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Insights Interview: GBC’s Issues Go Much Deeper Than Who Chairs the Scrutiny Committees

Published on: 25 May, 2024
Updated on: 27 May, 2024

The Guildford Dragon has been very fortunate to have received contributions from a former local authorities chief executive officer and former Independent Person at Guildford Borough Council.

In this interview with Dragon editor Martin Giles, Bernard Quoroll gives his view on the latest revelations about the election of the chairpersons of the, now two, Overview & Scrutiny Committees.

See also: Row Erupts Over Overview & Scrutiny Committee Nominations

Ed. You will have seen the recent Scrutiny Committee controversy about the nomination and appointment of chairs. What do you make of it?

Cllr Julia McShane

BQ. I think there are elements of truth in what both sides are saying. Council Leader Julia McShane [Lib Dem, Westborough] is right to say that it is a decision of a majority of the members of the whole council as to who is appointed as a chair. However, in practice, a party with a majority can engineer who is appointed by using its majority, or by voting in an alliance with the party whose nominee it prefers. But the issues go much deeper than that.

See also: GBC Lib Dems Are Committed to Effective Scrutiny

Ed. What do you mean?

BQ. It is naive for anyone to think that councillors voting in a council meeting are democratically exercising much individual judgement when it comes to choosing the best person for a job. They are invariably being whipped to follow a party line which will have been previously decided in their political group.

Even when they are not formally whipped, tribal politics demand that rank and file members usually vote with their leaderships. Whilst Cllr McShane may be technically correct, there are some who will think it is being economical with the truth to seek to rely so simplistically on democratic legitimacy.

Ed. So does that mean that the practice is wrong?

BQ. It means that the rules work best when there are only two parties on a council. Once a council has more than two parties, the rules begin to become less democratic because they provide greater opportunities for political parties in power to manipulate who gets appointed to key roles. The majority party can claim that it is simply voting democratically and within the rules, but as in this case they do so at their peril.

Ed. Why do you say that?

BQ. Because it creates the appearance that they may be trying to ensure an easier ride for themselves, by nominating someone more “onside” or less oppositional. It also enables opposition parties to claim that the majority party is interfering in the spirit of a mechanism which is designed to create meaningful internal scrutiny and self-regulation.

This is of course a particularly sensitive time for Guildford when its internal controls have already broken down so fundamentally. It suggests that none of the parties have yet fully understood the true extent of the council’s failures in governance or what the Solace Review means when it recommendeds that “the way that the Overview and Scrutiny Committee operates and plans its work is reviewed and revised to ensure it provides more effective oversight and constructive challenge”. It cannot just be business as usual.

Ed. So what is the solution?

BQ. The rules on proportionality and appointments were designed along Westminster lines which assumes a two-party system. I doubt if rules can realistically be drafted to accommodate local multi-party politics. There will always be a one-size-fits-all problem. But this little spat is just a sideshow. GBC needs a much deeper review of how it operates scrutiny and of its culture more

None of the parties have given me much cause to believe that they really understand how fundamentally Guildford needs to change.”

Ed. What should such a review include?

BQ. Having worked in both systems I would favour a return to something more akin to the previous committee system which might be less convenient but involve many more councillors in a scrutiny role and ensure greater transparency.

Or, if the current system is to be maintained, there should be a review of:

  • How scrutiny chairs are appointed and by whom
  • The training of scrutiny chairs and committee members
  • How scrutiny committees are serviced and supported, bearing in mind that the officers servicing them are still employees of the council and required to serve two masters. This however will remain very problematic both in terms of the resources being made available and in maintaining a “one council” culture
  • The ability of portfolio holders to take decisions individually, the transparency and timelines of their decisions, how those decisions are individually publicised and scrutinised before being taken and their relationship with corporate priorities
  • The council’s culture in relation to transparency and engagement with the public more widely.

Ed. Do you think that is likely to happen?

BQ. It is early days, but I am, sadly, not optimistic on current performance. None of the parties have given me much cause to believe that they really understand how fundamentally Guildford needs to change. They seem to be locked into a “business as usual” model in which political winners take all and energy is wasted on confrontation rather than cooperation.

Guildford Council is not just a business, and we are not just customers. We are residents, voters and potentially partners in community. GBC needs to earn a role at the heart of that community and prove its sincerity in ways which go far beyond its current tired and outdated politics.

Nor is it just about the political parties. The relationship between senior officers and councillors needs to be overhauled to ensure that truth can be publicly spoken to power, and that elected people and officers understand their respective strengths and limitations.

That understanding should extend to what needs to change in their relationship with the public.

Most of all they need to listen to the person they have appointed as their chief executive. So far, he is saying many of the right things and needs to be supported in leading a change agenda.

Failing to take his lead would amount to just another “Groundhog Day”.

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