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Cllr Jeremy Bellamy – a reply

Richard Norman
Richard Norman

It’s refreshing to read Cllr Bellamy’s thoughts on governance. We need more contributions like this from Councillors who have their doubts about a change to a committee system and are prepared to discuss them in an honest and open-minded way.

He’s right, of course, that we shouldn’t talk as though what we have now is a total absence of democracy, either at local or national level. Universal suffrage, free elections and rights to free expression are things which generations of people in this country struggled for, they are things which people in many countries today still long for, and we should treasure them and protect them. But the best way to do so is to make them work as well as possible.

As Jeremy says, the fact that we have them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve them. So yes, strictly speaking we could have called our campaign the Campaign for Improved Democracy in the Canterbury District. But it wouldn’t exactly be a snappy title, would it?

Jeremy’s comparison with Westminster politics is instructive. Many people would say that our national democratic institutions also need to be improved. One of the commonest criticisms is that so-called parliamentary government has become Prime Ministerial government.

The powers of patronage enjoyed by the Prime Minster make too much parliamentary debate largely irrelevant. The real decisions are made not in the House of Commons but in Cabinet, the Cabinet is chosen by the Prime Minister, backbenchers are often under-utilised and powerless, and national elections have become largely a choice between rival party leaders. It’s all too similar to the limitations at local level, and Council meetings too often replicate the worst features of Prime Minister’s Question Time.

In contrast, many would say that the most impressive feature of national government is the work of the Select Committees. If we could replicate that at local level, I think we’d have a better system.

Jeremy thinks that having an executive system or a committee system doesn’t make much difference, since the majority party will always get its way. “The means of making the decision”, he says, “is far less important than the need to get the right decisions made.” But the fact is that you can’t separate the two. The best way to get the right decisions is to have proposals submitted to rigorous debate, having to answer criticisms, modify the proposals, change your mind if need be.

It can be done. I’ve heard good debates at meetings of the Overview Committee for instance, the Scrutiny Committee, and the Area Member Panels, where councillors have changed their minds because the position of the ruling party doesn’t go unchallenged. The depressing meetings are those of the Executive, in which there is rarely any serious debate and the outcome is a foregone conclusion. If we want the right decisions, we need better ways of making them.

Jeremy says “I don’t believe that the Committee system is the marvellous and magical remedy to the perceived problem.” I don’t believe that either, nor, I think, does any member of the CDCD. That’s partly because there are many possible versions of the Committee system. We need a serious examination of them, to find a version which can combine cross-party debate with accountability and can avoid time-consuming bureaucracy. It’s also because the problems go deeper than just the Executive system versus the Committee system.

The Council needs to find new ways of engaging local people and consulting them more effectively, so that they can feel that their voices are heard. If Jeremy were to accompany us when we’re collecting signatures for our petition, he’d be struck, I’m sure, by the level of disillusion with Council politics. So we need serious discussion and serious action to improve things. I thank Jeremy for contributing to the discussion, and I hope that he and his fellow-councillors will continue to contribute.

Richard Norman

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