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Time to Restore Democracy?

Time to Restore Democracy?Are you happy with the way your council is running?

If your answer is 'No', and you'd like it to be run in a different way, there's now something that can be done about it.

Under the new Localism Act, the law now allows councils to change the system of governance they use. It also allows local people to petition for a referendum on whether a change should be implemented in their area, and what form of Governance they wish to have.

'Council Governance' sounds a really complicated and boring turn-off, but it's not, and it's not that complicated either.

There's an easy comparison with the world of business, where you might be a sole trader, a partnership, a limited liability company, a public limited company or one of several forms of Community Interest company.

All these entities are forms of governance. Each has rules about how they work. Each has pros and cons. An they all have differing requirements about how they conduct themselves.

So it is with Councils.

There are several systems available, each with pros and cons, and each with different rules.

We're going to take a look at the systems and options currently available in future articles, but this counterbalance is a primer for all the forms of Governance - a quick background to help understanding about how Councils work, how they used to be run, and how they are run now.

There are two sorts of folk you come across in Councils: The first are 'Councillors', 'Elected Councillors' or 'Members' - these are all the same thing. (You might also come across Mayors, and also the less common Aldermen, and Freemen, but if we need to explain those we will do so later).

The second are 'officers' - sometimes called the 'Council staff'

The Council's officers - the hired hands - are technical and administrative advisors. They are professional experts who help Councillors to construct and frame the policies that the Council adopts. They then administer those policies that the Council does adopt, and they manage the staff, contractors, or volunteers who undertake work to deliver those policies.

Councillors, on the other hand - as we have said many times - are there mainly as 'the man on the Clapham omnibus.' Their role is to use their experience of everyday life to assess the human impact of what the Council is asked to consider and decide, and they set the course that the Council will follow.

The other main purpose of Councillors is to humanise the officer's cold-hearted advice that is usually (though not always) formed in professional ironic detachment from everyday life.

The final decision on all things rests with elected councillors, not with paid officers, (that's provided Councillors don't break the law).

So what's the point of a Council?

Well, the fundamental purpose is to receive information and take decisions. They are, in effect, a decision-making machine.

But unlike business, where all the Directors and managers and staff have a common objective (to make profits), Councils don't have a common objective. They exist to try to balance competing interests and needs, and that's a messy business.

Furthermore, there is often fundamental disagreement within and between Councils about what those needs should be, and how to go about delivering them. No two are the same.

We recall once hearing a softly spoken man in Fylde asking why there were no free admissions to the swimming pool for unemployed people because, in Manchester where he had recently lived, all the pools provided such concessions. As gently as possible, it was explained that Manchester was at that time a Labour controlled Council who believed in such things. Fylde, on the other hand was a majority Conservative controlled council who did not (at that time) believe it was appropriate to offer such concessions. No doubt some Councillors at Fylde did, but not enough of them to be a majority to implement such a policy. Hence the unemployed in Fylde did not have concessionary use of the swimming pool.

If a Governance system is to work, it has to be able to accommodate philosophical disagreements as fundamental as the example above.

Furthermore, those holding disparate views must believe they have had a fair hearing and have enjoyed fair input into the decision making process.

When you are charged with balancing the needs of the community with what you take from that community in local taxation to effect that balance, and when your 'Board of Directors' includes people from the political left and right, authoritarians and liberals, free marketeers and social engineers, the able and less able, party loyalists and those with no party allegiance, many with differing agenda, you need a robust set of rules about how it will conduct itself and perform.

These rules are collectively called 'Governance' - and they regulate how councils are run.

Councils adopt a form of 'governance' to regulate their process of making decisions. At its most fundamental, it sets out who gets the information, who can express an opinion, and who can vote on a decision.

We're not talking about party politics here. We're talking about an administrative system that takes in information at one end, considers and debates it, then produces decisions and actions out of the other end.

As our Television Meercat friends might say "Simple!"

From about 1887 until the year 2000, a system called the 'Committee System' was used. It was refined over the decades.

This is the system most people (wrongly) expect to find in place today. It worked like this:

People who wanted to stand for election asked you to vote for them. The ones that got the most votes were elected and became Councillors.

Acting together they were known as the 'Full Council', and one of their first jobs after an election was to create several "committees"

Committees were sub-sets of the full council. They usually had 10 to 20 Councillors as members, and (in modern times) each committee had to reflect the overall political balance of the Council - (so there will be councillors from all shades of opinion on all committees).

Traditionally, committees were topic based - Planning Committee, Environment Committee, Housing Committee and so on.

Each member of a committee received the same information on matters that were to be discussed within its topic area, (and all councillors got a copy - so everyone knew what was going on in other Committees as well as the one(s) they served on).

When the Committee met to discuss the matters on its agenda, any Councillor could attend the meeting and had the right to speak about an agenda item (as, of course, did the members of that particular Committee). But when it came to the vote to decide what to do, only members of the Committee could propose what should happen and then vote on it.

That produced a "Committee Decision" which was a strong indication of what would happen, but it was not the final say.

That's because a week or so later, the Full Council would meet and review all the Committee Decisions.

That's not to say they opened discussion on every one again. Far from it. In practice the Mayor would ask the Chairman and Vice Chairman of each Committee to propose their minutes, then the Mayor would turn the pages and say some thing like "Are there any matters on page 58, Page 59, page 60" and so on.

If all the other Councillors were happy about the decisions each of the Committees had made, the Council meeting would be very short.

But if a particular Councillor felt there was something wrong with a decision that a Committee had made, they could speak about it.

So in this way, a Councillor representing residents could speak in Full Council about the impact of a Committee Decision on people from his or her ward, even if he or she was not a member of the Committee that had made the decision.

So, whilst the 'default setting' for the Full Council meeting was to approve the Committee Minutes/Decisions, the 'Committee System' allowed any Councillor to have the matter re-opened at Full Council.

For example, they might propose that the Committee reconsider the matter because of x, y, or z, or they might propose a decision different to that which the Committee had decided and, if they were supported, the matter would then be re-considered in the Full Council meeting where it would be debated by the whole Council, and a final decision made.

So, either by (default) approval of the Committee minutes or, exceptionally, by changing the decision in Full Council, the final decision was made by a majority vote involving every elected councillor.

This of course gave every Councillor a sense of responsibility, and a sense of ownership of all the decisions made by the Council - because they had participated in every one (even if only by not taking issue with it). The decision was made by a majority vote in Full Council.

But in 2000, (perhaps with the new Millennium in mind), the Government of the day started to experiment with Council structures. They wanted Councils to be run more like a business. To be more nimble and to take decisions more quickly. Worst of all, they wanted Councils to 'Lead' their community rather than to represent the wishes of its electorate.

Of course, to be more nimble and businesslike, you had to reduce the numbers of people who were involved in taking the decisions, and you have to concentrate power into fewer hands. You had to limit the opportunity for people to get involved in the decisions that those fewer councillors made - and that situation sometimes resulted in the information being limited to those few Councillors who were granted special power.

Most crucially, it limited the right of the great majority of elected councillors to speak when decisions were being made. They could only ask questions, (and had to submit them in writing in advance of the meeting), and it meant not allowing the Full Council to be able to overrule decisions of the few powerful councillors.

This system was supposed to make decisions more 'efficient' - which arguably, in some places, it did. (We might take issue with that claim in Fylde where, amongst other things, it has taken nine years of debate, and a great deal of money wasted on aborted schemes along the way, to decide whether to have a new Town Hall or not.)

But the price we have paid for that new 'improved efficiency' includes loss of democracy, loss of transparency, disaffected councillors who do not have ownership of decisions made by the few powerful councillors, and in some cases, those powerful Councillors made decisions in a steamroller fashion with apparent disregard for established norms of civic behaviour, and with insufficient checks and balances on their actions. In Fylde, the scandal of Melton Grove is probably the best example of steamrollering.

And so it was that 'Executive Committees'; and 'Leader and Cabinet Systems'; and 'Executive Leader' and 'Strong Leader' systems were implemented up and down the country after the Local Government Act 2000 said that, for most councils, staying the same was not an option.

Since its first change, Fylde BC has experienced a running battle in trying to cope with the new Governance structures it tried, and it has ended up with a 'Leader and Cabinet System'.

The pages of counterbalance are littered with the disasters this system has wrought on an unsuspecting electorate in Fylde (including: Streetscene, Swimming Pools, Heeley Road, Town Hall, Equitable Taxation, Informal Cabinet Meetings, Exclusive briefings by officers, and more)

Since we published the first plans to implement a change of Governance away from the former Committee System in 'Death of Democracy'  back in 2005, we have reported the progress of this truly awful system.

As long ago as 2005 we said:

"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 in what subsequently became an infamous period in Fylde's history, former Cllr John Coombes and a strong party whip held the line, and the Leader system of Governance was adopted.

HOWEVER

In 2011, just prior to the national election, Eric Pickles MP said that 'localism' would be at the heart of the Conservative agenda if elected, and part of that Localism agenda was a promise to allow Councils to change back to the Committee System if they wanted to do so.

We have no doubt experienced councillors up and down the country were telling him the new systems were simply awful.

As good as his word, the Localism Act did, and does indeed, contain that provision.

But it goes further. It also gives dissatisfied electors the power to change things themselves.

In Fylde, in 2008, in the middle of the 'pools closure' crisis, fourteen community groups came together under the umbrella of the Fylde Civic Awareness Group to hold a public meeting in the YMCA in St Annes.

Two hundred people attended and voted without dissent for a resolution put from the floor of the meeting by a chap called David Meldum.

He said all the problems we had experienced in Fylde "were only the SYMPTOMS of the underlying malaise, namely this pernicious governance incorporated in the cabinet."

He proposed that the meeting express a vote of no confidence in the 'Leader and Cabinet System' at Fylde. His proposition called for greater openness and transparency, and a return to the Committee System with decisions made by a majority of councillors in Full Council.

The resolution also called for Fylde's Town and Parish Councils to consider and support the resolution.

Each parish was asked, and those representing more than half of Fylde's electorate did support the motion.

(The final report of that YMCA meeting with all the details is available from counterbalance on request).

Fylde Council were sent a copy of the report but we understand it was not considered and debated.

Over time, there was continuing pressure for change - especially from longer-serving experienced Councillors who had worked under the Committee System and wanted it restored. (Notably Cllrs Liz Oades, Maxine Chew, Paul Hayhurst, Trevor Fiddler and others).

After their sustained pressure, and just before the last election FBC formed a Working party to look into Governance change.

But since they won the election again, any enthusiasm the ruling group had previously showed for change seems to have fallen into some very long grass.

When the 'Localism' proposals were being considered in the Committee Stage of the House of Commons, the Fylde Civic Awareness Group submitted a report as evidence to the Public Bill Committee. Readers can follow this link to download a copy of that report. Based on the 2008 meeting which had mandated them to bring about change, the report explained the background to the need to revert to the Committee System, and it called on Government to keep that option to change in the Bill.

True to its word, the Government did just that.

Four Councils (Brighton & Hove, Nottinghamshire County Council, The London Borough of Sutton, and South Gloustershire) have already decided to change back to the Committee System from next May, and it is reported elsewhere that another 40 councils are currently considering the change.

Those Councils are using the discretion they have in the Localism Act to implement Governance change themselves.

But as we have seen, the final version of the Localism Act also allows the public to petition for a binding referendum on a change of governance for any Council in England.

It's believed that the Fylde Civic Awareness Group (FCAG) could become the first community group in the UK to seek a governance change back to the former committee system - and the idea is attracting attention from similar groups elsewhere. We understand groups as far away as Dorset have been following their progress in this matter.

FCAG's campaign to ask Fylde residents if they want to change back to the Committee System begins with a public seminar on Friday 15 February. The seminar is open to all, but places are expected to go quickly, and we're told early booking is advisable.

The Seminar has two parts. FCAG has been working with the Parliamentary Outreach Service to broaden the scope and interest of the seminar and have received advice about legislative details both from the Outreach Service and from senior staff in the Department of Communities and Local Government in London, so they are probably the most clued up community group in the UK on this topic at the present time.

We share their enthusiasm for changing Fylde back to the former Committee System, and will be supporting the campaign in a variety of ways, not least by providing information about its progress on these pages.

We suspect many of our readers will be interested, and will want to follow that progress. We also suspect many of our readers will be interested in the seminar and might want to attend. Please follow this link to see more details of the seminar.

You can also follow this link to download a poster about the Seminar and help spread the word by emailing the poster to your friends.

We also expect to offer counterbalance readers a rare opportunity to help in a practical way to bring about a grassroots change of governance in Fylde, and will be providing further details of this shortly.

Dated:  16 January 2013


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