2012 a rollercoaster year for local politics in North East Lincolnshire
2012 was a year of contrasting fortunes for North East Lincolnshire's ruling Labour administration. While the party strengthened its grip on the authority following May's local election, and dominated debates in the council chamber, a series of unpopular decisions saw public opinion turning against it. Local government reporter Simon Faulkner looks back on the political year.
THE year ended as it had begun – with council leader Chris Shaw at odds with the local MPs.
Back in January, the Labour group leader was coming under increasing pressure from Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers to reach an agreement over the Humber Bridge tolls.
As Christmas loomed, it was the authority's decision to close Scartho Baths in the face of much public opposition that angered not only Mr Vickers but also his Great Grimsby counterpart Austin Mitchell.
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In many ways these two episodes sum up a year that was defined by confrontation. As well as public rows with opposition councillors, Mr Shaw also became embroiled in disputes with the leaders of neighbouring authorities and local In Bloom committees.
He was a regular and outspoken critic of Government, too, describing ministers as having a "Pontius Pilate" approach to funding local government.
Not that he held Whitehall entirely responsible for the budget restrictions imposed on the authority.
He also cited the "financial incompetence" of the previous administration, who he claimed had "mortgaged the authority to the hilt" by investing millions borrowed to fund the council's capital programme in foreign banks – including the doomed Icelandic institutions.
While his combative style was not to everyone's liking, he would say it reflected his desire to stand up for the interests of the area.
North East Lincolnshire had been a pushover for too long, he argued. And that was going to change.
The stand-off with the neighbouring authorities over the Humber Bridge was a classic illustration.
In return for wiping out £150-million of the debt to allow the tolls to be halved, the Government insisted that the remaining £182 million debt would have to be shared equally between the four Humber authorities.
But Mr Shaw was not prepared to accept. He demanded a split based on population, which would have seen NELC taking on around 17 per cent of the debt. As negotiations stalled and fears grew that the Government would pull the plug on the offer, Mr Vickers took to the Commons to voice his displeasure.
Mr Shaw, who had wisely secured a cross-party mandate from his full council, remained unmoved – until transport secretary Justine Greening issued him with a stark ultimatum. He eventually backed down – but not before securing a concession for patients crossing the bridge to visit hospital on the north bank.
Although the borough may have had reason to be grateful for the Government for reducing the Humber Bridge tolls, Mr Shaw felt that on the whole, North East Lincolnshire was getting a raw deal.
A major bone of contention was the continued reductions in funding from central government – following the record 8.8 per cent cut the previous year, the council was hit by a further 4.3 per cent reduction in 2012/13.
Not surprisingly, anti-Government rhetoric became an increasing feature of full council meetings, much to the ire of Conservative councillors who accused their Labour counterparts of turning debates into shameless party political broadcasts.
Perhaps the most infamous example of this came at the full council meeting in March, when councillors spent more than an hour debating a Labour motion opposing the Government's planned NHS reforms.
The Conservatives suggested that the place for such debates was the House of Commons and not the council chamber.
Another Labour tactic which got under the Conservatives' skin was their habit of amending motions put forward by the Tories – often with an anti-Government slant.
When the Conservatives proposed asking Lincolnshire County Council to consider road improvements to Riby Crossroads, Labour said the letter needed to be sent to the Government.
When Immingham hosted its first full council meeting in November, the cheap political points-scoring reached a new low.
A debate about rail links saw councillors dredge the history books to make digs about the building of the Humber Bridge and the Beeching Axe (adopted by the Macmillan government in 1963), Conservative councillors opposed to the ambulance station closures were taunted with Labour membership forms and mischievously invited to join UKIP, while Mr Shaw memorably described the previous Lib Dem-Tory administration as a "vintage racket".
That meeting witnessed a particularly belligerent performance from the council leader, who rounded off the evening by accusing the Conservative Philip Jackson of misleading the planning committee at a meeting more than a year earlier.
Mr Jackson, however was not the first Tory to come under fire from Mr Shaw in the chamber.
In March, the Labour leader had called on his Conservative counterpart Keith Brookes to resign for accusing the authority of setting an illegal budget. That stemmed from a row which had blown up when Mr Brookes had suggested the budget might be "unsustainable", a remark which prompted Mr Shaw to call in the district auditor.
But when the council's books were given a clean bill of health, Mr Brookes, who maintained he had never used the word "illegal" brushed off Mr Shaw's demands as "pure electioneering".
However, one Tory scalp that Mr Shaw did achieve was that of Melanie Dickerson, whom his party prevented from becoming mayor, claiming her four-month suspension from Healing Parish Council for not declaring an interest on a planning application of a personal friend meant she was "not a fit and proper person" for the role.
The move outraged both the Tories and Lib Dems, who boycotted the mayor-making ceremony.
It was seen by some as symptomatic of "Labour greed" – a view which was only reinforced when the party took over the chairmanship of all the scrutiny panels after gaining an overall majority in May's local election.
Lib Dem Andrew De Freitas, Mr Shaw's predecessor as council leader, talked of his fear that the "old arrogance" of previous Labour administrations was beginning to resurface.
Despite that, Labour repeatedly insisted that it was a listening administration, scrapping plans to charge £25 a year for garden waste collections, and delaying decisions on closing Immingham Resource Centre and the Asdrel centre.
It also put the brakes on proposed speed limit reductions, and delayed its 433 per cent rise in the cost of residents only parking permits – but not before being accused by Lib Dem councillor Christina McGilligan-Fell in a sensational outburst at a Cabinet meeting of a "culture of contempt". However its decision to hold a three-week electronic consultation on its leisure facilities in response to a petition against the closure of Scartho Baths only succeeded in further incensing campaigners opposed to the plan.
The consultation was widely dismissed as a sham and the council voted to press ahead with building a new pool and leisure centre in Cromwell Road.
Despite the closure of the pool being announced back in January, widespread opposition only surfaced in September. It was for this reason that Mr Shaw described Tory objections as opportunistic bandwagon-jumping.
And he was even less impressed when not only Mr Vickers but also Mr Mitchell pitched their tents firmly in the campaigners' camp.
At December's full council meeting, Mr Shaw told his political opponents "hindsight is a wonderful thing", suggesting that in time, the council's decision will be widely accepted as the right one.
In a dig at his opponents, he suggested that the Lib Dems and Tories were "jittery" about supporting the project, because unlike their joint administration, his was "getting things done".
But with no election this year, voters will have to wait until 2014 to deliver their verdict.