Not a good advert for elected members

A Welsh council has become the first council to be taken over by commissioners following the sacking of Isle of Anglesey CC’s cabinet.

Their interim managing director David Bowles blamed the large number of independent councillors running the council.  “The long-term survival of the council depends on very substantial changes to its running,” Mr Bowles told LGC. “The problem when you have a large number of independents is that they either have a charismatic leader who pulls them together or it becomes very divisive, which is what has happened in Anglesey.”

Mr Bowles said he had advised the local government minister for Wales to send in commissioners after infighting amongst the independents threatened the council leader’s position.

The whole council now faces the threat of an enforced merger with another council unless things improve on the political side (another first I believe).

Having written about ‘independent’ councillors before and their potential for a lack of leadership when they are running the council (a bit like herding cats, is my favourite description) I am tempted to crow a bit and say ‘see, I told you so!’. 

However, I have to temper this with the feeling that the people who are supposed to be represented by these elected members won’t be judging them as ‘independents’, but simply as elected members who have let them down and that is not a good thing for any us, whatever our politics.

Big Society – if the price is right

David Cameron is refusing to give up on his Big Society idea, with a speech tomorrow (Monday) to remind people of what it’s about.  One TV commentator was cruel enough to inform viewer that, if this were a film launch, it would be billed as Big Society 4.

I can’t help but wonder if David Cameron hasn’t already missed the boat on this in terms of public attitude?  How many volunteer led activities have folded in recent years, because of a lack of people willing to give up their time?  Scout, Guide and Brownie groups, along with numerous social clubs and community run halls, to name but a few.

Surly, if there were so many willing people out there, wouldn’t they already be doing it?  What is it about Big Society that’s going to bring all these potential volunteers out of the closet?

Even if it does succeed, this drive to turn us in to a nation of volunteers, (now that we’ve pretty much killed off all the shop keepers) has its fair share of negatives.  Just like his ministers, David Cameron seems hell bent on subjecting this country to a local government bypass operation.  It’s as though councils are being blamed for all the ills in our communities and that bypassing them to recruit a new set of volunteers, will somehow bring these communities back to back to health.

I say new set of volunteers because central government seems to have forgotten that local government already has a large number of volunteers.  They’re called elected members and they were put there by their communities.

Until the last government started interfering with the process, local government was very much something you got involved in because you wished to make a contribution to your community and were willing to make some financial sacrifices in order to do so.  Now, with the advent of members’ allowance and special responsibility payments that often run in to the tens of thousands, the clarity of this aspect of being an elected has become decidedly blurred.  Given the Pickles drive to cull local government senior and middle management and give the job to the members, this blurring can only get worse.

My second gripe about the Big Society idea, is that many of the charities that are apparently going to become the saviours of everything the public values, are often run like full blown businesses.  Many have chief executives and senior managers employed on a purely commercial basis, with pay packets to match.  I doubt if these people agree to take a reduced salary just because it’s a charity that’s employing them.

So, as with elected members, the public service ethos of volunteering to provide a service to communities, will become more and more blurred over time, as the big charities and their army of well meaning volunteers burrow their way in to the various local government service delivery areas.  As we see more and more services transferred from the stewardship of one set of elected volunteers and into the hands of those who are unelected and therefore far less accountable, a major question comes to mind.

Unlike those employed in local government, the senior management of the big charities bring none of the public service ethos that is currently present in local government, but do display much of the commercialism of the private sector.  How long will it be before it is impossible to tell the difference between a service delivered by a ‘charity’ and that delivered by an outsourcing company?

Not a major problem in itself you might think – who cares who delivers the service, as long as it’s delivered?  The problem is, once you’ve killed off the competition, in the form of the current local government structures and the only providers in the market are the privateers, it becomes a sellers market.  The defence industry has already done this via the MOD, now it would seem that it’s the turn of local government.  Come on Down The Price Is Right (for those old enough to remember the TV show).

Localism Bill – anything goes!

Personally, I’m still undecided about what benefits (if any) the Localism Bill will bring, especially given its inherent criticism of elected members.  How else are we to view the drive to introduce ‘local’ representation and neighbourhood forums populated by those who will not of stood for any form of election?

There is however, one bit of the bill that appears to be some sort of sop to those elected members who seem unable to present the views of their electorate without actually making those views their own.  I quote the text below.

Predetermination  

Clause 13  

(2) A decision-maker is not to be taken to have had, or to have appeared to have had, a closed mind when making the decision just because

(a) the decision-maker had previously done anything that directly or indirectly indicated  what view the decisionmaker took, or would or might take, in relation to a matter, and

(b) the matter was relevant to the decision.  This Clause needs to be read in conjunction with a statement issued by DCLG (http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1768609) which says that:

These proposed legislative changes will mean councillors can be very clear and discuss freely their view and voting intention and publicise their views as they see fit.  However, councillors must be prepared to listen to arguments and evidence before making their decision.  These changes will reduce the threat of challenge.

I’ve no doubt some very clever lawyers at DCLG have drafted this clause to do exactly what the minister wanted it to – allow members to shoot their mouths off and get away with it!

Yes, very occasionally there will be issues that a person got themselves elected on and that it would be ludicrous to then exclude them from being involved in when it came to the debate and the subsequent voting process.  However, to suggest that, by simply producing the text above and make it the ‘law’, this changes completely the status of that members words in respect of pre-determination, is an insult to anybody who thinks they understand the English language.

The last paragraph especially demonstrates the nonsensical nature of this clause.

‘…….mean councillors can be very clear and discuss freely their view and voting intention and publicise their views……’

But then having done all of the above, ‘…..councillors must be prepared to listen to arguments and evidence before making their decision.’

I think they should change the word ‘prepared’ to pretend, because that it what somebody who has discussed and publicised freely, their view and voting intentions, will really be doing.

Worse still and hopefully an unintended negative effect of this clause, will be the pressure members will now come under to declare their view on an issue. It will no longer be acceptable to keep an open mind, listen to all the evidence, and maybe even put the case for those who have asked for your help, but then vote with your conscientious.  The public will now have the right to expect you to take a position or suffer the consequences.