As you may have seen, Spelthorne Borough Council has just launched a consultation on whether to transition from a Strong-Leader & Cabinet model to a more democratically accountable Committee-Based System. The Link can be found at the end of this article.
All group leaders on Spelthorne Borough Council have been working as part of a Constitution Task Group to explore the options to improve the way in which the Council is run. It was in our manifesto in the build-up to the Local Elections in 2019 to change the decision-making system of the Council. We have long believed the Cabinet Model is not fit for purpose in Spelthorne, heightened during this time of No Overall Control.
Criticisms of the current Cabinet Model:
This model is favoured by those who prefer not to be encumbered with things like consensus, openness, scrutiny and accountability. Minutes are not released and councillors outside the "inner circle" often do not know what is going on.
Brought in in the late 90s, the cabinet model invests control and decision-making all in the hands of the leader and a select group of councillors that make up the Cabinet. This means that many crucial decisions are not considered by the wider body of the Council, but instead by a handful of Councillors, often from one party. We can see this happening at national level, and it is not healthy.
Because this model lacks wider accountability and scrutiny, there is a danger that a lot of power and influence is invested in a small group of people and within that group a single individual could wield great power. Often, minutes from meetings are not released to other council members. By extension, one person could, in practice, run the whole council.
We have seen issues over how individuals have exploited the role of leadership in a number of ways:
The excessively high borrowing carried out by the council
Random, un-coordinated planning decisions made across the borough, particularly in central Staines
Why the Committee-System is better and why we support it:
This model is favoured by those who believe in the benefit of the greater good, in fairness and in accountability - not just to councillors but to residents. They accept that their personal preferences will not always prevail and that a consensus will be reached. It allows committees to have a member or two who have relevant experience.The Committee System would see a number of committees established to cover the various portfolios that Spelthorne is responsible for. These Committees are proportional to the makeup of the Council, allowing for representation from all parties. This encourages consensus Politics to get decisions made.
The process will mean that information is shared more freely around the Council and items are scrutinised far more before decisions are made. We believe these committees would be far more transparent in proceedings, providing the much-needed accountability that residents want.
Commenting, Cllr Sandra Dunn, Group Leader of the Spelthorne Liberal Democrats said: "It has been great to explore what options we can make to bring the improvements to Decision-Making that residents across the borough have sought. Working with other group Leaders, I am proud of the work being done behind the scenes to make this vision a reality that will improve our accountability.
"I do believe this will not only be better for us involved in the Council, but actually improve the experience and trust in the Council for residents. It requires more work from Councillors which is good and means you can hold elected Councillors to account on a number of issues.
"But we need your support in making this happen. We want people to share their experiences of the current cabinet system and what they want to help improve accountability of Councillors across the chamber. We also want people to express why a committee-system would be a good thing. With your help, we can improve the culture of Spelthorne Borough Council".How to participate in the consultation survey:
The Consultation runs from 14th December 2020 until the 14th January 2021.
We will be running a number of articles on the topic over the coming weeks, but if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.