By Chris Cornell
Last Wednesday the council’s governance committee voted to propose Canterbury City Council move to a leader-cabinet system at its July meeting. At present, decisions in the council are largely made by three committees which include councillors from each of the three main parties. Under the proposed new system, decisions will be made by a much smaller group of councillors from the ruling party only — planning and licensing committees will remain unaffected.
Although over 65 per cent of the district didn’t vote for a Conservative candidate at the last election, the local Conservative Party will be the only ones making many of the decisions that matter to you. Is that fair?
For those with a short memory: Canterbury did have a leader and cabinet system once. This system was forced on councils by the then Labour government in 2000 and operated under a local Liberal Democrat/Labour coalition until 2005. After that it was continued by the Conservatives under the leadership of Cllr John Gilbey.
However, it was then scrapped in response to a petition by 3,000 local residents, organised by the Campaign for Local Democracy in Canterbury, following concerns about its lack of transparency. In proposing the change in 2015, Tankerton councillor Neil Baker said: “A switch to a committee structure will allow more councillors to become involved in various areas of council business and therefore be able to better serve the area they represent in a much improved manner.”
In fact, in 2019, a five-year review of the committee system judged that the system was both more efficient, effective and economical.
The current leader of the council, Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding, who acknowledges that his style of leadership is “more authoritarian”, obviously disagrees. He has publicly said that the current system is “inefficient and ineffective” and that the public deserve greater accountability; he feels that the majority party should stand and fall by decisions made wholly by them.
Fitter-Harding also argues that scrutiny under the new system could improve; under leader and cabinet systems, an overview & scrutiny committee meets to regularly consider decisions taken by the cabinet and has powers to force a review of them. This committee is made up of different elected parties, with the majority on the committee still belonging to the same party as the overall leader of the council; as such, the ruling administration can effectively block a review of their decisions as they wish. Those who were members of the previous cabinet system acknowledge that it was full of “yes-men and -women”.
Of course, what governance model you operate under shouldn’t be a party-political point. Across the UK, councils of all political persuasions operate under either a committee structure, a leader-cabinet model or with a directly elected mayor. Some are more autocratic than others but, in most cases, changes to these are clearly trailed by a party or in reaction to a substantive threat.
The change to governance in Canterbury was not in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, and as recently as April, Cllr Fitter-Harding was quoted as publicly saying that “there is still ample opportunity for scrutiny”. With a clear majority on the council, he acknowledges that “the majority group has had no issues enacting its policy changes”.
Unfortunately, changing models isn’t without its risk. The Centre for Governance & Scrutiny (CFGS), which publishes on local-authority governance, acknowledges that changing systems can be both costly and unlikely to change the behaviour of people of people working in it. Any change has to run for a minimum of five years unless overturned by a public referendum. As such, the CFGS actively encourage local authorities to start by asking the local community what in the current system isn’t working before bringing forward practical changes. However, the current Conservative leader has described wider consultation as ‘insulting” when the majority group has decided that a change needs to take place.
It seems local Conservative councillors are not interested in honestly explaining the positive and negatives of each model and asking residents which they prefer. It is worrying that local Conservatives now believe public consultation to be an “insulting” process. This is clearly a threat to our local democracy.
What do local people think?
So what do local people think? Well, in 2018 the council published a community-governance review, which highlighted that 84 per cent of those surveyed considered it important that decisions be made locally — we could conclude, by members they elect. In 2019 it acknowledged that only four in 10 residents said they know how to have a say in council decisions. Making more decisions behind closed doors isn’t likely to fix that.
The new system will see Conservative councillors — currently largely drawn from Herne Bay and some villages — make decisions about matters in Canterbury and Whitstable, where their opinions have been largely rejected at the ballot box.
Now I understand that it is the prerogative of the majority group to make decisions: the party I represent lost the last election: I understand that. However, in the last five years, local residents have: lost local decision-making forums less than two years after a community review established them; seen a whole level of elected government disenfranchised by removing the right of parish bodies to call in planning applications; and witnessed the Conservatives vote against appointing independent experts to council committees on climate change.
The CT5 Forum set up by local people to effectively replace the Whitstable Forum has been refused access to council officers, even when they are actively consulting on local strategies.
Whitstable residents who, as recently as last year, were able to directly lobby their councillors face-to-face, now have to persuade a one-party cabinet behind closed doors, in something more akin to a Dragon’s Den that no-one gets to watch.
So, if the council are truly committed to reform, why is this administration scared of a review or letting the electorate decide on their plan at the next election? After all, seeking to improve democracy in Canterbury by prescribing the solution is like a doctor administering medicine without asking the patient how they feel.
All is not well in the state of Canterbury; while the change to our governance won’t take place until May next year, its fate seems to have been decided well before that, perhaps just by one or two people.
Chris is a youth worker, school governor, university lecturer and proud dad of three. He has lived in Whitstable for over 10 years.
Chris is a former chair and current trustee of Whitstable Umbrella, where the impact of government cuts to front-line services inspired him to get involved in local politics. He takes an active interest in local youth services, whether as founder of a local dads’ group (Who Let the Dads Out) and scout leader at Long Rock or school governor and member of the PTA executive at Swalecliffe Community Primary School. After a career working in housing and youth-work charities across the country, he now is a senior lecturer in business administration and social enterprise at two London universities.
He was elected to Canterbury City Council in 2019 as a representative for Gorrell ward with George Caffery and Valerie Kenny.
Chris sits on the Whitstable Forum, Whitstable Harbour Board, community and governance committees in addition to full council.
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