County Council Polls: Election rivals who preferred pragmatism to party politics: Consensus reigns in Avon, but that could change on Thursday. Peter Dunn reports

VALERY DAVEY (Labour), Pat Hockey (Liberal Democrat) and Maureen Wheadon (Conservative) are the Avon Ladies - three political leaders who, with all the good manners and sociable marketing techniques of their cosmetic namesakes, have operated a model of consensus government for the past four years.

None would have chosen it this way, of course, given the conventional demands of party-political name calling; but, in 1989, the voters of Avon returned a hung council of 36 Labour, 33 Tories and seven Liberal Democrats. The expedient response of the Avon Ladies was to sit down and talk. Endlessly.

What emerged was a scheme designed to take some of the partisan sting out of county hall politics and open the decision-making process to wide public debate. Old-style committee chairmen were replaced by 'chairs' who lost the traditional power of the casting vote; committees had spokesmen (or persons) elected from each of the three parties; each group was consulted by council officers on policy.

Members of the public were encouraged to attend committees and even to join in the debates. Annual budget time involved talks on an heroic scale with the pressure groups and voters of industrial Bristol, Georgian Bath and broad swathes of prosperous rural England, the Cotswolds and Mendips.

The new deal required a lot of selling to some Labour members, deeply suspicious as they were of a Liberal Democrat party which had spent several years before 1989 hopping in and out of bed with the county's Tories. 'We saw it as a hard-headed solution in a hung council,' Mrs Davey says. 'We simply couldn't go on winning the arguments and losing the vote. Maureen, to give her her due, worked very hard on this. We're three women but we're three women of very different character.

'It's not an ideal system. It can be very frustrating, very hard work for officers and members alike. To be a bit cynical about it, one of the reasons we've got three women running it is that all of us work virtually full-time, unpaid, as councillors, which most men wouldn't tolerate or be able to do. Men prefer to be in power, they like to give orders.'

Pat Hockey - a mother of seven and, like Mrs Davey, a former teacher - is, understandably, enthusiastic about a system which has benefited her small group of Liberal Democrats. She says: 'I've sent a little document out to candidates this time saying we honestly don't think we could have achieved any more if we'd been operating in overall control. I wouldn't be very surprised if Labour won but I do think that if the Tories lose seats they're more likely to go to us rather than Labour. With their poor performance nationally, especially in rural areas, it's us that'll pick up the Conservative vote. Hopefully we'd still hold the balance of power, but with more of us to do it.

'On a personal level I get on very well with Val; with Maureen, I wouldn't say there's animosity, but she does have a lot of Tory tendencies which I can't relate to . . . She's got a bit of a born-to-rule attitude.'

Mrs Wheadon takes a dim view these days of the alliance. Her group enraged Labour in 1990 by getting the county's budget rate- capped. She is under pressure from her own party. Her deputy, John Portch, a big name in office equipment in Bristol, has already challenged her once for the leadership and may do so again if the Avon Tories do badly this week.

'I did feel, when we initiated this system four years ago, that it was the best set of working practices that we could have devised with a hung council,' she says. 'But I have to say it's proved even more frustrating than we'd expected. We think the committee system and the consultation is extremely expensive and time-wasting. The district auditor has said the cost of democracy is getting too high. He's estimated that formal committee meetings cost pounds 2m last year.

'In the last 12 months we've had a system when the public can speak at committee meetings. It's supposed to take half an hour but quite frequently it takes longer.

'We had one planning committee which started at 2.15pm and was abandoned at 9pm with 12 items still to go. I think also that this business of calling it chair rather than chairman, which I think should apply even to lady Tories, diminishes the office in the public's eye. When we get a majority, we'll stop all these silly practices.'

The Local Government Commission is expected to abolish Avon in its two-tier form - along with other county authorities like Derbyshire - by 1996. With it will go the Avon Ladies' dream that local politics deserved something better than the self-interested wheedling of party politicians.

(Photograph omitted)

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
tv
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

Technical Project Manager - Software and Infrastructure - Government Experience

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Central Lon...

Secondary teachers needed for supply roles in Sudbury

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers requi...

Head of Technology

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Head of Technology needed for a Outsta...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits