John Andrews, a former councillor on Chichester District Council, says most councillors are involved in decisions too late to make a difference on behalf of their communities
When I arrived as a new councillor in January 2009, I was horrified by three aspects:
Firstly, lack of involvement by councillors in decisions until more or less "too late"; Secondly the lack of representative character of councillors, perhaps in part caused the poor IT facilities for councillors in their work – both as Ward representatives and as a supervisory board; and Thirdly the poor level of interaction with councillors and local communities before decisions were taken.
So far as I can see I'd have a similar reaction at most District Councils.
After the 1999 "reform" of local government by Tony Blair's first term, various requirements were imposed on all local government, as far as I can see these were designed to curb the curious behaviour of some LAs. At District level this led to the formation of an "Executive Board" of councillors, now a Cabinet. The Chairman of the Cabinet is of course the Leader of the majority party. The Cabinet members are appointed by the Leader, essentially the leader of the majority party at his or her whim, and endorsed or otherwise by the full college of Councillors – so essentially by the majority party, save where the Council is hung (I mean there is no clear majority, rather than treated to a popular uprising!).
The way the Cabinet then works is that a collection of topics selected by the Leader is allocated to each Member as a Portfolio Holder. There is no fixed correspondence between the Portfolio and any specific senior Officer (Director). So the relationship between a Portfolio Holder is with several Directors and of course each Director has a relationship with at least two Portfolio holders. That may seem logical as the Portfolio Holders are not individually the "boss" of any Director, but it does also lead to some conflicting interests and one might say odd trade offs.
After the "reform" it became a requirement that each Council published a rolling "Forward Plan" showing actions expected in at least the next three months. Seems there's no requirement for a "Backwards" nor a "Sideways" Plan. Given the cycle time for Local Government, a three month view of the proposed actions proffers essentially no opportunity for review by Councillors at large.
At least at Chichester DC the rolling plan was three months, sketchy and with no link to engender discussion with the relevant Officer(s) leading any strand.
So this led to most Members receiving a copy of the abbreviated papers for the Cabinet (that is a kind of overview/summary but not the full set of papers, so by and large the majority of councillors went along with the proposals, the few exceptions being where local sacred cows were being slaughtered.
The lack of clear ventilation of topics and the absence of a cohesive explicit plan of all subjects led to the silent majority acquiescing, with virtually no debate or substantive disagreement. Naturally the odd barb was thrown by an opposition Councillor – sometimes the resident comic, sometimes an insightful comment, but by and large the proposals received no public ventilation other than the formal scrutiny arrangements. A key element of concern, was the lack of involvement of communities in District decision taking.
Following the savings plan for the staffing of Officers (a marked reduction in high cost highly graded long servng Officers and the promotion of the young Turks (and very good they are too!) the Members agreed to review their own practices, and I was tasked to head a small group including thankfully the leader of the LDs working with the CEO and other senior Officers to propose altered means of arriving at "decisions". After the usual false starts we settled on two principals.
The first that the rolling plan would cover a 12 month period, the second was to facilitate review and comment by all councillors of each item of the Plan by means of a bulletin board (i.e. a system that permits additive commentary and response rather than the confusing picture painted by crossing e-mails, and infinitely cheaper than attempting torrents of phone calls and/or meetings. A key element in our thinking was to facilitate Councillors engaging with their local communities on their concerns, issues and such-like relating to potential decisions still up to a year from being taken.
An overwhelming majority (to the surprise of both the LD Leader and me) voted to accept these changes for a trial one year period. A few months later I retired due to ill health, but at that time there was a moderate level of interaction, but disappointingly few reports of councillors using the scheme to involve the communities they represented in such plans.
Following the recent election with the usual turnover of Councillors it'll be interesting to see whether attempts are made to withdraw this 12 month plan and the Bulletin Board system. What experiences have others had of the sheer difficulty in generating interaction between communities and Councillors?