The following letter was published in the Saffron Walden Reporter on May 5th 2022:
Council is in Decline
We write as two former leaders of Uttlesford District Council.
We write as much in sorrow as in anger. The council is in decline and sadly it is the residents who will ultimately pay the price.
Conservative administrations often had different positions from other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, but our battles were civil. We encouraged open debate and questioning at council but this is no longer the case because council meetings are orchestrated, questions have to be submitted five days in advance with limited follow up. It is no longer possible to openly question the council leader or a Cabinet member in a council meeting. This is not a democracy, it is more akin to a quasi-dictatorship.
There was a broad cross-party agreement on the 2018 Local Plan until R4U decided to play party politics prior to the 2019 local elections.
Now, Uttlesford has nothing, no Local Plan, and no five year land supply. The District and all its residents are a sitting duck for unwanted and badly planned development. If either the LibDems or the Conservatives had been in power in 2019 we would probably have worked with the Planning Inspector to find common ground for an improved Plan. Instead, R4U started again and we are all suffering the consequences of planning chaos. We had planning committees that were rational, accountable and followed planning law - which applies to all responsible councils and we certainly did not have planning responsibilities removed from us. The increase in passenger numbers at Stansted Airport has been a contentious issue but previous applications were handled professionally and were not subject to multi-million pound costs to be paid out of local taxpayer funds.
We supported investment but did not invest so much that the Government had to cap us and therefore cause financial hardship to the council with a consequent loss of staff and public services. One of the jewels in UDC's crown, its waste collection service, is reeling with multiple missed bins each week and an increasing amount of uncollected litter.
There is a subtle but crucial balance between the role of the leader and the chief executive at the council; unfortunately, the new chief executive is having to fill a vacuum left by the inexperience and inability left by the current leadership team, meaning the council is now officer led - though maybe that is a blessing under the current circumstances.
No previous council administration faced a police investigation with the case being transferred to the CPS and as a consequence, the council's accounts not being signed off by an auditor for three years. A totally unacceptable situation.
We listened to the electorate, not just the loudest voices, and tried to do what was right for the whole district. In the end the electorate wanted an alternative but sometimes the grass is not always greener elsewhere.
We are saddened as well as frustrated that a once proud council is losing its powers of determination, its reputation, alarmingly its democratic accountability and will soon be financially challenged. On top of all that, the R4U party is closing down challenge and transparency and has no time for finding consensus.
Howard Rolfe, Great Chesterford and Jim Ketteridge, Saffron Walden