At a workshop that I attended in February I met Craig, a Councillor from East Cheshire, who told me about a campaign that was run in East Cheshire and in Sheffield to make councils more democratic and more accountable to the people.
The idea is that more Councillors need to be involved in making decisions.
At the moment we have a Cabinet system that is letting people down. The system isn’t working and we are suffering from poor decisions. With a Cabinet system you find that decisions are made by very few Councillors. Most “backbenchers” don’t have much of a say. Scrutiny decisions can be overturned by the Cabinet. All the time and effort that councillors may have spent on looking into a decision in great detail might well be swept aside by officers and Cabinet members intent on pushing a decision through. The majority of decisions might get made by a very small group of people.
In the case of West Sussex County we know that a recent report* by John Coughlan into the workings of the County Council showed that changes were recommended in Governance, Culture and Leadership. However our experience over the recent months of how the consultation on closing small schools in West Sussex has been conducted has led to serious concerns about the governance of our County Council. People’s worries and concerns have been brushed aside and little credence has been given to two Freedom of Information requests (dated 14th June and even 29th April 2019) clearly showing that the decision to close Rumboldswhyke School was predetermined.
Councils work better when more people can add their views to decisions being taken. We need an openness and transparency in decision making which is currently lacking and above all we need greater weight to be given to different viewpoints. There must be flexibility to listen to and take account of the views of more than a few Cabinet Members. The full range of opposition voices from different political parties, ages, socio-economic, sexual, cultural and religious backgrounds need to be heard. (We don’t want all decisions to be made predominantly by middle-class, older, white males).
One way to do this is to replace the Cabinet system with a Committee system. This is an easy way to involve more Councillors in the decision-making process. And this can be requested from electors who are on the outside of the county council – we don’t need to wait for the Councillors to initiate the change themselves.
I asked Democratic Services about how to do this. At first they weren’t convinced that this was possible. But I insisted – sending them links from East Cheshire and Sheffield and they came back to me and admitted that they had got it wrong! Change is possible! Here is what they said “I’ve now had a detailed look through the Localism Act 2011 and have found that new petition referendum regulations were issued in 2011 which replaced the 2000 ones. So you are quite correct, if the Council receives a valid petition signed by 5% of the electorate to oblige it to hold a referendum, this can be on changing the form of governance to either the mayoral model or the committee system.”
So in order to change the governance, we need to put together a petition. The 5% figure is called the “verification number” – this changes every year but until 15th February 2021 the number of signatures we need is 33,702! This is a huge number but the signatures can be gathered from all over the County. I imagine that many members of opposition parties (Lib Dems, Labour, Greens) will straight away see the benefit of this change. If such a petition was shared among us in all the local branches or parties and campaign groups throughout the County, we could make a good start on collecting support. In other areas of the country, this sort of campaign has become one of the key issues that dominated local elections. To such an extent that even the possibility of a referendum has changed the make-up of councils and tipped the balance away from having one large, dominant party that means that any opposition is severely limited.
So I just need to get a petition together and persuade 33,701 more people to sign it! This will mean lots of stands, street stalls and doorknocking and public meetings. It could be that candidates in next year’s County Elections are asked if they would support this campaign. This is more important, in my view, than almost any other manifesto promises or pledges – as getting anything done is only possible if the mechanism for making decisions gets changed. Making the county council more accountable and open would be such a big step forward. John Coughlan’s report* is worth reading by anyone interested in local politics in West Sussex. In particular Recommendation 10 of the report says “The wider County Council will need to engage in a deep and wide ranging review of its leadership, governance and culture. The scale of this exercise cannot be over-emphasised. The exercise will probably require substantial external support if not control.” I am not convinced that the County Council has done enough to start on this journey (although I know that Cabinet meetings are no longer in private and now have to have an agenda). There is still a long way to go. Please share this post and get in touch if you would like to help set this petition up: firstname.lastname@example.org / 07789 843556.
Just to finish off – here is a link which quotes Craig whom I met in Chichester to show that change is possible in East Cheshire so hopefully we can get change here in West Sussex too: https://www.cheshireeast.gov.uk/council_and_democracy/council_information/media_hub/media_releases/council-set-to-move-to-committee-system-of-decision-making.aspx