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Saint Barbara Goes Solo

Councillor Barbara PagettIn a move that was not altogether unexpected, Saint Barbara Pagett - one of three councillors elected to serve Ashton Ward in St Anne's - has quit the Conservative group on Fylde Council, and in future will be independent of the Tory whip.   As we reported last October (in The Commissar Strikes),  matters came to a head when she was suspended from the Conservative group for daring to vote against the party line on two matters that were fundamental to her.

The first of these was the introduction of the dreadful Politburo Cabinet system which prevents all Councillors taking part in public debate and decision-making about what is best for their electorate.

counterbalance has not agreed with all her judgements, but on this matter, Councillor Mrs Pagett was brave, fearless, and exactly right. This is why we elevated her to the status of a Saint.

If people understood how decisions are now made, they would likely be horrified to find the Commissar's hand-picked group of seven now makes all decisions in the name of the Council. So counterbalance sets out to explain.

In the good old days at Fylde, councillors were mostly local worthies who had made their fortune in business and, acting as strong minded independents, came together to work for the good of the town.

This system created the best traditions of Local Government.

All decisions were made by the "Full Council Meeting" - the collective voice of all the individuals. However, as the Council expanded its responsibilities, it found the need to form specialist Committees that could deal with technicalities in detail.

Service-based Committees such as Housing, Planning, Parks etc  thus came to be the basic decision making groups, but their resolutions remained subject to the review and approval of the next full Council meeting that followed theirs.

At that meeting, all members of the Council, whether they were members of that committee or not, reviewed the recent decisions of each committee, and could require any Committee resolution to be debated by all Councillors, and referred back to the source Committee for more consideration. Alternatively, if it felt sufficiently strongly about something, the Full Council meeting might (and, on occasions, did) override the Committee decision.

As party politics began to creep in to local government, party meetings held in private decided how the party would vote on particular issues. However, previous Council leaders has sufficient self-confidence and common sense to allow the conscience of strong minded individuals to override allegiance to party dogma. They did not require blind obedience to a party whip.

Although not perfect, this system allowed every Councillor a vote on every decision, and promoted corporate decisions based on collective responsibility for all the Council's actions.

The present system, introduced by Commissar Coombes is very different.

With his overall majority, he 'persuaded' the Council to introduce the "Leader and Cabinet" system even though in his own poll, 77% of Fylde residents said they opposed it, and even though his last minute attempt at a second poll (perhaps to 'overturn' the first one) also showed a majority against the idea.

In simple terms this is how it now works. He is elected Leader, then he chooses a Politburo Cabinet who have individual 'portfolios' (such as Culture and Tourism, or Economic Development. See Who's Who in the Cabinet for more details), and the decisions are made - sometimes by these individuals, but more often by the Leader and Cabinet - (supposedly in Cabinet meetings, but more often in pre-meetings out of the public eye).

Ordinary Councillors who have not been chosen by the Commissar to be one of the seven  'portfolio holders' have no right to vote at meetings of his Cabinet. They have no right to speak at them. They cannot even make a statement.

They can, however, ask a question........ provided it is submitted in writing almost a week before the date of the Cabinet meeting! And even then, the Commissar reserves to himself the right not to bother providing an answer.

Quite simply, this is an utter disgrace, and St. Barbara was right to have nothing to do with it.

Notably she is (or rather was) the only Conservative with enough courage to defy the Commissar and his political acolytes.

He will no doubt argue there are sufficient safeguards built into the system - there are "Scrutiny" committees to act as watchdogs, and places where 'ordinary' Councillors can have their say before the Politburo Cabinet considers the matter.

He will also no doubt proudly say these scrtuiny committees are independent. To give this illusion, he used the classic banana republic tactic of 'divide and rule' where he seduced normally sensible Councillors (not members of his own party) to take the Chair or Vice Chair of these scrutiny committees, creating the illusion  that Scrutiny Committees are independent. By accepting the Commissar's thirty pieces of silver, these Councillors lend false credibility to a discreditable system and ought to know better than sully their reputation.

But things get even worse. By law, Scrutiny Committees have to reflect the political balance of the whole Council, so the charade turns into farce because the Commissar's party has a majority on all of them, and can control the decision they make anyway. This is even more likely when they are stuffed with party members who want to prove their worth and aspire to a cabinet position themselves.

Even Machiavelli couldn't have devised a better way of sewing up decisions, stifling opposition, and silencing dissent. Effective it is. Democracy it isn't, and it HAS to go.

We wish St Barbara success in her solo flight, and hope  she is the first of many.

Dated: 22 July 2006


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