visions, but our first and foremost criteria is that we will listen very intently to what we believe the residents need to have done.”

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Cllr Richard Bell, leader of the Conservative group and deputy council leader, says: “I think we’re very keen to bring some good pragmatic leadership to the council, largely free really from political differences.

“National politics don’t have a huge impact in a place like County Durham.

“I think locally the political differences are very limited.”

Yet national politics has regularly been a feature of council meetings in recent months.

Among the most hotly-debated areas of discussion have been Labour motions calling on the council to “condemn” national government policy on topics like the £20 Universal Credit uplift, the National Insurance hike and social care reforms.

The Northern Echo: Universal Credit

They were invariably voted down in favour of alternative, more diplomatic motions from the joint administration.

Cllr Bell says: “We are not afraid, and I’m not afraid as a Conservative group leader if I think the national policy is not right for County Durham, to criticise national policy.

“But it’s not our job to try and run the government.

“It’s not our role to become a shadow House of Commons.

“Lots of motions have been passed by this council expressly or impliedly criticising the Government.

“It’s back to pragmatic politics for the benefit of the people. What can the county council do about any particular issue that’s before us?”

Council leader and Lib Dem group leader Cllr Amanda Hopgood agrees, saying of the Universal Credit uplift issue: “None of us agreed with it. But ultimately we can’t do anything about it.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Amanda HopgoodCllr Amanda Hopgood

“So what we put in place was how we were going to help those greatest affected and what practical resources we would put in place.

“It’s very easy to put a one-line motion in to have a go at someone. It’s much harder to come up with the idea of how to do something to mitigate it and fix it.

“It’s very easy to have an opinion. It’s much harder to have a solution.”

Cllr Shield says: “We haven’t always agreed with that policy from government and we have approached the motion in such a way to amend it, criticising but making alternative suggestions.

“We do not apply a three-line whip across any of our political groups or independent groups. People are individuals within their own domain and within their own groups.

“We have had people who will not always agree with everything but they have a voice, they have an opinion, which must be listened to.”

One Labour accusation was made at a recent meeting that councillors in the joint administration were “following your Tory masters”.

“There are no masters here,” Cllr Hopgood responds. “That isn’t how we operate.”

Cllr Bell bristles at the suggestion: “That Labour charge is absolute nonsense.

“We can only make progress on anything through consensus.

“It is hard work. We have to really talk to our members and listen to them and try and work hard to achieve consensus.

“The idea that I can sit here as the Conservative leader and say ‘right, I want this to happen’ and it happens, is for the birds quite frankly.”

Cllr Shield rejects the description of the council as a “Conservative-led coalition”.

“That’s a political soundbite which has no evidence or basis,” he says.

“First of all the leader of the council is not a Conservative.

“And the biggest group is not the Conservative group. It’s a partnership. It’s a joint collective.”

l Tomorrow – Ambitions, achievements and controversy

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