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Committee System for LCC ?

Committees for LCC?This is a two part article.

Lancashire County Council will debate whether to return its decision-making system back to Committees - rather than using the handful of councillors acting as a Cabinet and taking the executive decisions in the name of the whole Council.


 9 DEC 13 - PART 1: THE PROPOSAL 
Our regular readers already know of our support for the Fylde Civic Awareness Group's current campaign to restore the Committee System at Fylde Borough Council  (The system that former Commissar John Coombes killed off when he introduced this awful Cabinet System to Fylde).

We've reported their activities in our articles 'Restoring Democracy?' and 'Democracy + Fracking' and 'True or False' and 'Peter Wood Letter' and 'Petition for Change' and in 'Democracy Restored?'

We've also reported about the 40 or so Councils nationally have decided to change back and the 12 or so have already changed.

We heard last week that Lancashire County Council could be added to that list.

On Thursday, at a meeting of the Full County Council, a motion has been proposed by Conservative County Councillor David Westley to return LCC to the Committee operating system rather than the present Cabinet System.

It looks as though St Eric Pickles' option for councils to change back is still making progress.

County Councillor David WestleyCllr Westley is now retired, but was a senior manager with a major high street bank, and worked in Ormskirk for the past 19 years. He built up an extensive contacts and knowledge of business throughout West Lancashire.

He was elected to WLBC for the Aughton & Downholland Ward in 2002,  and joined the Cabinet in 2004. He gained considerable experience by holding the portfolios for Leisure, Community Services, Housing, Refuse & Recycling, Grounds Maintenance and is presently looking after Finance and Performance Management.

He was elected to Lancashire County Council for the West Lancashire East Division in June 2009, and  is currently chairman of the Pension Fund and Vice Chairman of the Audit Committee.

His motion proposes that:

"The County Secretary and Solicitor is instructed to bring a Report to the Full Council Meeting on the 27 February 2014 setting out the options and necessary actions that need to be taken to discontinue the existing Leader and Cabinet system of decision making and revert back to a Committee system"

The County Council will debate and decide this proposition on Thursday.

We wish him every possible success.

The political balance of power at LCC is close.

Labour have 39/84 seats
Conservatives have 35/84 seats
Liberal Democrats have 6/84 seats
Independent Councillors have 3/84 seats
Greens have 1/84 seats

No party achieved the 43 seats required to take control, so deciding what the outcome of the motion and vote will be is difficult to call.

As we reported in 'LCC Election Analysis 2013' this situation produced some awful horse-trading to effect a workable majority.

From the numbers above, readers will see that either of the bigger parties could have formed an administration, and were courting the smaller parties for their support as a coalition.

In the end, it was a Labour-Lib Dem alliance that won out to produce what we regarded as a fairly loose coalition agreement. Follow this link for a copy of the coalition agreement itself.

The lead-up to forming this coalition saw more chicanery and Machiavellian manoeuvres than you could shake a stick at, as loyalties and support ebbed and flowed according to the benefits that were offered to minorities in terms of advantage for their group, party or beliefs.

We have seen this sort of thing at close quarters before and, sadly, it destroys relationships, foments distrust and is generally a really bad way of going about things.

We also dislike the principle of coalition governance for Councils - we believe governance should be by the majority vote of all elected councillors in Council, with decisions made on an issue by issue basis, and where those arguments that command majority support should carry the day.

We do not favour pre-arrangements to vote in a certain way by political parties.

But it happens.

So what's likely to happen with the motion?

Well, a motion proposed (as in this instance) by a Conservative County Councillor would usually be expected to enjoy the support of all at least all the other conservative councillors on the County Council, (including those from Fylde).

We can also probably presume that it would be opposed by most, and probably all, of the Labour group.

But, especially at this time of year, you can never be sure of a full compliment of your supporting councillors because of previous engagements, family problems, holidays, illness and that sort of thing.

So it's quite likely that the decision will be close, and it may well depend - once again - on the votes of the minority parties and individual independent councillors.

Superficially, and without the vagaries of absences, the most likely outcome would be a vote not to change.

That's because the coalition agreement at least implies that Labour would receive the support of the Liberal Democrats - simply because governance is a policy area the Lib Dems have agreed is subject to coalition voting.

But the wording of the 'Political Changes' section the coalition agreement has (in our view) sufficient flexibility for the Lib Dems to support a restoration of the Committee system at LCC if they chose to do so.

We hope they will.

As our readers would expect, we welcome the proposal to return LCC to the Committee system, and we will be sad if, as we expect, it is opposed by the ruling Labour Group.

But it often happens this way because the Cabinet system favours, and is therefore favoured by, the majority party.

Although the public elect all their councillors equally, the Cabinet system gives a huge advantage to whichever party has the majority. That party gets to choose the Council Leader, in whom initially all power to make decisions is vested.

That Leader then hand picks a Cabinet of up to 10 councillors (often from their own political party) and distributes some of the power to make decisions to individual 'Portfolio Holders.'

They retain the remainder of decisions to the collective vote of what becomes themselves and their Cabinet of Portfolio Holders.

The Cabinet system is preferred by the majority group because gives them more control over the information and processes, but most especially it greatly reduces the input from the vast majority of councillors who are not selected to be part of the handful of Cabinet members who take all the 'Executive Decisions' on behalf of the full council.

So it prevents alternative views being expressed and stifles debate. It also narrows the range of views, and the depth of experience, that informs both the debate and the decision.

We think that's why Fylde BC's Conservative group flirted briefly with the idea of returning to committees just before the last election.

They knew the former Commissar's policies had made them deeply unpopular and were concerned that they might not be in power after the election, so they set up a working party to look into changing back to committees.

They knew that being in 'opposition' (we put that in quotes because we fundamentally oppose the idea of having an 'opposition' in a local council. It should be all elected councillors working together for the common good), but in 'opposition' it is much harder to participate, because you are frozen out of all 'Executive decisions' in a Cabinet system.

So in case they found themselves out of power at the last election, they were preparing the ground to make life easier for themselves.

However, once Fylde's Conservatives won (an albeit slim) majority at the election (well, pretty slim until they persuaded Cllr Trevor Fiddler and Cllr Tommy Threlfall who has stood as Independents to switch sides and become members of the Conservative group), they rapidly dropped the idea of changing back to Committees, and have spoken out vociferously against the idea.

One of the most vociferous opponents of the change back to Committees at Fylde was Lancashire County Councillor and Fylde Borough Councillor (Dim) Tim Ashton. In a Council meeting, he launched a vitriolic personal attack on the clerk of the Fylde Civic Awareness Group that has been campaigning to give Fylde's electorate the right to decide which operating system their council will have. His attack was so serious that Fylde Council removed his words from the webcast and put a note on saying that a short section of the audio had been removed 'for legal reasons'

We look forward to hearing his views on the matter at the County Council meeting - assuming he is there of course.

We hope to attend the meeting, and will provide an update to this article to show what happens as soon as we can after Thursday.

13 DEC 13 - PART 2: THE DEBATE AND DECISION 

Well, the good news is that LCC has also seen the light, and this afternoon voted to instruct their Interim Chief Executive to bring forward a report for their next meeting about returning to the Committee system .

But the process wasn't without quite some frisson and potentially far-reaching implications that may not have been obvious to all.

Before the Governance issue, we sat through a mostly dreary and hugely political series of questions and debates about a range of issues - in which the ruling Labour group sought to propose amendments that took all sense out of the motion being proposed.

To be honest we'd probably have ruled the 'amendments' out of order because in our book, an amendment should simply add or delete words from what has been proposed. But these amendments virtually negated the motion proposed and the same effect could (and should) have been achieved by voting against it. But clearly the Labour Group didn't want to do that, so they proposed 'alternative motions' as amendments, and got them voted through with the backing of the Lib Dem group - with whom they are in a loose 'coalition'.

Then we got to the 'Governance' issue.  Speaking to his proposition that:

"The County Secretary and Solicitor is instructed to bring a Report to the Full Council Meeting on the 27 February 2014 setting out the options and necessary actions that need to be taken to discontinue the existing Leader and Cabinet system of decision making and revert back to a Committee system"

County Councillor David Westley said they all knew the size of the financial challenge that lay ahead of them as deep budget cuts were being required of them by Government. He said this would bring fundamental change to what they did, and he suggested their administrative system also needed to change.

He said at present they had the 'superleader' system (also known as the 'Strong leader' model) where (like Fylde) all power initially vests in the Council Leader who takes - or authorises others to take - the decisions.

But he said in the exceptional circumstances to come, his electors from West Lancashire rightly expected him to be able to vote to represent their views and interests, and he needed to play a full part in the decision making process.

We were impressed. This chap knows how to phrase an argument so it is still strong - but not threatening - to those who might oppose it.

He continued by saying that even if it ended up costing more to have committees it would be a modest cost in relation to the County Council budget.

If this had been 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' we were watching, this would have been the point at which Robert Redford turns to Paul Newman and says (of the man leading a posse to track them down) "Who is this guy? Could you track at night and across rocks? I couldn't do that. Who is this guy?"

It was a quiet, but impressive performance.

He concluded by saying he didn't want the decision to change taken today, but his proposition simply asked  for the information they needed to make a decision to be brought to a future meeting.

Very clever conclusion we thought. Who's going to disagree with that?

The Chairman asked if he had a seconder, and it went quiet.

Something was wrong here.

Heads turned toward the Liberal Democrats - as if in expectation. Then someone said "Aren't you seconding it Bill" to which Lib Dem County Councillor Bill Winlow replied, "No, I'm not seconding it"

There was a look of panic on several faces.

Clearly some people - including (it seemed to us) Cllr Westley who proposed the motion - believed there had been some sort of agreement for him to second it but he was now choosing not to do so.

Cllr Geoff Driver, the Conservative Group Leader rose and spoke and we thought he might have seconded it, but he we don't think he did. We couldn't actually hear what he said for the buzz of excitement whizzing round the chamber.

Another Conservative (whose name we didn't catch) quickly stepped in and seconded Cllr Westley's proposition.

This was Cllr Winlow's moment.

He said "I'd like to propose an amendment"  but before doing so he said he wanted to advise the Council that in Fylde Borough, there was already a move by a community group to change their Council back to the Committee system and, he said - with unconcealed glee - that change was being *opposed* by the Conservative group at Fylde Borough, including several who were at the County Council meeting and were *supporting* Councillor Westley's motion today.

At this point many thought he was going to speak against what Cllr Westley had proposed and a great air of uncertainty hung over the Council Chamber

You could have head a pin drop.

But then his demeanour changed, and he cracked a smile and said it was nice to know that at least the County Council Conservatives wanted to streamline and make the county more efficient. And with that out of his system, he sought to add the following words to Cllr Westley's proposition

"Also to instruct the Interim Chief Executive to give an indicative timescale for the introduction of such a change, given that several other County Councils have made or are making this transition"

That, at least, was a proper amendment we thought, but it was a firework as well, because it put Cllr Westley in a difficult position. If he tried to speak against it, he would have lost the support of the Liberal Democrat group and if they then voted with Labour it would have defeated the whole idea of changing to Committees.

Yet if he supported it, it would become Lib Dem proposition and they would get the credit for it in the future.

Cllr Westley had to make a quick decision, and didn't he just display the wisdom of Solomon. With barely a moment's hesitation he said "I'd be pleased to accept that addition and would like to second the amended proposition."

Rather that engage in a tribal party political argument, he gave a little ground and got what he wanted.

The Lib Dems were committed to supporting the proposition and, with their support, the Labour group couldn't win the vote - especially as Queen Elizabeth Oades and Saint Paul Hayhurst - who sit on the independent benches at the County Council as well as at Fylde -  are two of the greatest advocates for changing back to the Committee system.

So now it was the Labour Group's turn to be uncomfortable. We've no doubt that they would have wanted to vote against  Cllr Winlow's / Cllr Westley's proposition, but to do so was staring defeat in the face.

At this point Queen Elizabeth played a blinder.

She asked for a recorded vote. (That's where, rather than a numeric show of hands,  names are called out and you have to say "for", "against" or "abstain", and the vote is recorded against your name).

A groan went up from both sides of the Council Chamber because that was the third or fourth recorded vote to be called for that day, and the normal procedure is a (much quicker) show of hands.

To effect a recorded vote at County, six councillors have to stand when one is called for (to indicate their support for having a recorded vote).

We saw a dozen or so stand up, and crucially, they were from both the main parties.

At that point it was clear the vote for the amendment was going to be in favour of calling for more information on the return to Committees.

Labour had the choice of either losing face in a vote that went against them, abstaining en-bloc - which would have made them look silly and churlish, or voting for the amendment.

Which is what they did.

There was a hubbub and we can't be sure we got all the results correct, so when the minutes are published we will correct these figures,  but we made it 76 for the amendment, 1 against it and two abstentions.

So the result is an overwhelming instruction for the Acting Chief Executive to bring forward a report on the County Council returning to the Committee system.

Whilst there may well be a rearguard action on the part of Labour to change this situation when the further details come back on 27 February, if the Liberal Democrats maintain their position - and we imagine that's almost certain with their having proposed it!  Then, together with the Conservative group, they can vote it through.

Readers might be wondering why we said Queen Elizabeth played a blinder. Well firstly, she tied a personal vote for change to each of the Conservative Councillors from Fylde, so it will undoubtedly be used against him if Dim Tim starts shouting the odds against the Committee system being introduced at Fylde. Likewise with the other Fylde conservatives who sit on the County Council.

It may be that the two faces Cllr Tim Ashton has already displayed on this matter give him a skin that's thick enough not to worry about what people think of his integrity, but we suspect he will be reminded of it if he speaks up against the Committee system again as he did in Fylde's budget meeting.

Secondly she played a blinder because it has tied the names of all who voted for it directly to supporting a change back to Committees, and it will thus be that much harder for any of them to vote against the idea at County in the future.

We think that means there is at least a good chance of LCC going back to the Committee system, and they will be debating it at a time when Fylde will be going into a referendum on it themselves. If the Fylde Conservatives actively campaign *against* Committees in Fylde, and *for* them at County, what on earth will their electorate make of them?

Finally, we've another point for our readers to ponder.

The ability of any party group leader who loses power at an election comes under deep scrutiny within his party when the dust settles, and no doubt that's true of Cllr Driver, current leader of the Conservative group. We don't know him at all, so we're not equipped to comment. What we've seen of him has been competent and forthright. But sometimes (as we know from Fylde's former Commissar) a sharp, acerbic manner and strong views can be a disadvantage.

With a delicately balanced set of political parties and independents at County Hall, it may be that a more subtle approach and consensus building qualities would be thought to be more effective.

We were surprised when Cllr Driver, as group leader, didn't propose the change back to committees himself, and even more surprised when he didn't second it for his own party.

Maybe there is something more in the air here than just a vote to change to the committee system.

Dated:   09 and 12 December 2013


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