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Committee System Not the Best Solution for Guildford Council Say Coalition Spokespersons

Published on: 30 Dec, 2020
Updated on: 31 Dec, 2020

By Martin Giles and Julie Armstrong, local democracy reporter

The Spelthorne public is being consulted on a borough council system that would move power away from its Executive and share it with all elected members.

The opposition has described the consultation as a Conservative gambit to try to stall the change until 2022.

But Conservatives argue residents have a democratic right to choose what type of council they have.

The debate is likely to resonate with some at Guildford Borough Council who have in the past promoted a return to the committee system because the current strong leader model concentrates too much power with the council leader and his/her Executive.

Council Leader Caroline Reeves

Cllr Caroline Reeves (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas) has served under both systems. She said: “We debated this through a lengthy cross-party working group during the previous administration [in 2015] and the outcome was a hybrid, creating Executive Advisory Boards with the specific intention of involving backbenchers during the key, early stages of the decision making process. A number of those involved in the working group were keen to return to the committee system but changed their view through the work that we undertook.

“The pandemic has shown that the need for quick, clear decision making was an important part of the success of the council’s reactions and has been enabled by the current strong leader system. Committee systems cannot act as quickly.

“I don’t think any party has complete agreement on this subject, including the Lib Dems. The current administration has reviewed the workings of the Executive Advisory Boards (EABs) to ensure that they can comment at an earlier stage on decisions going to the Executive.

“It was strongly felt that the topics were not considered by the EABs far enough in advance to have an impact, as views could not be considered in the time frame. The value of the EABs work is dependent on the effort and input of the chairmen in exactly the same way that the committee system works. The advantage of EABs is that they aid the decision-making process without unnecessary delay.

Fiona Davidson

And Fiona Davidson chair of R4GV added: “Theoretically the committee system appears more democratic, but it’s usually implemented based on the first past the post voting system, and so has a built-in flaw.  In addition, the committee system can exacerbate the indecision and slow pace of local government, and it doesn’t necessarily result in greater democracy. For example, under the last administration at GBC all the committees would have had a Conservative majority.

“R4GV believes that what matters most in local government is the commitment of all parties to work constructively together to prioritise and address the needs and wishes of local residents (central government allowing). Our coalition with the Liberal Democrats demonstrates our commitment to work constructively with others to deliver the change that residents voted for in 2019. Also vital is the commitment of all parties to openness and transparency, and to ensuring that residents have much more of a voice.

“We think there is an argument for the committee system, but it will only deliver for residents if we have a council which prioritises – at its core – the needs and wishes of residents, not national party politics.”

As for the consultation in Spelthorne, “This is a Tory delay tactic,” said Independent Group councillor Denise Saliagopoulos.

“I cannot believe that the Tory minority leadership are going to throw more expense at our residents on a consultation that actually you don’t need to have.

“We, as the opposition – and a big opposition at that – will be leaving no stone unturned to make sure that this is going through by May 2021.

“The public out there don’t really care, they just want us to give them good services at not a great cost, but you want to spend money on a consultation.”

At the moment Spelthorne Borough Council operates under a cabinet model. This means decisions only have to be taken by all 37 councillors if they involve spending £164,000 or more, or will have a significant effect on more than one ward.

Everything else is decided by just eight councillors who sit in a cabinet, all of whom belong to the largest party and are chosen by that party’s leader.

Currently, there are 16 Conservative, seven Liberal Democrat, six United Spelthorne Group, four Labour, two Independent Group and two unaffiliated members.

So there is a greater number of councillors who are not Conservative, yet most decisions are taken only by Conservative Party members.

In the proposed committee system, the role of each cabinet member would instead be done by a politically balanced committee.

The new model was approved by 51% of councillors in their July meeting. It was proposed by Cllr Helen Harvey, who had sat in the cabinet herself until leaving the Conservatives the month before, to form an opposition group along with five others.

Every single member of the Conservative Party present voted against changing the status quo. Everyone else was for it, except two Labour members who abstained.

It is not a legal requirement to consult the public but this was suggested in October by council leader John Boughtflower. It met with strong resistance by some councillors who believed it was a delaying strategy.

The plan is to adopt the new system in May 2021, at the Annual Council Meeting. If this deadline is missed, they will have to wait another year until the next one.

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