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A more open Council – some suggestions

a personal view from Dave Wilson:

As the City Council sets out its proposed Executive-based committee structure for the next 12 months, it’s time for those who want a different system to recognise that a reversion to a committee system alone cannot of itself prevent ‘strong leadership’ dominating and being autocratic – what is needed is to elect Councillors who are committed to doing things differently.

Almost regardless of the policy-making process adopted, we need a different style of Council leadership, both collectively and individual. I believe that the key to this is a commitment to openness, transparency and a listening culture, all of which are fundamental to the democratic process.

It is important that those of us who want to see change in Canterbury should consider how that might be achieved. I’d like to use this space to open a dialogue on an issue which will affect the success of any change, as well as the structure of the Council in future: what the characteristics of a more open Council might be.

Culture

Culture is of course subjective and the result of many interactions among all the people involved, so it is probably easier to sketch that in outline than in detail. We can start with some things that are commonly seen as flaws in the current structure, and think about how to remedy those. And I’d like to set out my personal thoughts on this, although I’m not in any position to make those things happen.

Before I embark on that, I want to restate the obvious: that Council decision making needs to balance speed, efficiency and accountability. As I’ve pointed out before, democratic accountability carries some costs, and the commonly held view (at least on this blog) seems to be that the current system has lost sight of that balance. At the same time, Councils are operating under severe cost constraints imposed by central Government, so we don’t have money to burn on endless consultation.

So what could a more open culture look like? Here are some principles which I think would be a good foundation, based around combining “bottom upwards” (resident led suggestions) and “top down” (statutory and officer initiated) items:

More formal involvement with community groups to seek their views. I don’t believe that either Councillors or their Officers have a monopoly of wisdom, and although it is inevitable that there will be a range of views on some issues (where housing should be built, for example) more involvement will mean better decisions. But to maintain speed of decision making there does need to be some systematic process around that, rather than a “free-for-all” consultation. The obvious starting point is the Civic Societies and Residents Associations groups, but it might help to engage with other special groups on specific issues (beach huts for example) when necessary. So I’d also propose:

A declared programme of work for the Council for each year. By setting out the key issues to be considered in advance of work on them starting, the Council would be better placed to invite potential consultees to register. It would help open the Council up if it would invite proposals for that programme of work each year, probably at the time when budgeting starts (early autumn).

To prevent that becoming cumbersome, there might need to be some form of pre-registration or qualification of residents groups set around, say, the numbers of residents represented (by membership) and/or the period of existence of the organisation (to curtail the spread of reactive “front” organisations with no real legitimacy. I think the risk there is of excluding groups (like Save Kingsmead Fields or Keep Canterbury Moving) which arise in response to Council work projects, and I think there needs to be discussion to find a way of balancing those points.

Alongside that, if it’s legally permissible, I think we could benefit from constraining the input of commercial enterprises. I’m not referring to groups like CITA, but to individual companies (especially developers) who currently seem free to address Council and Committees on the same basis as individual residents, and seem to employ professionals to do that for them. Personally, I think that is no more than lobbying and should be stopped if at all possible – businesses can make written submissions within a proper legal framework and that should be enough.

There are other ways of demonstrating a commitment to change. Personally, I believe that the Council should change its name to Canterbury District rather than Canterbury City, simply to show that it serves the whole area. That’s only symbolic but its an important symbol for many people. More importantly, meetings should take place around the District whenever possible, and especially if a committee-led system is reintroduced it should not be difficult to hold more of the committees away from the Guildhall, as the Whitstable and Herne Bay members panels are.

It should be possible to give Area Member’s Panels decision making power (they are currently only advisory). Although they were vilified by Cllr. Bellamy here a couple of weeks ago, this would to capitalise on their ability to listen to and reflect local opinion, and to have some input into the Council work programme and other agendas. All that, within appropriate bounds, would again bring the Council closer to residents.

Consultation would be much improved if the Council made use of “project” committees where needed – for example, wouldn’t the Westgate Towers or Kingsmead issues have been much better dealt with by a specific committee empowered to consult properly and gain the best of local input before embarking on any change?

I also believe that all votes taken in Council meetings should be formally recorded so that how councillors vote becomes a matter of public record, rather than the current tendency to rely on a show of hands most of the time. That would give voters some indication of where their elected representatives real beliefs lie and allow them to be held to account.

And finally for now, it might be interesting for the Council hold at least one of its meetings each year during the daytime in a school. That of course has the potential to put students off politics for life, but it might help demystify some of what goes on and encourage younger people to join in our civic debates.

Taken together, all that I think would be a significantly more open and democratic council than we have now. But obviously in the spirit of openness I am sure that we can improve on that list (and maybe delete some unworkable ideas) when more people contribute to the discussion.

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