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Green Party and Liberal Democrat coalition set to take control of East Herts Council

Leadership of the new regime at East Herts Council (EHC) will be revealed tonight (Wednesday May 17).

The Greens, the largest party with 19 seats after the May 4 election, are expected to form a power-sharing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who won 10 seats, comfortably taking the alliance across the 25-member threshold for overall control.

The Indie understands there has been something of a scramble to meet tonight’s statutory deadline – but Green leader Ben Crystall (Hertford Bengeo), the only member of his party to have served on the previous EHC, is set to be confirmed as the leader of the new district council, with Lib Dem group leader Mione Goldspink, the member for Bishop’s Stortford North, expected to be his deputy.

East Herts Council's leader in waiting, Cllr Ben Crystall, with two of his new team members, Cllrs Vicky Smith, left, and Alex Daar
East Herts Council's leader in waiting, Cllr Ben Crystall, with two of his new team members, Cllrs Vicky Smith, left, and Alex Daar

On May 4, as residents cast their votes in polling stations across the district, neither party can have realistically expected to be forming an administration less than two weeks later.

Indeed, some councillors will be similarly shocked to find themselves committed to four years of lengthy and complicated meetings and taxing constituency casework when they may have expected to be ‘paper candidates’ in the election, flying the flag for their party but not seriously expecting to serve.

Across the board, some radical adjustments have been required to form a functioning council.

Clockwise from left, the Lib Dem councillors returned to East Herts Council Joseph Dumont, Richard Townsend, Mione Goldspink and Chris Wilson
Clockwise from left, the Lib Dem councillors returned to East Herts Council Joseph Dumont, Richard Townsend, Mione Goldspink and Chris Wilson

There is bound to have been some horsetrading to broker agreement, and with the Lib Dems’ stronghold in Bishop’s Stortford, inevitably the party’s firm views on the future of the previous Conservative-controlled district council’s Old River Lane scheme will have been a key bargaining chip.

The Lib Dems told the Indie after the vote: “There is one policy which we will definitely still be pursuing and that is on the development of the Old River Lane site. We will still be calling for all the existing plans to be put on hold so there can be a full public consultation.

“We do wish for some development to happen on the site as we see it as a great opportunity to provide some excellent amenities for the benefit of the whole community, but we believe the public should be fully consulted. We wish to know what the people would really like to see provided.”

Controversial plans to demolish both Charringtons House and the United Reformed Church Hall in Water Lane and transform the Causeway with 225 homes, offices, shops and a new cinema-led arts centre played a critical part in the Conservatives losing 23 seats – down from 39 to 16 – and control of EHC .

Coming up with an alternative scheme that both pleases the community and makes commercial sense will be an early test of the Lib Dem and Green entente. Labour, with five seats, has already put them on notice, calling for a “wholesale consultation and review”.

With dwindling central government funding and spiralling costs stretching its annual budget, one thing the new administration will not be able to do is throw money at the problem.

The project is one of several policy areas where the Greens can potentially use their track record as insurgents to innovate. However, those fresh eyes come at a price.

The party had only two seats on the previous council, one of them held by Cllr Crystall. His experience will be critical as his team get to grips with the constraints of governance – and the reality gap between the kind of blue-sky thinking that engages voters and the harsh reality of the bottom line.

The administration’s lack of experience will be bolstered by Cllr Goldspink. Like her fellow Bishop’s Stortford Lib Dem EHC members, Chris Wilson and Richard Townsend, and Great Amwell & Stansteads member Cllr Joseph Dumont, she served on the previous council – and before that she had a 20-year spell on the district council from 1991 to 2011.

However, the rump of the administrative experience were Conservatives, who accounted for 12 of the 18 district councillors re-elected on May 4.

On paper, the Lib Dems and Greens have a good deal in common, but the crossover in policies has made them fierce rivals and that conflict was evident during the campaign.

For example, Cllr Goldspink issued a personal message to Hertford Kingsmead voters to rebut Green claims highlighting her party’s work in opposition over the previous four years and pointing out: “During this time, only one motion has been proposed by the Labour Party. The Green Party proposed none.”

The challenge of turning words into actions is one being faced by Greens across the country.

Overall, the party has 738 members on a record 166 councils and 201 extra seats – the highest ever growth in its 50-year history.

It took majority control of a local authority for the first time, in Mid Suffolk, but there was also failure.

The party notably lost minority control of the authority with which it is most closely associated, Brighton and Hove City Council, the home of its only MP Caroline Lucas and the place where its policies have been most widely implemented.

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