Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Councillor Sheila Bailey (LGA 07)

  I have been a Councillor in Stockport MBC for 12 years. I am a member of a minority Party within a Council where currently the Lib/Dems have control. I have, therefore, had considerable experience of the committee system and some experience of the new Executive/Scrutiny system introduced in Stockport last October. My conclusion, on the basis of the evidence so far, is that the new arrangements are harmful and destructive, making it more not less likely that disengagement with local government and the democratic process will continue.

  Local political activists become involved in local government because of their political beliefs and through the Party structures. They, therefore, begin by standing for election against other political activists. Local elections in some areas can be hard fought, confrontational and sometimes very personal. In seats where the majorities are small the campaigns can be very nasty. I have had some experience of this when fighting to win seats from the Lib/Dems in 1990 and subsequently when defending. We often, therefore, come into the Council as antagonists, with different political agendas and with a determination to fight for what we believe is right. It is, therefore, impossible, in my view, for this experience to be subsumed into an apolitical scenario where the job becomes nothing more than bureaucratic administration with a bit of monitoring and scrutiny thrown in to give us something to do. In other words the politics cannot be taken out of local government, nor should it be.

  In the previous committee system, the process provided opportunities for politics to be included in the procedures. Committees themselves were made up of various political groups with Spokespeople nominated to speak on behalf of those groups either inside or outside the Council. Agendas were circulated in advance, with attached reports, before decisions were taken. There were opportunities to discuss these reports with other members of your group and subsequently at the committee. I accept that the numbers game means that the majority party will always have the ability to vote through what they want, but the discussion took place BEFORE the decision was made and not, as is now the case AFTER. It was important for Party groups to be able to put forward their views and proposals and for it to be seen by members of the public who were interested in particular issues as an open and transparent process. The system that has replaced the committee structure is neither.

  The first effect has been a withdrawing of the decision making process to a very small elite. They do meet in public, but can meet in private if they so wish. There is no opportunity for any alternative point of view to be put forward at these meetings from any other Party. In the case of Stockport 10 majority Party members make the decisions and the remaining 53 Councillors are told afterwards. Decisions can be called in but can't be changed. However, the scrutiny panels are also set up with an in built majority for the ruling group and Councillors of the same Party are defensive and resistant to criticising their Party colleagues in the Executive.

  The result of all this is a detachment of large number of Councillors from the process, a feeling that there is nothing that can be done and so why make the effort and a disenchantment for those Councillors who still see local government as a political arena and not a bureau for local administration.

  I have heard it argued that this new system will make more time for Councillors to engage with their electorate. It will make no difference at all. Good Councillors will already be engaging with their electorate and those that don't will hardly be encouraged to do so when they have become even more removed from the decision making process then they were before.

  It is hard enough in many areas to find people willing to become involved in politics let alone stand for Council. The changes that have been made will make it even harder to persuade people that they should get involved and that they can make a difference.

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