Fringe Box



Row Erupts Over Overview & Scrutiny Committee Nominations

Published on: 22 May, 2024
Updated on: 24 May, 2024

By Martin Giles

Just days after GBC’s new chief executive officer appealed for councillors to come together to deal with the findings of the damning Solace report and get the council back on track, a row has broken out about the way nominations for critical committee chairmanships were made.

See: ‘Damning’ Report Debated at Council Meeting – CEO Calls for Councillors to Come Together

The row revolves around nominations for chairmen of the two Overview and Scrutiny (O&S) Committees charged with scrutinising the actions of the council’s Executive. One of the recommendations of the recent Solace report was that the committees provide “more effective oversight and constructive challenge”.

Under the council’s constitution, the leader of the biggest opposition party, currently Cllr Philip Brooker (Con, Worplesdon), nominates the chairmen of the two O&S Committees.  This is so that the biggest party does not end up scrutinising itself.

The relevant extract from GBC’s constitution.

In an email received from the chair of the Residents for Guildford & Villages party, it was claimed that Cllr Brooker nominated himself and Cllr Sue Wyeth-Price (Ash South) of the seven-member R4GV group to chair these two committees.

It might be expected that such nominations would be respected and supported by the party in power. However the Lib Dem council leader is said to have made it clear that her group would use the Lib Dem majority to vote down his nominations unless he agreed to nominate Cllr Walsh (Bellfields & Slyfield), leader of the three-member Labour Group party.

Cllr Philip Brooker

Cllr Brooker commented: “I do believe that the two largest opposition groups should each take one chair – in this case, the Conservatives and R4GV, and this was my preference. 

“However, my nominations are open to challenge. The Liberal Democrats have the majority on the council [25 of the 48 seats] and they made it clear that they would support the Labour leader for the role again this year, as indeed they did last year, ousting the Conservative nominee.

“Being put between ‘a rock and a hard place’, it therefore became apparent that to ensure there was at least one chair from the Conservative group, I was forced to compromise. 

“I strongly believe it is in the interest of Guildford’s residents that the Scrutiny Committees are chaired by the two largest opposition groups. It is telling that the Lib Dem administration will use their majority to avoid the toughest scrutiny, when this is exactly what is needed with the problems the administration is currently facing.”

But despite the leader of the opposition’s wishes and often repeated claims that there is no party whipping of councillors at GBC, Cllrs Brooker and Walsh were elected as chairs of the two O&S committees on May 13.

Pete Bennett, the chair of R4GV, who had sent the initial email to The Dragon, said: “The problem of a council leader who refuses to talk to the press has been well documented, but avoiding scrutiny goes further than that.

“Backbench councillors’ only effective mechanism to challenge the Executive is the Overview and Scrutiny Committees.  The chairs of those committees should be nominated by the leader of the largest opposition group, currently the Conservatives under Philip Brooker.

“During the previous (R4GV/LibDem) administration, Cllr Spooner (Con) held the position of O&S chair.  The questions asked were not always comfortable (especially when mistakes had genuinely been made) but they were welcome, and offered an effective opposition which is essential to a well-run democracy.

“Since the 2023 elections, the O&S Committee has been strangely silent, even in the wake of all the challenges the council has faced.

“Most recently, there was concern amongst many councillors that an ‘option agreement’ to sell a piece of land (essential to the development of Blackwell Farm) to the University of Surrey was delegated to a council officer without formal councillor scrutiny.  R4GV’s John Rigg, an experienced chartered surveyor, valued the land at upwards of £30 million.

See: Council Director’s Decision on Sale of ‘Ransom Strip’ Called in by Councillors

Cllr James Walsh chairing GBC’s most recent Overview & Scrutiny Committee meeting March 19, 2024

“Last year’s chair of O&S, James Walsh (Labour), did little to enforce councillors’ concerns that the land was to be sold without scrutiny and the terms of the deal remain hidden, with the potential price attained remaining a guarded secret amongst a few LibDem Executive members and Officers.  This is just one example of why it is so important that there is a strong mechanism in place that will thoroughly challenge the Executives decisions.

“This year, there will be two O&S Committees, scrutinising different aspects of the council.  Cllr Brooker wanted himself and Cllr Wyeth-Price (R4GV) to chair these two committees.  The Lib Dem Leader made it clear that her group would vote against this and would only support Cllr Brooker as a chair of O&S for Services if he accepted a Lib Dem vice-chair and nominated a more compliant Cllr Walsh once more as chair of the Resources O&S committee rather than Cllr Wyeth-Price of R4GV, the second largest opposition party.

“With governance at GBC proven to be inadequate as shown by the Solace report, surely it is wrong for the council Executive to choose who should scrutinise it?”

Lib Dem Council Leader Julia McShane was invited to comment.

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Responses to Row Erupts Over Overview & Scrutiny Committee Nominations

  1. Jules Cranwell Reply

    May 23, 2024 at 5:35 am

    Yet again, Cllr McShane does everything to avoid scrutiny of her disastrous leadership. Hiding from the press is not enough, she also seeks to hide from the scrutiny of capable councillors.

    Editor’s comment: The original misspelling of Cllr McShane’s name was not noticed in the moderation process. I apologise for my error.

  2. John Perkins Reply

    May 23, 2024 at 7:55 am

    Can the Lib Dem and Labour groups truly be considered as separate in view of the possibility of yet another pact between the two parties?

  3. John Ferns Reply

    May 23, 2024 at 7:38 pm

    So, the cosy relationship that appears to have developed between the Lib Dems and Labour, will continue.

    Three pertinent questions spring to mind:

    – What is the political relationship between the Lib Dem group and the Labour leader?
    – Why is Julia McShane so fearful of the true scrutiny Cllr Sue Wyeth-Price would bring?
    – What hope now remains for the future Oversight & Scrutiny of the Executive functions at GBC? (In the words of the late great Paul Daniels “Not a lot”. But we will have to like it or lump it, it seems.)

    The vacuity of this decision by the GBC leader, and its timing, must be bringing a smile to the Conservative constituency candidate, Angela Richardson’s face. And maybe, even, a scowl from the Lib Dem candidate?

  4. Wayne Smith Reply

    May 23, 2024 at 9:04 pm

    This is appalling behaviour by Cllr McShane.

    We had become used to the petulance from the previous Cllr Spooner and current Cllr Furniss not engaging with The Guildford Dragon because they didn’t like to be challenged or saw some perceived slight in coverage but Cllr McShane takes the biscuit.

    She won’t engage with The Dragon except on her own terms; recorded interviews not allowed. Now she’s trying to pick and choose members of the Overview and Scrutiny committee, it seems so that she and the Lib Dems get an easy ride.

    Another low point for Guildford Borough Council.

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