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Cllr John Wratten’s thinking

Cllr Wratten has written to outline the official Labour position in the ongoing public conversation about governance in Canterbury District. He highlights the importance of addressing the practicalities of a committee-based system, given that from May 2015 we will be reduced from 50 councillors to just 39.

Cllr John Wratten
Cllr John Wratten

As the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District gathers pace, the discussion has rightly begun to turn to the issue of “what” a system might look like, rather than just “how might we get there”. John Wratten, leader of the Labour Group on the Council, discusses below some of the issues to be considered, and makes an interesting proposal.

Now that one of the dissident Conservative councillors has explained relatively clearly some of the issues around the process of changing the governance of the City Council [click to see details], the local Labour Party believes that it is time to explain why the ad hoc process that these conservatives have embarked on may not be the best way to achieve a more democratic process in the longer term, and how we all might need to work together to achieve a workable and more open system.

Firstly, it is important that everyone arguing for change accepts that a committee system will bring a number of additional challenges. Most significant are:

  • The additional workload
  • Improving community engagement

This is especially problematic now that a reduction in the number of Councillors is inevitable – wholly at the Conservative’s behest, which is something all their councillors supported at the time.

The most difficult challenge to resolve will be workload. It is a reasonable assumption that any committee structure would mirror the administrative structure of the Directorates and departments of the Council, since the prime purpose of each committee is to set policy and supervise its implementation in each area of activity. That implies at least six main committees and numerous sub-committees covering all of the Council’s planning and operational functions.

But a committee structure would also have to deal with some of the umbrella activities of the Council: presumably we would all want to retain the Area Members Panels, for example. In addition there would be a need for an over-riding Finance committee, and probably other portfolio committees. This increase in committee workload would be especially significant for minority party councillors, who would have to cover more committees each than the largest party, if those committees are to be truly representative of all views and all areas of the District.

So the key issue that we all have to work out before agreeing to a move to a committee system is exactly how that would be structured and what the meeting pattern might be. But overall that is a technical issue: the key to success of a change to a committee system is two-fold.

Firstly, it must result in improved transparency, public accountability, and communication between the people of the district, our elected representatives, and the council officers. Next, it must be administratively effective in directing and supporting the work of the Council, and it must be affordable.

It is almost inevitable that there will be tension between these aspects, and balancing expectations against what is possible will not be simple, especially since some of the supporters of change see it as a panacea for all the current problems (which in our view it is not). Indeed, it is one of the features of the current Lib-Dem/Tory government (and the local Tories too) that they don’t recognise that effective, engaged democracy has a cost.

The Labour Party fully supports the aims of CDCD. We welcome the opportunity for dialogue with all supportive groups and political parties. Labour aims to help create a solution which involves communities much more directly, through measures to engage not only the local residents’ associations (an underused source of views and insight) but also specific campaign groups (like the Save Kingsmead Field group). There may thus be a need for less formal structures to encourage that communication and maximise the benefits: but that may in turn require a more thoroughgoing change in the Council’s constitution than advocates of the committee system have realised.

To look at all this, Labour is proposing a conference should be held in the autumn to engage all interested Parties. We think that CDCD is the best body to host that, since it is politically neutral. We call on all parties and groups supportive of change to begin the process to allow a planned transition which minimises disruption and reduces the perception of an out-of-touch political leadership.

John Wratten

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  1. Sian Pettman

    Hi John – I agree that it will be challenging to devise a committee system that is not too onerous in terms of cost or workload, especially given the forthcoming reduction in the number of councillor to 39. This will take time and a lot of careful thought. The Centre for Public Scrutiny recommends a long lead-time (ideally a year) for new arrangements to be thought through properly. Fortunately we do have that time. Your idea of a conference in the autumn sounds very interesting. What might also be helpful at an early stage is for the Council to ask for an advisor from the Centre for Public Scrutiny to come down to Canterbury for a day to talk them through the process of transition and the best way in which to devise a contemporary, streamlined committee structure. The CfPS has done this with numerous Councils across the country, so it has a wealth of accumulated experience, a good knowledge of best practice and a practical understanding of what actually works in reality.