Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Changing the way we govern ourselves

Cornwall Council has agreed to set up a review of the way it governs itself. In common with most larger councils, we follow the 'leader and cabinet' model in that we elect a leader to serve for the full four years of the council and give him or her the power to choose their cabinet.

It is the cabinet which makes the key decisions with all other councillors restricted to quasi-judicial functions such as planning and licensing, to scrutinising decisions already taken and to voting on the budget once per year.

Many councillors have suggested that this concentration of power into the hands of just ten people is not the right way to take decisions and that the people who elected us expect us to be able to take a role in all decision-making. For many, a return to the committee system whereby all councillors take part by being an equal member of a decision-making committee is preferable.

I think both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. There is no doubt that the leader and cabinet model can be run in a better and more consultative way than it is in Alec Robertson's post-democratic regime. And the committee system can result in officers having more power than members over key decisions.

There are also hybrid models as councils such as Kingston and Sutton are pioneering and these will need to be looked at too.

What is clear is that a review is right and it needs to take account of the thoughts not just of councillors but also of the public who expect us to both represent them and have influence over the key decisions.

But changing - if a change is recommended - won't be that straightforward. The new rules require a referendum to be held which could cost up to £1 million if it isn't conducted in conjunction with another poll. And important as governance structures are, I don't think that the public would thank us for spending so much money on our own internal issues at the same time as cuts (or even reductions) are being made.

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