#2. Maidstone Borough Council has returned to a committee system of governance.

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On the 12th December 2015, I sent the following LGA ‘First’ article to all other Members of Shropshire Council in anticipation of the full Council meeting on the 17th December because I was interested to see what response it got, given the Leader-elect’s (as he was then) press statements about (re)introducing a more consensual, inclusive style of local governance, the committee system is one way of achieving that.

I got one reply, and from a Tory member at that!

Shropshire Council is governed by a Cabinet of 9 Members (portfolio holders) and the Leader of the Council. Cabinet is appointed by the Leader. Ten people therefore make the decisions that directly affect the other 310,000 people of Shropshire.

The article is taken from ‘First’, the magazine of the Local Government Association (LGA), from the June/July 2015 edition and was written by Councillor Fran Wilson, Lib Dem Group Leader and Leader of Maidstone Borough Council.

We have made the change [from Cabinet to Committee] because many of our backbenchers felt disenfranchised under Cabinet with most decisions made by just six of our 55 councillors. Most decisions will now be taken by four service committees.

Under our new constitution the leader of the council is elected at full council and automatically becomes the chairman of the lead policy and resources committee. Other chairmen and vice chairmen are appointed by the committees but the constitution demands that the chairman and vice-chairman of each committee have to be from different political groups.

We were reluctant to change from the committee system to cabinet and scrutiny but, when the change was forced upon us, were one of the first to do so. Determined to get the best out of the system, we gained a reputation for excellent scrutiny work, producing influential reports about motorway noise and abandoned vehicles, amongst other subjects. This, however, has not outweighed the disadvantages of cabinet governance which became apparent over the years.

With buy-in from all political groups we believe our new committee system of governance can retain the benefit of timely decision making but with the added advantage that all councillors will now have the opportunity to be fully involved in policy formulation and decision making. This will build experience and expertise across the council chamber, leading to smoother succession when front-benchers leave the council or there is a shift in the political balance of power.

The partnership between officers and councillors will also benefit more councillors receiving advice first hand from officers and more councillors contributing knowledge about local matters.

The new system involves all our councillors in our decision making. lt will be more democratic, inclusive and transparent, and that has got to be better for our residents.