#55: County Councillor’s Report, first published in the August 2019 edition of the Highley Forum: The absence of effective scrutiny.

Local Councillor’s Report

The turnout at the public meeting of the Highley Patients Group on July 16 was a testament to the concerns of the community regarding the way local GP practices are changing so having Dr Allen there to explain the wider GP scene was good, not least because it brought home that change is happening because it is having to happen, and that it doesn’t just affect Highley but Shropshire, and in fact the UK generally.

I’ve been following the local county health scene since I was first elected in 2013, in fact the first external meeting I ever attended was the AGM of the Shropshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG – local clinicians who commission all health services in the county) in Oswestry, subsequently attending numerous meetings in the first few years of ‘Future Fit’, which turned out to be little more than an endless round of “consultation” about the future shape of healthcare in the county. I was frustrated because the CCG was trying to please everyone and failing on all counts.

You can only attend so many committee meetings that end up resolving nothing and I eventually dropped my regular attendance at committees I wasn’t actually a full member of anyway. That’s how frustrated and angry I had become. It’s difficult to sit there and hear people waffling on and keep your own counsel, let alone your temper. I did eventually let rip at the last meeting I attended and, significantly, every one of the dozen or so heads around the committee table were nodding in agreement throughout. Did it change anything? Don’t be silly!

It isn’t just the CCG that maintains a distance between themselves and “the people”, regular readers of these ‘reports’ will know how angry I get whenever the conversation moves around to “the council”, and it all has to do with the system of governance that came into being back in 2009, when the old Bridgnorth District Council was absorbed into the new Unitary Council, the old Shropshire County Council becoming just plain Shropshire Council.

That change involved a complete change in the workings of “the council”. The old committee system morphed into a system called (and I kid you not) ‘Strong Leader with Cabinet’, in which the leader of the political party with a majority of seats chooses his or her own Cabinet, in the same way that a Prime Minister chooses their Cabinet. In effect, decisions affecting the 311,000 residents of Shropshire are made by ten people!

There is a requirement in that model for at least one scrutiny committee to oversee the workings of the system, Shropshire has five such scrutiny committees. But whilst the text books on this model of governance tell you that in an ideal world, whilst membership of scrutiny committees is “politically balanced” – in a way that reflects the balance of power within the council – to achieve a democratic balance scrutiny committees should be chaired by members of opposition parties (as they usually are in parliamentary select committees). But the ruling group in Shropshire are not so stupid to risk adverse criticism of decisions made by a Cabinet wholly comprised of members of the ruling group. As scrutiny committees have a majority membership from the ruling group, when it comes to the “election” of scrutiny committee chairs, it’s no coincidence that all Shropshire’s scrutiny chairs are card-carrying members of the ruling group.

When it comes to the wielding of power, democracy doesn’t get a look in.

Dave Tremellen, 20 July 2019.