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Cllr Neil Baker’s thinking

In a recent post here, we asked for more information about the Political Management Member Panel (PMMP), given that:

  1. it may play a significant role in the coming months in relation to the governance of our Council, and
  2. there is precious little information about the PMMP in the public domain.

Quick as a flash, Cllr Simon Cook, and then Cllr Neil Baker popped up, ready willing and able to shed some light. Here’s what Cllr Baker sent us:

“PMMP: Deathly dull or sinister secret?”

Cllr Neil Baker
Cllr Neil Baker

In short, I imagine most would suggest the former. But Constitutional changes can be important for everybody in the district.

The membership of the Political Management Member Panel (PMMP) is currently (and I’m breaching no confidences as the members are announced at each annual meeting of the Council in May):

Councillors John Gilbey, Jean Law, Neil Baker, Harry Cragg, Rosemary Doyle, Joe Howes, Ann Taylor, Alex Perkins, Michael Dixey and John Wratten. Chaired by Chief Executive Colin Carmichael and attended by senior council lawyer Mark Ellender.

However, due to meetings usually being at 9.30am, there are often substitutes present to cover those who have other commitments during the day (a whole post could be written about how that is something else which needs looking at if we truly want our elected councillors to match the demographic of the area as closely as possible).

These are closed meetings with no public agenda or minutes (though both are available for councillors). This is also something which needs to be looked at, some may argue Council constitutional changes are merely internal political wonkery, but I personally think they can impact on everybody in the area and anybody who has a good idea should be allowed to voice it at the policy forming stage.

The meetings discuss constitutional changes but have no decision-making powers. Recommendations are passed to Full Council as the sovereign body of the Council. They are also not scheduled, but convened on an ad hoc basis when matters of constitutional change are being considered.

These can range from changing the governance structure, as will happen if Full Council backs the resolution from Simon Cook and myself on April 24th, to recording of meetings, having a social media protocol, and so on.

The Governance Proposal and the PMMP

Simon and I had initially hoped to place a proposal before Council to call for a switch after the elections in May 2015. We received legal advice that while this was possible, it would not be legally binding on the Council elected in May 2015. So rather than waste time on a motion which could be ignored, we opted to find a way which would prevent any U-turns or flip-flops next year.

To do this, we had to word a resolution which would comply with due process and ensure councillors had a report in front of them so there could be no argument in May 2015 that the decision was made without proper consideration.

This led to the proposal which asks Council to vote for the PMMP to put together a report on a change to a committee structure to then be brought back to a subsequent Full Council with a recommendation, which would then be implemented after the May 2015 elections. To make an immediate change would be impossible due to the work that will need to take place to flesh out a new system – and the Localism Act states a vote at Full Council on the matter comes into effect after the next annual meeting of the council.

However, assuming this all happens (and perhaps I’m assuming too much, which is why I think it is completely right that the Governance Petition continues), I hope this will not be the end. I believe this debate has not grown out of governance issues alone, but instead a wider desire from residents, community groups, associations and parish councils to be more involved in the local democratic process.

If this is to happen – and I stress I am but one with my own personal views – it has to be a genuinely two-way thing. We need councillors who want to involve residents more, and residents who want to help by becoming more involved. I believe not only that this could be achieved, but that it should be achieved. The feeling some have of a “them and us” divide between councillors and residents needs to end.

So if a little piece of local history is made on April 24th at the Guildhall in Canterbury with a vote to switch to begin the process of moving to a new form of governance, let’s all hope it kick starts a wider debate about how the Council can make the desires and wishes of people a reality by new and real forms of community engagement.

I am always available for anybody who wants to raise suggestions and would be more than happy to hear as many as possible. Often the best ideas come not from councillors or council staff, but residents who merely want to make a difference for the better within the area they cherish.

Neil Baker

See more from Cllr Baker on his website: www.nsbaker.co.uk

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  1. Sian Pettman

    Hi Neil – that was very interesting. Thanks. Any chance it could be abbreviated into a letter for the papers? One point which stands out for me is the need to bridge the gap between residents and councillors. With the reduction in the number of councillors to 39 at next year’s local elections, an essential criterion in the selection of candidates should be the degree to which they are willing to engage with residents. And, as you suggest, it is also crucially important to find ways of enabling residents to become meaningfully involved in what is happening locally, especially in decisions which affect the areas in which they live. We need to analyse what has gone wrong in our local democracy in recent years and draw key lessons from that analysis. Sian

  2. Gill Prett. It`s really encouraging that some Councillors like Neil are so quick to respond like this. Sian is right that one of his key points is the need to bridge the seemingly ever-widening gap between residents and councillors, but how best to do it?

  3. Ideally suggestions for increasing community engagement should come from the community, as if the methods used are ones people actually want (as opposed to being told they want) then there would be a good foundation for going forward. One idea I’ve sketched out in my head, but not worked up into a proposal yet, is to replace the four Area Member Panels with four Area Forums. Scrap the "them and us" approach with councillors and residents sitting apart and have genuine discussion among everyone in the room. Focus on strategy and work up proposals to pass on to the decision-making committees. This would mean real consultation at an early stage, before policy is drafted, so that the community had ownership of a policy – rather than just being asked to comment on a policy drafted by "the council". But the first step in any change has to come, by definition, from the council and I would hope all political parties consider the community engagement element as a key criteria when they select candidates. In short, most of the day-to-day operations of the council are straightforward (I doubt many people care exactly which senior officers, per the constitution, are authorised to countersign housing benefit cheques, for instance) but the overriding long-term strategy which impacts on these things is the area to focus on. A "Community Framework" of sorts.