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Democracy To Be Restored?

Restoration of democracy?The 'Fylde Civic Awareness Group' has become the first community group in the UK to use a local governance referendum to ask electors if they want to change the way their Council works.

Next year, Fylde's electors will be able to choose the Governance system they want their council to operate.

In common with most councils, Fylde currently operates a Leader and Cabinet model - where the full council only has ultimate responsibility for what are technically called 'non-executive functions' - approving the overall budget, the policy framework, and regulatory functions.

All other matters became 'executive functions' - and as such, they became the responsibility of the Leader and Cabinet, not the full council.

So - despite the denials emanating from a Cabinet attempting to preserve its civic supremacy, it is Fylde's Cabinet that now makes most of the day-to-day decisions in the name of Fylde Council.

You don't need to believe us on this matter. It's own Constitution says....

'How Decisions Are Made
The Executive is the part of the Council that is responsible for most day-to-day decisions. The Executive is made up of the Executive Leader and a Cabinet of a number of other Councillors appointed by the Leader, known as Executive Members.'

The change came about because the modernising Blair Government introduced legislation to require councils - that had operated the Council and Committee system for more than a hundred years - to change.

Over that time traditional 'Council and Committee' governance had been honed to a system that allowed the conflicting perspectives and the ideals of disparate elected councillors to be reconciled and balanced in a civil manner.

The Blair change sought to abandon that, and to make all councils emulate businesses - making faster - and thus, supposedly, more efficient, decisions.

Key to this process was a reduction in the number of people taking those decisions, and this was to be achieved by the almost universal introduction of Cabinet Governance throughout the UK.

Few would disagree with what, superficially, seem laudable aims. But they failed on two levels.

Firstly, business has a completely different raison d'etre to governance. In business, there is a clear and unifying aim - to make profit.   In Governance the aim is almost the exact opposite, the aim is to tax collectively and spend the proceeds on services and facilities that would be too great for an individual taxpayer or family of taxpayers to afford to enjoy - a swimming pool or park provides a good example.

And secondly, in governance, because there is no unifying profit motive, and because communities within a borough have differences, they elect councillors who reflect the perspective of those different electorates. (A relatively deprived part of a borough might elect councillors with a very different perspective to those elected in, say, a more prosperous area, or the rural perspective versus the urban one, and so on).

These councillors are all elected equally. They have an equal mandate, but many espouse philosophies that represent widely different ways of going about things, and that can generate great conflicts within the Council.

The whole point of a governance system is to effectively reconcile and balance those differences in a civilised way.

Governance simply does not have the unifying profit motive, nor should it, if we are to have a representative democracy.

So in our view, the Cabinet system which placed governance in the hands of a few was never going to succeed, because it's form denied the very purpose of democracy.

Fylde's population was below the threshold that made change to Cabinet governance mandatory, but the former Commissar (whose natural inclination was business but not government) nevertheless convinced the majority party to embrace the option to change, and he introduced the new executive structure from 2005 - and that after disregarding the results of an opinion survey opposing the change.

This was all the more surprising, because he had instigated the survey, but he condemned it as being too small a sample of the electorate to be considered relevant.

The real reason was, of course, that it didn't give him the answer he wanted.

And so it was that Fylde began a period of civic turbulence that was to last eight years. A period during which, in our view, it has delivered more disastrous decisions for Fylde residents, than at any time in its previous history.

Many members of the Council whose service dated from that time experienced continuing disagreement with the fundamental principles of placing power in so few hands, and Fylde's new governance system became an open, running sore.

It works like this. The first Council after an election chooses a Leader (In practice this is nearly always the leader of the majority party). That leader then chooses (currently) six of his colleagues to become the Cabinet, who then collectively take the day-to-day decisions on behalf of the Council.

Fylde's Leaders have consistently chosen those from their own political persuasion, so Cabinets have been single party entities where real decisions were made in party group meetings behind closed doors and simply 'announced' at Cabinet.

This narrow, single party perspective, denies the purpose of Councils - which need to be a device to accommodate the disparate perspectives of those who are elected, and to make decisions transparently in the full gaze of the public who elected them.

counterbalance has catalogued the Cabinet's awful progress since 'Death of Democracy'  back in October 2005 - eight years ago last month, when the decision was taken to change Fylde irreversibly to Executive Governance.

Then between February 2006 when the Cabinet was formed and our article Last Rites for Democracy we watched the removal of 150 years of honed and polished democracy.

We reported in 'St Barbara Goes Solo' as Cllr Barbara Pagett voted with her conscience against the introduction of Cabinet Governance and was suspended for doing so by the Conservative group, following which she resigned the whip and stood to widespread public acclaim as an independent councillor - where she continued to represent her constituents for many years until her recent retirement.

But by 2008, things had become so bad in Fylde that financial mismanagement had precipitated the closure of our swimming pools. Furthermore, much loved, heritage-rich buildings were threatened with (or in come cases were being) demolished in the name of modernisation.

At the request of fourteen community groups, and with the support of the St Annes on the Sea Town Council, and under the banner of 'Save St Annes' - the Fylde Civic Awareness Group chaired a 200 person open public meeting at St Annes YMCA.

At the meeting, a chap called David Meldrum  proposed a return to the Committee system in Fylde. A vote to that effect was universally supported by all at the meeting, and from that date in 2008 FCAG began their campaign to call for the Committee system of governance to be restored at Fylde.

We reported those meetings in 'Save St Annes' and in 'Save St Annes- Results Published'

But the calls for change were ignored by the Cabinet-dominated administration at Fylde.

Then, in the run up to the last national election, the prospect changed.

The Conservative (at that time) opposition, became convinced of a vote-winning concept called Localism.

In 'Policy Green Paper No 9' (which also enjoyed the rather snappier human title of 'Control Shift') David Cameron set out his vision for the future. He said "If voters want to see something done in their area, they’ll be able to force it on to the agenda. If people are unhappy about council tax increases, they can club together and vote them down."

True to his word, the 'Big Society' and 'Localism' were high on his electoral manifesto, and post electoral implementation of these policies began with Eric Pickles' appointment as Secretary of State for Local Government.

An option to return to the Committee system was amongst the powers his Localism Act introduced to Local Government.

Any council could now choose to return to the Committee system.

Fylde flirted briefly with the idea, and set up a working party to look into the matter, but took it no further.

We believe that's because the change to committees is opposed by the leading Conservative group at Fylde as long as they can control the levers of power.

But Fylde Council is unusual in that it has more independent councillors than any other council in the country, (28 Conservatives, 15 Independents, 3 Liberal democrats, 3 Ratepayers, and 2 non-aligned). Most of the non-conservative councillors (which total just under half the council) support the change back to committees.

By now, FCAG had long campaigned for the change back to committees - to provide politically balanced decision-making, and allow all councillors the right to speak and to vote on all decisions taken. And they set about using a section of the new Localism powers which enable local people to petition for change.

They had provided evidence to the select committee on Localism considering the Localism Bill. Readers can follow this link for a copy of their evidence.

They held a well publicised and well attended Seminar last February to highlight the option of using the Localism Act to bring about change. That seminar confirmed the public appetite for change.

Over the summer months, using a variety of methods, (petition forms in shops, leafleting with mini petition slips, giveaway slips in free papers, town centre stalls, attending meetings, downloadable petition forms, and so on) they asked many local people if they supported the idea of change.

Where face to face contact took place, we're told that surprise and disagreement was the reaction when people realised the 'old' committee system was no longer in use. Almost everyone that FCAG spoke with had supposed that was still how the Council 'worked'.

Once it was explained that most of the day-to-day decisions made in the Council's name were now taken by a seven-person Cabinet at which the councillor they elected had no automatic right to speak and no right to vote unless they had been chosen by the Leader to be one of the six Cabinet members, there were very few people who did not wish to sign the petition calling for a change back to Committees.

People recognised there was a greater depth of experience, and a wider breadth of vision available when all the elected members came together to make decisions in the full council, and that might result in better decisions.

The numbers signing the petition grew steadily, and reached a conclusion on 29 October 2013 when FCAG's Officers delivered a petition of over 4,600 signatures calling for a binding referendum on the choice between Cabinet and Committees.

To trigger the referendum it required 5% of the electorate to support the call.

In number terms for Fylde (which is a small council), that meant 3,077 electors, and, allowing from reductions for anyone who might have signed twice, and people who were not on the electoral roll and so on, FCAG was confident that a gross of just over 4,600 would be enough to produce a valid petition with the required number of valid, legible signatures.

We understand that the petition signatures came about 50% from Lytham St Annes, with a further 10% each from Kirkham and Warton, 5% each from Freckleton, Elswick, Wesham, Newton and Clifton, and the remainder coming from the smaller parishes.

In terms of sourcing, we're told FCAG estimate approximately 25% of signatures came from signatures collected in the various participating shops, 50% from those collected in town centre stalls and at public events, and the remaining 25% from internet forms, and direct contact with individuals.

So there seems to have been a broad spectrum of support right across Fylde.

At 4pm on Friday 23 November 2013 FCAG received formal notification that the petition had been validated and that, as a result, Fylde would organise a binding governance referendum on 22 May 2014.

Shortly before that date, Fylde will design and publish details of the committee structure it would use if people vote for change.

At the referendum (which will be held at the same time as the European Elections), local people will vote to choose the system of governance they want their council to operate.

Nationally, we understand about 40 councils are looking into this change of their own volition, and that twelve - Hartlepool, Reading and Stroud Borough Councils, together with Brighton & Hove, South Gloucestershire, Newark & Sherwood, plus Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Nottinghamshire County Councils have already voted to change, as have Kingston-upon-Thames, Sutton, and Barnet in the London area.

All these councils have abandoned their leader and cabinet models, returning to the pre-2000 regime in which decisions are taken by politically proportionate committees rather than cabinet members.

Stroud Council expects to make savings of more than £50,000 a year as councillor allowances are cut to reflect their changed responsibilities in the committee system.

But Fylde Borough is the first council in the UK where 'people power' under the Localism Act has triggered its council to hold a referendum - a move which could force a change against the wishes of the ruling group and thus, technically, against the wishes of the Council.

FCAG believes it has now fulfilled its mandate and has delivered the decision into the hands of the Fylde electorate - as was called for from the floor of that public meeting and Mr Meldrum's resolution back in 2008. We understand FCAG are happy to abide by whatever the electors of Fylde decide.

But we believe this matter has a much deeper significance.

What the Localism Act has now done at Fylde, is to throw a small pebble into the lake of democracy.

But we believe its ripples will spread in future years, and this small process at Fylde might, in time, become seen as one (other) small step for mankind.

The Localism Act has marked a fundamental change in democratic direction for Local Government.

It may be the case that Central Government - (having begun the Localism initiative, and having seen the power it could unleash), is presently trying to row back from it somewhat, in an attempt to retain control over ground it can see it would have to concede to the populous in the future - but the democratic genie is out of the bottle and it won't now go back in.

Although 'People Power' was substantially watered down from its original proposals in the Localism Bill, the public's ability to generate a governance petition that can effect structural change against the will of an incumbent administration nevertheless demonstrates that ultimate sovereignty does not now rest with the Council that has been elected to govern an area.

Ultimate sovereignty has been shown to reside with the people who elect it.

There are councillors who won't be at all happy to have that concept in operation - especially in the period between elections.

That's because councillors mostly fall into one of two camps.

Firstly, there are the sort who believe that they are elected to try to represent the main or, (what they believe to be) the majority view of those who elected them. They try to ascertain popular opinion amongst their electorate and to advance those views. For Councillors like this, the Localism Act is more or less common sense - it's what they've always thought - so it's not much of a change. They see their role as servants of their community.

The other sort of Councillor believes their standing for election gives the electorate an opportunity to vote for them and for the views *they* hold.   So whilst they will usually respond to individual requests for help (colloquially known as casework), this sort of councillor doesn't generally aim to espouse and advance the views of their electorate. They advance their own views. Theybelieve the electorate is there to elect them so that they can decide what is best for the electorate and what needs to be done. If the electorate don't like that, they can vote them out next time around. Councillors holding this perspective won't be at all happy with the powers that have been removed from them and given to the electorate under the Localism Act.

We should say at this point, that neither of these approaches to being a councillor is wrong; they're just different. Individual electors will have a preference (sometimes strongly) for one or the other (as, indeed, we do), and vote accordingly.

We believe that, whilst there are - as ever - individual variations, the collective view of the majority party members of Fylde Councillors tends toward the second of our examples, which is why there is such antipathy for the idea amongst them. It comes out dressed up as costs, and speed of decision making, and supposed efficiency, but it's really about who's running the show.

We the suspect that - (although there are party political issues of power and control that colour judgement) - it is chiefly Fylde's unwillingness to come to terms with the fact that the Localism Act has put sovereign power in the hands of the electorate that is at the root of the majority party's objection to changing to back to the Committee system.

Fylde's has a written Constitution approved by the majority party (and thus a majority of the Council). Article 1 of that Constitution "commits the Council to providing clear leadership to the community, actively involving citizens in decision making and helping councillors represent their constituents more effectively."

Looked at in a bit more detail, we can see from the tone and style that this paragraph is written from the perspective of the Council having ultimate local sovereignty (to lead its community), and of 'allowing' the people to be involved in *its* decisions by becoming involved in them.

It suggests a paternalistic form of governance that clearly puts those who support it within the second of those two camps of councillors we described earlier.

Says it all really, doesn't it?

The United States of America has probably the most famous of Constitutions.

It begins "We the people..." - and in doing so, it puts the people firmly and clearly in charge of their government.

In terms of direction, that is the exact opposite of the Constitution of Fylde Council.

Sadly, the Cabinet system that accompanied and created this Constitution at Fylde has come to believe its own importance. It believes it is the de-facto leader of Fylde's residents and therefore could do nothing else but oppose any change to a more representative governance model.

Looking more widely, and considering the national perspective, Britain has no written constitution and, unlike the USA, we come from a tradition of sovereignty being exercised initially by the Monarch and later by jointly by the Monarch and the Government (a system which still requires Acts of parliament to obtain Royal Assent before being brought into law)

In that way, the UK Government is really Fylde's paternalism writ large.

If, as is the case in the UK, sovereignty is deemed to reside fully and ultimately with the UK Parliament, there can only be growing and obvious tension in terms of democratic direction with the passage of generations.

Currently, the issue of Europe illustrates the existential dichotomy quite well. It's widely believed a majority of people in the UK want to leave European Union, but the Government has - thus far at least - resisted calls for a public referendum on the matter. It seems intent on preparing a set of artificially fluffy negotiating conditions that can subsequently be claimed to have become new advantages for the UK - in order to try to defuse continuing opposition to the UK's membership.

This sidestepping the real and fundamental question serves only to highlight the lack of direct democracy which some call the democratic deficit.

Increasingly, over time, the question of whether ultimate sovereignty should lie with Parliament, as now, or with the people, is coming to the fore.

The direction of travel in this matter is slowly but inexorably shifting toward the people.

If sovereignty eventually comes to be seen to reside in the people, then issues to do with the fundamental rights of those people, and the system of representation (the composition of Parliament, the electoral systems employed, the function and structure of local government, etc.) are all properly a matter for the public to determine, via referendums or via some other form of direct democracy.

That's why we say the Localism Act's empowerment of Fylde's electorate to call a referendum is a small but very significant step in the progress of democracy in the UK.

Whilst 40 or so councils in the UK are considering a change back to using the Council and Committee system to make decisions, (and a dozen or so have already completed that change), Fylde is the first, and at present the only, borough in the UK where the electorate is using the powers to determine whether a governance change back to committees should take place.

And it will be the people of Fylde who decide what system of decision-making they *their* council will use.

Whatever decision is made by the people of Fylde, the future, both in Fylde and in the UK, is likely to be a more democratically interesting place.

Dated:  24 November 2013


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