Last Thursday, 15 city councillors – 3 Liberal Democrats and 12 Tories – voted to give away their right to take decisions and scrutinise the Council’s business.
From now on and for the duration of the crisis, all decisions on issues other than planning and licensing will be taken by just 17 councillors. The rationale for this, if there is such a thing, is that in this emergency the council needs streamlined decision-making.
But that logic bears not even a moment’s inspection.
Of course, there is a grave and terrible threat afflicting the people of the world, with a knock-on effect for the global economy and for our society. Yet for councillors the only way this affected our ability to function is that we can no longer congregate in one place to hold meetings. Though it has to be said that some councils have managed to find spaces large enough to hold a committee of 13 and it’s not clear why ours hasn’t.
Nonetheless, Canterbury’s finest have leapt from this inconvenience to a wholesale demolition of our democratic processes. From here on, the so called Covid-19 Emergency Committee (CEC) of 17 is going to take every decision that’s needed, including quite probably some major budget cuts, with no reference to the rest of the councillors.
Labour had proposed retaining and enhancing the powers of the existing committees. We argue that retaining the service committee structure would continue to engage all councillors in decision making and be more manageable for online meetings than an Executive of 17 councillors. Labour also pointed out the importance of retaining the knowledge members have of each committee’s prior work and decisions and ensuring decision making would be more informed by ward knowledge and experience. In short, we believed our option was inherently more democratic while not creating additional work for the officers or unmanageable meetings.
That idea was voted down by every single Tory and LibDem, with scarcely any justification of their position. Which rather begs the question what those councillors who aren’t in the select 17 of the CEC think their role in the council is now. Of course, they’ve rather made life much easier for themselves, not having to read all those pesky committee papers or attend those boring meetings. But of other merits of the CEC no word was heard.
One of them was quite happy to attack Labour’s idea using the “emergency” as an excuse, rather ignoring the fact that the working group dealing with the Climate Change Emergency declared last year hasn’t met since February 24th. Another suggested that somehow a committee of 17 was more representative than three committees involving all 38 councillors. And that was the sum total of the justification. Following which, the Tories voted en bloc and without exception to vote down every single practical proposal made by Labour and the Lib Dems.
They’ll argue that this is about efficient decision making, perhaps. Or about the practicalities of holding online meetings. In the end, though, we don’t have councillors as a means of efficient decision making. We have them because this is a democracy in which independent scrutiny of policies and delivery is a key element of accountability to residents. If councillors don’t meet, ask questions, make suggestions, make and follow up decisions and above all represent their constituents then they cannot fulfil their role.
That so many of our councillors are willing and content to use an external crisis as an excuse to fail in their duty and responsibilities should be a cause for concern for us all.