In December 2015, I was taking a retrospective look back over the previous two and a half years since being elected to represent the Highley Ward at Shirehall, because in 2013 I’d been looking forward to finding out what was going on in “the seat of power”.
By December 2015 I had been instrumental in bringing down the Leader of the Council and yet, despite having seen the local newspaper reports on, and witnessed the consequences of, policies that seemed to take no account of what local communities actually needed, I was still determined to give the powers-that-be the benefit of the doubt. In fact the whole point of my originally raising issues of accounting irregularity in the appointment of external auditors to the council’s own trading company, was to give Keith Barrow the opportunity to explain what was going on and why.
For a while I had strictly observed the principle that because the mouth is outnumbered by eyes and ears, it pays to keep the eyes and ears open and the mouth shut, at least until what you’ve learnt makes some kind of sense.
I managed it for about three weeks, which is how long it took to realize just how fast the demolition of democratic systems was moving back then. The scales didn’t so much fall from my eyes, as have a baseball bat taken to them. Democracy was being quietly dismantled and it all seemed so sensible when presented as a balancing of the books and, what’s more, a mere continuance of the process of completing the move to a unitary council. Nothing to worry about. What do we need all these buildings for anyway? And without the buildings, why do we need all these employees anyway?
Why the uneasy feelings then? Deja vu?
If I was surprised back in the day at how all the mainstream parties quietly acquiesced in the process, I’m even more surprised that nothing has changed in the intervening period, except that if anything the pace of change and the distancing of the administration from the people they allegedly represent has accelerated to light speed. And still there is no complaint from the mainstream Opposition parties, in fact some of them support it. (Meanwhile there is no complaint from the people of Shropshire either, but at least they have the excuse that they’re not being kept in the loop, in which they have a lot in common with elected Members!)
All the changes serve the interests of all the mainstream parties because, with the centralisation of power that the current Cabinet system allows, by concentrating all their efforts on staying in power until the 2024 local elections, should they achieve that end then they will be the ones profiting from what’s being created now. It is a system that is in no way accountable to the electorate and that makes it very attractive to whichever party holds the balance of power locally.
To be fair, there are some who favour a committee system of local government, but there is an obvious shortcoming in a committee system, a structural fault that allows a ruling group to dominate policy-making without reference to the electorate.
The structural fault in the committee system is its allocation of seats according to proportional party representation. Whilst superficially “fair”, in that it reflects election results, it could happen that the number of Opposition Members elected doesn’t facilitate an ‘equitable’ distribution of committee seats.
In the committee system, to guarantee the equitability claimed for it, overall Opposition party numbers HAVE to outnumber the ruling group’s to ensure that any consensus of opinion following open debate is the result of compromise, rather than force of numbers. In other words, no outright majority by any one group.
But consider a system that retains the Cabinet with a directly-elected Council Leader, Chief Executive, whatever you want to call it, who would, having been directly elected, be fully accountable to all the electors in the county (not just, as at present, to the ones in their individual Electoral Divisions) for their choice of Cabinet members and the decisions those portfolio holders make. It is entirely feasible that a directly-elected Leader’s choice of portfolio holder need not be based on party affiliation.
That democratic accountability doesn’t stop there. Cabinet systems of governance must have at least one Scrutiny Committee. Unlike the current situation at Shirehall, Scrutiny Committees could actually exercise real influence, their chairs alternating between members of each party on the committee.
Scrutiny Committees would have the power to call in portfolio holders and have the right to question anyone who has been, or is likely to be, party to any portfolio holder business they have oversight of. Despite NOT having the power of veto, Scrutiny Committee reports would be published and be open for debate at full council, rendering the decisions of the Leader/Chief Executive fully exposed to public scrutiny. Decision making would be transparent.
Odds on seeing such a change? If they were able, would turkeys vote for Christmas? It’s up to you lot.