Tory leader pledges ‘significant’ changes if Cambridgeshire keeps Cabinet structure but could looming vote thwart his dream?

Cllr Martin Curtis

Cllr Martin Curtis - Credit: Archant

TORY group leader Martin Curtis has pledged a “significant” change to the way Cambridgeshire is run if the county council votes him in as leader.

Local Election count at the Hudson in Wisbech
Martin Curtis

Local Election count at the Hudson in Wisbech Martin Curtis - Credit: Archant

But he admitted last night to being nervous about the outcome of the crucial vote next Tuesday that will determine his fate.

Cambs Times meeting with Whittlesey residents concerning Supermarket-Gate. Cllr Martin Curtis addres

Cambs Times meeting with Whittlesey residents concerning Supermarket-Gate. Cllr Martin Curtis address the audience. - Credit: Archant

Cllr Curtis, in his first major interview since becoming group leader, said that even if councillors voted for a switch from Cabinet to committee structures it could not happen overnight.

Fenland District Councillor Martin Curtis and Tory agent Debbie Clark arriving at Fenland Hall for t

Fenland District Councillor Martin Curtis and Tory agent Debbie Clark arriving at Fenland Hall for the election of a new leader for Fenland Council two years ago. - Credit: Archant

And he also revealed that whilst he supported a review of the way the council is run, in fairness to the 39 new councillors – many entering politics for the first time- it ought not to happen immediately.

Martin Curtis and his wife Angela

Martin Curtis and his wife Angela - Credit: Archant

“What I have said is that I am more than happy to look at different structures but to do it instantly – such as a change to committee structure- may be a change too much,” he said.

“There is a different feel to the council because we are in a minority and we ought to allow that to bed down first.”

He was not saying new councillors were not ready but they needed “a reference point and get an understanding of the council, to be able to say Cabinet good, committee bad or vice versa. Their own personal experience is important but in truth we cannot or should not hide from fact there are limitations in both systems.”

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Cllr Curtis revealed he met with Labour, Lib Dem, Independent and UKIP leaders for two hours on Monday but no resolution was sought or agreed. The chief executive Mark Lloyd was present and offered advice on constitutional issues brought about by the fact that no party now has overall control.

“One thing that has disappointed me is the speculation in the media about deals being done,” he said. “That is blatantly untrue.”

But he said his colleagues within the Conservative group recognised “we are in a difficult position and we want to run a Cabinet system for now. That’s what the constitution says we have.”

Cllr Curtis said he hoped to form an all Conservative Cabinet since no other party came anywhere near to their number of councillors.

“If you look at the dispirit nature of opposition groups you will see they are poles apart and there is not a prospect of them working together,” he said.

If, as he hopes, he becomes leader he promised a new series of policy development groups reporting to Cabinet members and giving all councillors more influence and say in decision making.

Scrutiny committees would also have some opposition councillors in the chair and within three to four months he would hope to put new governance proposals to council through work done by the constitution and ethics committee.

He was not saying Cabinet or committee systems worked best but whatever the outcome the council would be stuck with it for five years which was why some thought needed to be given to options.

“My view is that committee system at times really slows down progress, bogs us down too. But the important thing is not political structures but how we are best able to deliver services,” he said.

Cllr Curtis also has to confront the issue of council chairmanship, a post that would normally now go to the vice chairman for the past two years Councillor Kevin Reynolds.

Given the chairman has an ‘extra’ casting vote he accepts opposition groups might challenge this “although my instinct is that Kevin has earned his right to be chairman for the next two years”.

All will become clear on Tuesday and he will watch with interest debates on what he describes as “complex motions” at the start which will test the waters for political change- immediate or later.

Cllr Curtis believes his party suffered at the recent elections solely because of national swings and the growing support for UKIP.

“Lets be honest we suffered, lets not pretend otherwise, from a national swing,” he said. “We were expecting a swing to UKIP but the extent took us all by surprise.”

In the next few days Cllr Curtis said it was not only him and his colleagues facing a period of uncertainty but so too were the council’s many thousands of employees.

Should UKIP, Labour, Lib Dems and the Independents opt to form a Cabinet would Cllr Curtis and his group be willing to join it?

“My instinct is that it is not something we would be interested in but we’ll have to see what’s on the table,” he said. “It’s all up for discussion. A week is a long time in politics and we’re a week away from that decision.”

He added: “We are willing to negotiate but there is only so far we can go. We still hold 46 per cent of seats and twice the number of any other party.

Was he apprehensive about the coming days which could make or break his political ambitions to become council leader?

“Me? Nervous? Yes, a bit of nerves all the way,” he said. “But I have to be council leader on the right terms- in terms of running this administration it can’t be at any cost.”

Had he spoken to his predecessor Nick Clarke, unceremoniously rejected by the electorate in his Fulbourn division?

“Yes I have spoken to Nick,” said Cllr Curtis. “He’s taken it like Nick would- he’s very quickly dusted himself off and looking at how to move on.”

Did he think Nick had a future in public life?

“That’s for him, I haven’t a clue,” said Cllr Curtis. “Nick achieved a helluva lot for Cambridgeshire but it is a different structure now, a different game.”

He also suggested his style might differ in that he planned to be “more inclusive” but whether he gets that opportunity only time will tell.

A matter of days as it happens.