BIG CHOICES NEED TO BE MADE ABOUT THE FUTURE, …BUT IS CANTERBURY CITY COUNCIL MAKING THEM IN THE RIGHT WAY? JOIN THE DEBATE
Swingeing budget cuts, government demands to build hundreds of homes, a cavalcade of controversies – all have put the way Canterbury City Council makes its decisions under the microscope. Here, Sian Pettman and Richard Norman from the Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District (CDCD) explain why they think things need to change, while Tory councillor and executive member Jeremy Bellamy says making the right decision is far more important than the method
THE CDCD’S POSITION
Sian Pettman and Richard Norman both explain:
Do we live in a democracy? In some sense of course we do, but it’s not a question to which there’s a simple yes or no answer. Some councils are more democratic than others. There’s been an increasing feeling that the way Canterbury City Council works has not been serving people as well as it should. That’s why some of us set up a Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District – not because we think democracy is totally lacking, but because we want it to represent people better. For the past few weeks we’ve been collecting signatures for a petition calling for a change in the way the council operates. If we get more than 5,600 signatures, the council will be obliged to hold a referendum in which you can decide whether you want to stick with the present executive system or change to a committee system. People have been keen to sign. When we explain the executive system means all the important decisions are made by a small group of councillors appointed by the council leader, whereas the committee system would mean all the coundilors we elect would be involved in making decisions, the case for change seems obvious. And people’s eagerness to sign is fuelled by a backlog of discontent.
On the Westgate Towers traffic trial, beach hut charges, Kingsmead Field, lack of action on homes of multiple occupation and now the Local Plan, many people feel strongly that council decision-makers have been insensitive to public opinion. But would a change to a committee system make any real difference? After all, in any system the largest party gets to make the decisions. Whether it’s done by an executive composed of members of the ruling party, or by majorities on committees, doesn’t it come to the same thing? It could make a real difference – if we use the opportunity. The point is, there’s no one system which is the committee system. It can take many different forms, so people need to think about what version of the committee system would best improve democracy. It’s an opportunity also to raise wider questions. What can be done to involve local people more in the decisions which affect them? How can consultation be more than just a tick-box exercise? In the past week we’ve held public meetings in Canterbury and Whitstable to promote debate on these questions. But we want many more people to get involved, so please send in your ideas.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
Jeremy Bellamy says:
I find the idea that Canterbury City Council isn’t democratic both flabbergasting and, frankly, deeply offensive. In this district we have free and fair elections with universal suffrage for over 18s using the first past the post system and after the election each political group has a vote on who should be their group leader, and the leader of the biggest group becomes leader of the council. The leader of the council then appoints members of the executive committee from those councillors representing his party. This is almost entirely the same as the system we have at Westminster – the leader of the biggest party in the House of Commons becomes prime minister and appoints members of the cabinet from his party’s MPs. How a system so closely resembling that of the “mother of all parliaments” can be described as inherently undemocratic is frankly baffling.
I’m not suggesting the current system is perfect, but we shouldn’t let ourselves get carried away. In a world where every day millions of people live under tyrannous regimes and people give their lives for want of even basic rights, for people in one of the nicest cities in one of the richest and freest countries on earth to claim that something as imocuous as a local council is an undemocratic dictatorship brings to mind for me the phrase “first-world problems”.
Even the name Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District makes me cringe. I know a number of those involved and they’re lovely people and highly intelligent, but I strongly disagree with the premise the name is based on. I believe that if those who are part of pro-democracy groups in the likes of Syria could hear such language used in this context they might be rightly offended that their ongoing struggle for the right to determine their own fate is being cheapened and devalued by such emotive words being attached to something so comparably insignificant. I am not a keen advocate of the committee system, but nor am I violently opposed to it, mainly because I don’t think it’s something that will make a massive amount of difference and I don’t think It’s something the average man in the streetis particularly interested in.
Whatever system you introduce, if a party has a majority the size of the Conservative one on the current council they’ll be able to push through their policies. In the executive system this is done by the executive committee being one party, under the committee system it would be done by that party having a majority on every committee. The end result would be near identical. The means of making the decision is far less important than the need to get the right decisions made.
At the end of the day things like the Local Plan and budget cuts are never going to be popular and the majority of the public who are interested are likelyto be opposed to the decision- but the extent to which a decision needs to be taken doesn’t rise or fall in accordance with how palatable that decision might be. As a councillor there are always going to be decisions you dont want to make, but when it’s your job to make them, no matter how long you spend talking about it, there does come a point where you have to bite the bullet and make a choice. The committee system would doubtlessly mean it would take a lot longer to make a decision, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a different or better decision being made at the end of the day.
Here are some questions for you to get your teeth into:
- How could the council consult better, so people feel they’re really being listened to?
- How can elected councillors provide a better channel for the views of the people they represent?
- How can we get the political parties on the council to work together sometimes instead of just point-scoring?
EXECUTIVE SYSTEM – HOW IT WORKS
The leader of the council is the head of the party which secures the most councillors in a local election. He or she sets up an executive normally made up of political allies on the council drawn from his or her own party. They are each given Westminster-style policy portfolios. Although members of the executive are expected to consult with their colleagues, they can take action wtthout any input from other councillors. The same applies to the leader. In this system, committees of backbench councillors scrutinise the decisions that have already been taken rather than playing a role in making them. In theory, meetings of the full council still have the final say. However, critics of this system say that all the full council does is simply rubber-stamp decisions made elsewhere.
COMMITEEE SYSTEM – HOW IT WORKS
The leader of the party that wins the most seats becomes leader of the council. Councillors sit on various committees so have a direct say over some areas of policy. A policy proposal will be referred to the relevant committee, e.g. changes to bin collections. They would then have to approve the change or make their own amendments before it being put before full council for approval. The composition of these committees generally reflects the balance of power on the full council – e.g. a Tory majority will be reflected In the committee system. The leader of the council normally chairs the policy and resources committee, whIch controls a council’s purse-strings, and vetoes proposals considered to be too expensive. Critics say it is a costly way of slowing down decision-making and risks becoming a talking shop where opposition councillors play to the gallery.
Herne Bay Gazette, July 3rd 2014