Many residents have asked me about the way our council makes decisions, and why a change from an Executive to Committee system is so important.
The way in which our council is run is at the heart of local decision making. From refuse collection to housing, from planning to open spaces, Canterbury City Council affects our daily lives in more ways than perhaps even Westminster. That’s why we need to ensure we have the best way of making decisions that benefit local residents.
At present, most of the big decisions are taken by a small group of councillors called “the Executive“.
The Executive is a form of cabinet system forced on councils by the previous government in 2002, to which there was local cross-party opposition. In Canterbury, the Executive consists of 10 councillors from the ruling administration. In other words, 10 councillors out of a total of 50 have a large amount of decision making power at their fingertips.
This concentration of power has led many people to think they are unable to influence some of the more important decisions in our district. Indeed, Full council meetings have often been described as ‘rubber stamping’ the decisions already made by the Executive – and some recent decisions, such as the Westgate traffic scheme and sale of open space, have led many to question whether the ‘fast decision making’ of an Executive is the best way in which good governance should be measured.
This would all change for the better under a Committee System.
A committee system does what it says on the tin. Rather than one cabinet member having all the responsibility for a particular area (such as housing or transport), a committee of councillors meet in public, listen to all the options, and then make their recommendation to the whole Council. This means councillors from across the entire district, and from all parties, having a say in decisions that affect the people they represent.
Above all, a committee system would devolve decision making responsibilities and end the concentration of power in the hands of a few. The Localism Act, brought in by the Coalition, allows local councils to decide whether they wish to change to a committee system, or for residents to press for a referendum to let local people decide.
That’s why I, and fellow councillors, are backing the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District.
The campaign, run by local residents, aims to collect enough signatures to call for a district wide referendum next year. It is non-party political, and affiliated to no political movement. If a referendum is held, it will ask local residents if they would like the council to change to a committee system.
This is local democracy at its best, and local residents have already collected many signatures. If you haven’t signed yet, look out for the street stalls in Canterbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay!
Many councils around the country are changing back to a committee system. Kent County Council has already changed to a similar system, and no fewer than 20 others have either made the change or are considering it.
It’s incumbent on us politicians to make sure that our system of local government is fair, and provides the greatest level of representation for residents. If local democracy is to work then decision making needs to be well informed and properly debated. I believe a committee system will do just that.