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Death of Democracy in Fylde

Death of DemocracyPart of New Labour's 'modernisation agenda' gave councils the option to change their democratic structure.  Fylde's New Conservatives, led in this instance by Simon Renwick, have embraced this with enthusiasm, (even though nationally  the Conservative manifesto plans to abandon them as being undemocratic)

Background
Traditionally, the decisions of a local authority have been made by the full council. Each of the 49 councillors in Fylde had a vote on every item that came before them.

However, in order to organise their business efficiently, councils ran service committees - Leisure, Housing, Environment, and so on. 

These service committees considered the detail of issues and came to a preliminary view. Their views became a recommendation to the Council meeting, where any Councillor could call it into question, refer it back for more consideration, or vote to change it.

In practice, most recommendations of committees were approved en-bloc by the full council meeting, but occasionally individual items would be changed.

Labouring Under Change
The Local Government Act 2000 allowed sweeping changes to this system. Amongst other things, it allowed for councils to be run by a directly elected Mayor, a cabinet or executive committee system, or a  'streamlined committee' system.

Most people in Fylde didn't want change, so they opted for the streamlined committee and hoped for the best. 

The Chief Executive advised that Fylde had to change as a result of this new legislation. Whilst this was technically accurate, there remains debate about whether the extent of the change he proposed was the minimum necessary. However, for better or worse, on the advice of its officers, the Council opted for the streamlined committee system.

'Streamlined' Committees
Under this arrangement, each committee had authority delegated to make the decisions itself.

This stopped the Council from changing or referring back any of the decisions for more consideration, and although any member of the Council could attend, and speak at, any committee, only those designated as members of that committee had the right to vote on the matter.

So in theory a committee of 12 out of a council of 49 could reject the views of the other 37 elected members and follow their own lights.

The meeting of the full Council was thus limited to simply receiving the minutes of the committees. It could not change them.

Needless to say, this situation produced much and frequent dissatisfaction, and this grew over time.

With obvious irritation that the Council would not settle down to their new role, the Chief Executive was ultimately forced to accept that further change was required, but instead of helping Councillors restore a one man one vote system, he persuaded them to accept what many saw as a worsening of the situation.

They were persuaded to introduce a nine-man 'Executive Committee'. 

Executive Committee
So instead of having all the Councillors come to a collective decision, the new system saw all decisions made by a group of only nine people. 

In effect this nine became the Council.

Admittedly, scrutiny and overview committees were put in place with theoretical power to make changes to decision, but in practice, the tiger has been toothless so far as reflecting public opinion is concerned (which is what individual councillors were able to do under the traditional system).

Things became even worse when some of the more vociferous councillors were denied the opportunity speak at  Executive Committee meetings. Resentment again boiled up.

Several of the Councillors expressed a preference for a return to a one man one vote system, and after just over 12 months of operation on a trial basis, the system has again changed

To something even less democratic.

The Cabinet System or Politburo
The plan is to move to a Cabinet system. There are various models, but a popular one sees a handful of (typically five to ten)  individual councillors each having the final say on a particular topic. One holding the portfolio for say Housing, another for Environment, and so on.

Before the meeting that decided on the cabinet system, the Fylde Conservative group (who have a slim majority overall) met to decide what they thought should happen. 

Plotting the Rot
Knowing that some Conservative members were implacably opposed to the idea, it seems that John Coombes, worried about not maintaining his majority on this matter, had invited one or more non-conservative members of a group calling themselves 'Truly Independent' to attend the conservative group meeting.

If he could secure support from the four 'Truly Independents',  Councillor Coombes thought could use their votes to overcome those within his own group who believed in the democratic principle of one man one vote, and had the courage to vote against the plan.

So the machiavellian machinations are begun even before the system is in place.

It leads you to wonder what promises might have been made to the leader of the' Truly Independent' group. 

It seems that opinions in the Conservative group were wide-ranging. Barbara Pagett stated her intention to vote against the group as  a matter of conscience. There were others who took this view.

The Truly Independent member present, Trevor Fiddler, asked whether there was a whip in place, and what sanctions would apply to those who voted against the majority decision.

John Coombes said that anyone voting against could be expelled from the conservative group.

The group decision was, of course, in favour of killing off democracy in Fylde Council, and moving to the cabinet system. 

Those councillors present at this meeting and voting for the cabinet system - included: John Prestwich; Elizabeth Clarkson; Martin Taylor; Dawn Prestwich; and Alfred Jealous. Most used weak or fallacious arguments to support the destruction of democracy in Fylde ("we've already spent so much time on this"  etc). They are not fit to lick the boots of the courageous and principled few who spoke and voted against it.

Typical of the spin and doublespeak of the modern politician, proposer Simon Renwick was quoted in the Express (6 Oct 05) as saying that a cabinet system is more democratic, and that it changes the council from being divisive to influencing. 

This is exactly the opposite of what will happen, and flies in the face of his party's national position.

They have ushered in a system that will create a permanent  internal struggle for power. There will be intense competition to secure - and then hold - a place on the all-powerful Cabinet. 

In the best Stalinist tradition, Commissar Coombes will rule the roost, killing off those who oppose him, and appointing those who will do his bidding to positions of power, whilst aspirants hang around the margins hoping to catch his eye.

Instead of a collection of worthies, and people of  principle with strong moral character representing the views of their electorate in Fylde, we will have acolytes, sycophants and 'yes-men', whose aim will be to seize the reins of power, not to serve their community.

This is not democracy, it is the politics of a politburo in a discredited dictatorship. 

Councillor John Bennett wore a black tie to the Council meeting because he thought democracy had died in Fylde. Councillor Barbara Pagett also spoke out bravely against the plan, as did others, but the combined Conservative and 'Truly Independent' whip held the line and it was voted through.

Watch out for the first rewards that John (The Commissar) Coombes will hand out to the 'Truly Independents'

Not for the first time in his political career will the down to earth, common sense, Councillor John Bennett be proved right.

Dated: 6 October 2005


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