Labour is poised to take charge of South Ribble Borough Council after agreeing a deal with the Liberal Democrats in the wake of last week’s local election.
The authority slipped into overall control following the vote, ending twelve years of Conservative rule. All three parties have since been in negotiations about how the district will now be run.
READ MORE >>> South Ribble 2019 election results in full
A so-called 'confidence and supply' arrangement will see the Liberal Democrats support Labour on an issue-by-issue basis.
Announcing the news, the two group leaders revealed early priorities include reducing green waste charges, rethinking the Pickering’s Farm development in Penwortham and securing the future of the borough’s small green spaces.
Labour’s Paul Foster said the deal would be “good for democracy”, while Lib Dem leader David Howarth promised he would not be giving his new-found political friends "a free ride".
Labour is currently the largest party on the council and although the outcome next month of the postponed election in the Farington West ward could yet change the numbers, the authority will remain hung.
“When we went through our two manifestos, we could match 90 percent of our [respective] commitments and so it was relatively straightforward to come to a consensus of where the priorities should be,” Cllr Foster said.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dem leader revealed that he will be chairing the authority’s scrutiny committee under the new arrangement.
“We will be holding the executive to account and looking to help them overcome any difficulties. But we will be scrutinising everything the Labour group does and we will make sure this agreement works,” Cllr Howarth said.
Green waste charges are set to be “reduced” in next year’s budget, as part of a Liberal Democrat pledge to cut back the collection charges over a four-year period.
Other eye-catching early commitments relate to housing development in the borough, which the opposition sought to make an election issue.
Cllr Foster said it was “a pleasure” to confirm that several of the borough’s small green spaces - including Bent Lane and Balcarres Green in Leyland - will no longer be investigated for other potential uses such as affordable housing. The Conservative administration launched a public consultation on the future of five open spaces earlier this year, but a decision on three of them was outstanding at the time of the election.
The two group leaders have also pledged to radically rethink the proposed Pickering’s Farm development in Penwortham. More than 1,300 new homes are planned for the site and a masterplan for the area is due to be put before the council’s planning committee.
“We can't pre-judge anything, but we’re not sitting back and accepting Pickering’s Farm,” Cllr Foster said, pledging that a reduction in planned housing numbers was the “minimum” that he wanted to see.
“Areas in Bamber Bridge, Lostock Hall, Leyland and Penwortham are choked with cars and poor air quality. We need to supply houses, but we need them in the right place.”
Cllr Howarth suggested that better use could be made of the borough’s greenbelt in order to avoid over-development in urban areas.
“Most people don’t appreciate that we’ve got about 67 percent of the borough which is in the greenbelt. I think we need to review the greenbelt and see where we can perhaps open some of it up...to maintain the green balances between communities,” Cllr Howarth said.
“And without infrastructure in place, is [Pickering’s Farm] feasible anyway? We have all of the traffic from Penwortham and Lostock Hall all heading towards a bridge into Preston.”
Conservative group leader Margaret Smith, who has been leader of the council for ten out of the last twelve years, said it was “no great surprise” that the Liberal Democrats had decided to support the Labour group.
“It’s unfortunate, because we did feel that we could have had a working relationship with [the Lib Dems], Cllr Smith said.
“But now we’ll do what we have to do as an opposition and hold them to account.
“As a Conservative group, we are actually quite satisfied with the election result, because about 26,000 people voted Conservative and only 20,000 Labour.
“There were lots of seats where we lost by only a few, so it’s very disappointing. However, we will be as magnanimous in defeat as we would have been in victory.”
Cllr Smith said she would continue to lead the Conservatives, while the Labour and Lib Dem leaders promised to involve the Tory group in the decision-making process, if they wanted to do “the best for South Ribble”.
“This is a local council, not some American drama, so we need to dust down and do what’s right by the residents,” Cllr Foster said.
Cllr Howarth added: “If somebody else has a good idea, just because they may not be part of our groups, doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea - and it’s something we will seriously consider.”
A meeting to confirm the new leader of the council for the next four years and the mayor for the next twelve months will be held on 15th May.