Sunday, 22 August 2010

You don't think Councillors have any say on these matters, do you? We're lucky to be 'consulted'!


Now dearly beloved reader, I’m going to explain how our system of local government works and, specifically the role of the councillor (or rather ‘elected member’ as we are more commonly called these days).

I know that you believe Councillor’s to be all powerful, semi-divine, genii bestriding and directing the colossus of local government (or maybe a bunch of self-serving, money-grubbing second-rate has-beens). But understand this. Most – 99% of the decisions on policy taken by local councils are not taken following debate at a committee. Councillors – well, most of us – simply aren’t involved at all in the decisions taken by the councils to which we are elected.

In the comments to this campaigning post from Anna Raccoon about Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council’s decision to fine a woman for flicking cigarette ash is this desire:

That ‘revised Enforcement Policy’ does make for some terrifying reading. I would love to have been in that council committee and listened and watched the type of people that came up with that vile and sinister piece.

One hates to disappoint but, my guess (I did try to find the actual minute but – and this is indicative of the problem – finding minutes and agendas of committee meetings on SMBC’s website isn’t easy) is that the offending policy was agreed by “cabinet” which means no public discussion and debate as that august body has only Labour members selected by the leader. This is confirmed by the revised ‘Governance Arrangements’ (another document most councilors won’t have read).

The truth is that decisions in local government aren’t taken in the manner most ordinary people – including quite well-informed ordinary people – believe is the case. Us councilors no longer sit on various committees in numbers reflecting the political balance of the council. Eight or ten councilors make up a (usually) one-party executive – often pompously called the ‘cabinet’ – and it is here that the decisions are taken. But understand that any discussion takes places away from the scrying eyes of the public – in Bradford we had a thing called “CMT” consisting of Executive Members and the Council’s “Strategic Directors” where the real decisions were made. You must also understand that most of the decisions are made under “delegated authority” by one or other ‘strategic director’.

Which brings me to a second example, the proposed banning of a march through Bradford by the English Defence League (EDL) and, one assumes, any counter-march by the equally unpleasant ‘Unite Against Fascism’ (UAF). Although the permission to grant a ban came from the Home Office, this was on application from Bradford Council’s Chief Executive. You will, of course, not that no politicians are quoted in the BBC report. The only comment I can find is a mealy-mouthed, weasel-worded one from Ian Greenwood, Council Leader:

We are grateful to the Home Secretary for considering this. It is not an easy decision.

The decision relating to this ban – a significant decision to limit fundamental freedoms – has not been taken following political debate. The majority of councillors haven’t been asked for their view and certainly haven’t had any chance to vote. The matter hasn’t been before a committee – even a one-party ‘cabinet’.

Understand that this is the norm for decisions in local government – you elect councillors believing they might have some say over these kind of momentous decisions and that they will be involved in discussing and debates major policies like the enforcement policy in Sandwell. Sorry to disappoint, we’ve not and haven’t been since the last Labour government “modernised” local government.


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