Labour’s two gains in May at the expense of the Conservatives left the Tories still the largest party at the borough council by far – but after going into that election with a comfortable majority of eight over Labour and the Lib Dems combined, the losses have cut that majority to four.
This means the next election would only need the Conservatives to be defeated in a further two seats to lose control, while still being the biggest party – currently the Conservatives have 23 seats, Labour ten and Lib Dems nine.
At a time of concern over democratic accountability being eroded at national level, there has been an upsurge in challenges to Rugby borough’s Tories on a range of issues.
If their majority seemed unassailable for a while, they know they are in a fight now – a reality seen all too clearly at last week’s meeting of the full council.
Labour councillors proposed three motions and the Lib Dems one, while 15 questions were also tabled, ten from Labour and five from Lib Dems.
In terms of motions, Labour challenged the Conservative leadership on the ongoing cost of living crisis and its impact on the council and Rugby residents; child hunger in the borough; and regulation of the private rented housing sector.
Their questions covered: which buildings they have identified for use as warm banks during the winter; whether the council will pay its staff and contractors the living wage; whether they will construct a data dashboard to bring together key social data across the borough; what discussions the council have had about using Open Reach and City Fibre to reach digitally excluded residents; what discussions have been held with the West Midlands Ambulance Trust; what their response was to concerns raised by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust about national Tory government policy; whether they are engaging with a scheme to tackle loneliness; and whether Ukrainian refugees in the borough are facing any homelessness problems.
A response was provided to each question but on warm banks, Cllr Alison Livesey (Coton and Boughton Ward) said: “RBC has done nothing to move this issue forward. People in the town cannot afford to heat their homes, and not even the basic groundwork has started almost two months to the day since the ruling group told us they wanted to do everything possible to help Rugby residents get through these very tough times.
"They are leaving it to the voluntary and community services in the town to step in. Laughably they have said they’ll come back with a report on warm banks in the spring.”
Of the motions, Cllr Michael Moran (Admirals and Cawston Ward) asked for the council to, ‘Conduct an urgent re-appraisal of the council’s financial situation with regards identifying the potential impact of the current financial crisis on the borough’s growth plans and associated budget forecasts’.
He also asked it to, ‘Conduct an urgent assessment of the financial cost of addressing the needs of constituents in meeting the multi-faceted challenges of this financial crisis with particular regard to homelessness and also food/energy poverty’.
Cllr John Slinger (New Bilton) moved a notice of motion calling on the council to reconvene the Private Sector Landlords’ Forum, that has not met for years, and to bring in a Landlord Accreditation Scheme. Cllr Slinger set out that the forum is needed for three key reasons: there’s a need for better quality housing and higher standards; private sector landlords must be part of the solution given that they house 11 million people; and that the government says it will make significant changes to the sector, with a greater emphasis on the role of local councils in enforcement and better regulation.
Cllr Slinger said: “I’m glad that the Conservative leadership of the council tabled a friendly amendment which conceded that they agree with my suggestion of reconvening the Forum. I pledged in the chamber to work constructively with Conservative councillors.
"My Labour colleagues and I will also work closely with council officers, who work hard in this area with limited resources due to central government cuts, to make sure that the new forum works well, particularly to encourage the huge number of smaller landlords, who are often hard to identify, to engage with it.
"While I was disappointed that the Conservatives didn’t agree to a Landlord Accreditation Scheme, their amendment does call for the forum to consider the introduction of ‘a licensing scheme for all rented properties in the borough. Overall, this is good progress in the interests of landlords and tenants, and shows that Labour can make changes even without running the council.”
The Lib Dem questions covered the council’s progress on improving energy efficiency; the council’s progress on stopping using energy from fossil fuels; the council’s actions to tackling damp in homes; void council properties; and the potential planning benefit from redevloping a key part of the town centre.
Its motion called on the council to look at the possibility of volunteers being recuited for a parkwatch scheme and for the inroduction of a hotline for people to report any issues occurring in the council’s parks or its open spaces.
Labour leader, Cllr Maggie O’Rourke (Benn), said: "The Labour group has demonstrated that we will hold this Tory-led council to account and come up with our own ideas that have the vision for the borough that is often lacking among the Conservatives.”