Countdown to chaos: the incredible rise and fall of Drew Mellor

British Museum, Wikimedia Commons

A controversial and chaotic political reign ended last week, as Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole (BCP) leader Drew Mellor resigned after two years in the hotseat. His leadership was littered with scandal and leaves the fledgling council on the verge of bankruptcy, less than four years after its formation. His reversal comes just 80 days before council elections.

But how did come to this? Here are eight key moments in the rapid rise and fall of Drew Mellor.

October 2020 – Mellor seizes power

The first-ever BCP elections were held in May 2019, and dealt the Conservatives a surprise. Without an expected council majority, they saw a coalition take power under the Unity Alliance banner, led by Liberal Democrat Vikki Slade. But the Alliance administration was overtaken first by the Covid crisis and then by the death of two of its councillors.

Sensing opportunity, Mellor called votes of no confidence in June and September 2020, succeeding in the second. On October 1 he finally won control of BCP Council in a leadership election. Having won only 28 per cent of the public vote in 2019, the Conservatives seized power on the back of 40 councillor votes.

January 2021 – launch of The Big Plan

The key project in BCP’s first term was its Transformation programme, designed to merge the three legacy council operations. But following their takeover, Mellor and his deputy Phil Broadhead converted this into something much larger: the Big Plan.

This was billed as a ‘a world-class vision’ for the region, and came with its own microsite and even a slick introductory video. But beyond the media-friendly messaging, the key difference was the aspiration to make BCP a ‘city region’ through a programme of high-profile development. Most closely associated with this was Broadhead himself, a former estate agent and chair of the Key Cities interest group.

Underpinning it was the creation of FuturePlaces, a planning consultancy which would have control over key regeneration projects. The consultancy attracted accusations of cronyism and secrecy, but most controversial was the cost: Mellor and Broadhead’s Conservatives committed £11.4m to the project in its first year, including an eye-watering £8m loan.

These changes dramatically affected the council’s costs. The Alliance administration had set a budget of £37m for the Transformation programme. By February 2022 this had ballooned to £68m. The Big Plan would have big consequences.

January 2022 – the Beach Hut Budget

To fund these spiralling costs, an extraordinary proposal was presented by leaders Mellor and Broadhead at the start of 2022. They’d developed a scheme to sell the council’s 3,000 beach huts to itself (or rather, to a financial vehicle owned by the council). This was apparently underpinned by a report from consultants KPMG, which Mellor and Broadhead refused to share with fellow councillors even as they were asked to vote on it.

The Beach Hut Budget passed with the £55m scheme attached, though frustrated opposition councillors described it as ‘casino economics’. But there would be more twists to come.

May 2022 – Scrutiny functions are overhauled

As criticism of Conservative fiscal policies mounted, an unexpected battleground emerged: the council’s Oversight and Scrutiny (O&S) Board.

The Board was designed to scrutinise the administration, and was initially chaired by an opposition councillor (Broadhead himself), with a majority opposition panel. But once in power, Mellor’s team overturned this principle in a highly controversial move.

Under the Conservative changes, the O&S Board was divided into separate working groups, which were handed Conservative majorities, Conservative chairs and Conservative vice-chairs. The total number of O&S meetings was halved. Opposition councillors lamented that it was ‘strangling scrutiny’, at a critical moment in BCP’s short history.

August 2022 – Government outlaws the Beach Hut Budget

During the summer, meetings set up to scrutinise the Beach Hut scheme were repeatedly shelved. By the end of July, the reason became clear.

In a sensational twist, first revealed by the Telegraph, the UK Government stepped in to stop the plan from going ahead. Minister Greg Clark even released a public letter on the matter, raging that “some councils have attempted to abuse a loophole to do dodgy deals which only benefit the bottom lines of consultancies and accounting firms”.

Ministers had been writing to Mellor and his leadership team for months, warning them that the plan did not comply with local authority financing rules. The public intervention was brutal and humiliating. The Beach Hut Budget was dead in the water, the £55m revenue lost. BCP’s finances were now ‘on life support’.

November 2022 – Emergency measures announced at BCP

Just a few months later, with bankruptcy in sight, BCP’s finance officers had no choice but to prepare for the worst. A mid-year finance paper set out a range of emergency measures to keep the sinking ship afloat.

Service cuts were put into effect, and non-essential spend was frozen. The council applied for a £76m Government bailout, and in January 2023 Mellor and Broadhead’s Conservatives would push through plans to raise £20m by selling off council assets.

BCP’s finance officers had thrown the whole kitchen at the crisis, though at the time of writing it’s still not known whether this will be enough to avoid catastrophe. But more twists were just around the corner.

February 2023 – endgame for Mellor

At the end of January 2023, BCP released the plan for the coming 2023/24 financial year. It was shocking.

Further austerity measures were reluctantly proposed. Council Tax will have to rise by the maximum 5 per cent in April 2023 and 2024. Service cuts of £80m will have to be found over the next two years. Staff pay will rise by less than half the inflation rate, and the payroll budget will have to be cut by £25m.

And how bad are those finances? The debt ceiling has trebled over the last year to a staggering £1.3bn. Almost 90 per cent of the earmarked reserves have been spent. The last two years have ravaged the financial outlook, and the council will remain a bankruptcy risk for several years to come.

Yet no regret was heard from leaders Mellor and Broadhead. Indeed, the one item they voiced discomfort with, was the projected 5per cent increase in Council Tax: considered a vote-loser with elections approaching in May. Both men took to local media to reassure the public that they were developing a scheme to raise more revenue and restrict the increase.

Meanwhile, UK Government was already intervening to stop this scheme. A letter from minister Lee Rowley a week earlier had warned Mellor against “any commercial scheme that carries risk”. But with Mellor and Broadhead apparently determined to push ahead, there came a further extraordinary twist. Their own chief finance officer gave an interview to BBC Radio Solent in which he warned that if Mellor’s budget plans were adopted, “I’d have to issue a Section 114 report [bankruptcy] on the grounds of potential illegal expenditure”.

Needless to say, this was unprecedented from a neutral council officer, and exposed the level of concern among BCP staff. This broadside was followed by a letter from BCP’s own auditors, which strongly advised against Mellor’s ‘commercial opportunity’.

Mellor’s scheme was over. And so was he.

14th February 2023 – Mellor resigns

There was no love in the air for Drew Mellor this Valentine’s Day, as he announced his resignation in an acrimonious statement. Blaming “civil servant and Treasury orthodoxy”, he raged at the refusal of his government and advisers to support his plans.

After so many twists and turns, the rollercoaster finally came off the tracks. In little over two years, Mellor’s leadership saw a vote of no confidence, a public petition calling for his resignation, staffing crises in planning and social care, a damning report into Children Services, and accusations of breaching Covid regulations. He was even found guilty by his own Standards Committee of ‘misleading’ the council and breaching their Code of Conduct. It hasn’t been an easy ride.

Whatever next?

As residents look ahead to May’s elections, it would hardly be surprising to see them reject BCP’s Conservatives entirely. Local politics is supposed to be boring, yet the last few years have been anything but. Interim leader Phil Broadhead can’t accuse his opponents of being chaotic or wasteful, when his own administration has majored in such things.

And whatever happens in May, the council’s financial struggles will continue, and bankruptcy will remain a risk. For long-suffering locals, the ride isn’t over yet.