Leaders go head-to-head on plans to restructure district council

Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Chris White and Conservative chief Cllr Mary Maynard.

Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Chris White and Conservative chief Cllr Mary Maynard. - Credit: SADC

In the wake of the recent district council elections, which saw the Liberal Democrats gain an overwhelming majority, plans have been unveiled to restructure the administration.

Instead of the existing system where portfolio holders have specific responsibilities as part of a Cabinet, the proposal is to replace this with a committee structure headed by chairs, with no individual councillor having decision-making powers.

We asked Lib Dem leader Cllr Chris White and Conservative boss Cllr Mary Maynard for their thoughts on the changes, and how they see the administration operating in the future.

Chris White:

For decades local government decisions were made by committees comprising councillors of all parties. This changed under the Labour government which thought that this system slowed decision-making and should operate more like central government, despite Whitehall and Westminster not being well known for the quality of decision-making or indeed speed.

It was basically a solution to a problem that did not really exist.

As a result of this change councils were forced to hand over decision-making to a small group of councillors, usually of the same party. These are grandly known as the Cabinet and meet in public (a minor concession to accountability). Opposition or backbench councillors have no speaking rights although in St Albans we have allowed questions and comments from any councillor who turns up.

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But when it comes to a vote, the seven councillors on the St Albans Cabinet, all currently from the same party, raise their hands and all propositions are voted through 7-0, regardless of the shape of the council as a whole.

Objections from other councillors are heard but can make no difference to the outcome. They can’t even propose amendments.

To make sure that it is not entirely a one-party state, Cabinet decisions can be scrutinised after the event although the Cabinet can formally ignore the outcomes. Decisions can even be delayed, thus making a nonsense of the swift decision argument.

The Coalition allowed councils to revert to the committee system and others have already gone down this route – most notably our neighbours Three Rivers District Council.

Good governance continues: it’s just that your own councillor has a much higher chance of being there when decisions are made and influencing things in your behalf.

Most particularly, the scrutiny will take place before the decision is made, not when it has become a fait accompli.

We are setting up four service committees to replace the single part cabinet. Each will be proportionate to the numbers of councillors as a whole. The senior committee, which manages the overall council budget will be termed the policy committee.

The others are public realm, regeneration & business and housing & inclusion. These, as the name suggests, will cover specific topic areas and the councillors on them will develop specialist expertise, which is not possible with the Cabinet system, which allows this only for the chosen elite – hardly healthy.

The policy committee also has some of its own key topics. The division of responsibilities reflects the Liberal Democrat administration’s priorities:

  • The policy committee will ensure that the council’s battered finances continue to be monitored and managed, despite the effective cuts in government contributions because of (or should I say ‘despite’?) Covid. It will also deal with decisions about the emerging Local Plan and, of course, the Climate Emergency, as well as Covid recovery.
  • Public realm deals with our parks and open spaces, as well as waste and parking.
  • Regeneration and business deals with the need to regenerate the city centre (and other parts of the district) but also the need to continue to enhance relations with businesses, sadly neglected by previous administrations.
  • Housing and Inclusion deals with the issue of affordable and social housing, as well as the need to make sure that our society is one where everyone has a chance to participate.

But surely it’s more meetings?

We estimate that there is a net reduction in meetings (24 Cabinet and scrutiny meetings being replaced by 21 meetings): and some of the meetings under the previous system had little to no meaningful business.

In addition, a number of smaller bodies will disappear, mainly by having their functions merged into the new structures. So the council becomes more efficient as well as more democratic.

Why now? There is never an ideal time to introduce change. But to out it another way, it’s always a good time to introduce more democracy.

Mary Maynard:

The Liberal Democrats have a majority at the council and are changing how it is run to silence dissent and not be held accountable for their decisions.   

For many years, elected politicians took decisions, were responsible for them and were accountable for them to residents. Big decisions were taken at council.

Seven councillors sat in a Cabinet, each running different areas of service day to day, with significant decisions needing majority agreement.

"Council managers reported to these councillors. Decisions and outcomes were monitored by strong scrutiny and audit committees (run by the Opposition) that enabled Opposition and backbench councillors to get information about how the council was performing.

Public meetings debated performance, decisions and any issues that were arising. Any decision could be ‘called-in’ to public meetings and politicians were held to account, with questioning from their peers.   

Decisions could be changed or overturned, for example a recent call-in meeting forced a re-think of their decision to change the Charter Market with no consultation. 

In the new, cumbersome, and costly Liberal Democrat model, politicians no longer run the council, responsibility and accountability for policy development and project and service delivery is blurred, scrutiny is significantly reduced and call-in of decisions is banned.  The Liberal Democrats have:  

  • Abolished the Cabinet system, call-ins and most of the scrutiny meetings.
  • Introduced three (or four) new committees, each with up to 13 councillors who will ‘discuss’ strategy and policies and only meet every two months. The Liberal Democrats can’t make their minds up about how many committees there will be or what they will do but intend to vote on the change this week anyway.  They will have a majority on all committees, run them, decide what is discussed and control what is decided.  It is expected that they will implement changes from last year so that the chair can silence any councillor making a ‘political’ point.  ‘Political’ points are any comments they disagree with or that highlight problems in the council. They will try to silence Opposition in these meetings.
  • Transferred control of delivery of projects and services to managers in the council, who will decide on operational decisions. Managers will consult the chairs of a committee, but don’t have to listen to them. The Liberal Democrats think this means they will not be accountable for failure. They are wrong. They are still responsible and accountable; they’ve just given away authority. 
  • Substantially reduced scrutiny of their decisions by reducing the number of scrutiny and audit meetings from 21 to eight, reducing the number of managers in audit from three to one (including the most senior, experienced manager) and removing budget scrutiny entirely. They really do not like being held to account.
  • Tainted the independent Mayoralty. The Liberal Democrat Mayor will vote with his party in the case of a hung vote. Traditionally, Mayors vote with the status quo. 

What does this mean to residents?   

First, a camel is a horse designed by a committee and a committee of 13 will design a pantomime camel. 

This approach will cost more to run and infrequent meetings mean decisions will either not be taken in time or council managers will need to take more decisions.

The council is already suffering the Liberal Democrats' inability to make up their minds and take timely decisions with construction projects all late and £27M over budget. It can only get worse. 

Changing the rules so managers ‘consult’ with councillors, but don’t need to take their views into account means democratic decision making will significantly decline.   

The Liberal Democrats say this approach is collaborative and cooperative. Given it is Conservative councillors they are trying to collaborate and cooperate with, we can tell them it is not.   

For the last two years, they have attempted to silence Opposition and ignore criticism.  Making it harder will not stop the Conservative Opposition doing their job. We will hold them to account.