These are the views of the Whitstable Society on what is needed in the new committee system. 24/9/14
The spectrum of decisions from very local to District
The new system and consideration of it needs to recognise and explicitly deal with the fact that decisions vary from:
1) those of consequence to one or a small group of people or a small area which can be equitably and efficiently dealt with by very local consultation without even the need to go near a committee.
……………………………… on the spectrum through to………………………………
2) a matter that only has an impact or consequences for one settlement
……………………………… on the spectrum through to………………………………………
3) matters small or large in themselves which regardless of size affect or can affect the whole District.
For example, the decision to recommend the South Canterbury development has direct District-wide implications not only in the scheme itself (road traffic flows) but more especially because housing targets are a zero sum game. No extra housing in Canterbury forces extra housing on communities elsewhere in the District. In other words this one is at the end of the spectrum described by ‘3’. It only drops down to nearer the middle of the spectrum if a community is arguing (in consultations or via a neighbourhood plan) for an alternative location(s) in the City of broadly similar scale
By contrast the decision on Kingsmead is/was very much one for the City of Canterbury, that is the area of the spectrum described by ‘2’; albeit a little further towards as the wider impact end as a decision not to sell affects or may affect the capital budget for the District. The same applies to building on all of Tankerton car park; an example where local views of councillors and the public were excluded from the process in a most extraordinary way. The committee system must be operated to avoid cases such as Tankerton. Indeed the new system may be able to reverse that particular decision if the last part of the site is not sold by the end of the year.
Keep and enhance area members panels
Councillors can legally only represent the interests of their ward and the District. This is an absurd situation for all settlements and particularly those with no town or parish council to represent the views of a settlement . Whilst a few community groups can represent these areas, especially re planning , Amps are crucial in focussing in detail on the issues at the more local end of the Spectrum and as a source for clarification for the public as well as councillors. The operation of the Wamp under Chair Neil Baker shows how they should run; for example with a twenty minute period for all present to discuss with concerned local people who come along and Chaired guided interventions from local people later in the meeting proper. But Amps in general are currently hindered by an operational code almost identical to normal committees which needs to be altered to a Neil Baker style urgently.
Correction process in committees
All committees need a system for anyone present to correct statements that are factually wrong or to point out omissions obvious only to very informed or expert people. Since the councillors present are often neither of those and officers are sometime poorly briefed on local aspects, an error correction mechanism before decisions are reached is crucial is for good government. Since mistakes can be time as well as money costly, such informed interventions/correction can be the proverbial stitch in time for any style of government used in CCC.
To minimise these issues we suggest that for all committees, the informed person must be given a chance to help if only, as a de minimis, by a formal note system such as is used in courts when a jury communicates with a judge: with the note like the recoding of the meeting kept as part of the record.
Need flexibility to co-opt expertise.
Not necessarily for every meeting and probably for a finite period. Those co-opted do not have a vote. An example would be to allow representation from tenants associations when discussing maintenance contract for council houses rather than just a hurried 3 mins at the beginning which councillors can forget when the item comes up.
Get representation across district,
We suggest it as important to have each area/settlement represented on committees. Committees should never be permitted to decide on matters affecting an area or settlement when there is not as close as is practicable to preoperational that area/settlement. Indeed if this is not possible (eg due to illness ) then a representative from that area (eg parish council or local group) should be on the committee for that meeting (non-voting).
The entire focus has been on party representation ignoring the fact that settlements and areas can end up with no representation on a committee if all the council or come from wards well away with no experience of the locality they are dealing with. Indeed it is disturbingly easy to show multiple example of councillor making decisions when ignorant about key local factors: such as the infamous quote from a CCC countryside councillor in a committee that beaches can’t be declared village greens because they are not green. The current arrangements are at total odds to the concept of localism as simply and traditionally represented by councillors from an area. This is all the more important as officers sometime demonstrated ignorance in their recommendations such as the senior CCC official who made a statement that the Council has no influence on the market price of beach huts on Tankerton Slopes : despite owning licensing and setting the restrictions on all the sites.
‘Working parties are recognised in law. It is not a committee as officers and Members are both equal members. It is non-decision making and informs recommendations which are then made by the Head of Department to the Executive and then onto council.” [Derived from a statement give to us re the mysterious Local Plan Working Group.
What is the status of this grey area; as exemplified by the Local Plan Steering Group. Is it a creature of the current system or was it identical under the last committee structure.
The process described appears to be undemocratic and unnecessarily secretive to the point of being scandalous. Can it not be reformed under the new committee structure? Perhaps it makes sense for a Cobra type situation (see below) but appears to break the principle of good government unless covering something that must be confidential if only because officer advice can sometimes be wrong or at least misleading for a councillor on a secretive committee: ie who can’t get opinions from elsewhere.
We have a perfect example of a matter that has no conceivable reason to be confidential and yet was decided in secret by the LPSG. The case concerns the request from the Whitstable Society, as official planning consultee for Whitstable, that the West Beach be made a local Green Space with detailed reasons following the guidance of the NPPF. It was ignored and an improper officer recommendation for no LGS on the basis that someone in the department has added all the requested for beach LGS’ from different organisations together and the total length was stated as being too long was permitted to go ahead. Yet at Full Council a few months later all councillors (bar one abstention) voted at the last possible minute to include the West Beach as an LGS after a Whistable councillor forcefully pointed out the irrefutable claims of West Beach to be an LGS. There is no reason why similar decisions as the LPSG and perhaps other steering groups should not be made public . Any such groups in our view should act as a sub-committee and no more and all the arguments and evidence presented to a conventional public committee before a decision is made which can’t be reversed without embarrassing officers. The latter appears in our experience to be a powerful driver for not reversing bad decisions; along with the current unwritten rule of committees and virtually all councillors to act and talk as if all officer work is perfect and unquestionable.
Need for more transparency.
Permit councillors to drive the disclosure decision instead of legal staff who cannot in effect be criticised for applying the most extreme confidentially interpretations so they may never be criticised for making a matter insufficiently confidential . An example is the blanket confidential that applies to the lease for the Angling Club building at the harbour when the rent is at a subsidised level for a community group and there is no bid process or any other party involved. This contrast with the enforced openness for community groups seeking grants. Another example is the decision somewhere to spend a large amount of money to hire barrister to fight the West beach village green application on the easily proven spurious nature of an argument that a village green would impede work to defend the village green from the attack of the sea. Local councillors need to be the judge of whether such assessment should be held secret and not just an officer.
Perhaps this can be added as a formal function of one committee which has wide are representations with an appeal function for the relevant Amp.
Cap on officer spending
Linked with the point above, there needs to be a tighter cap on officer spending to pursue or defend policy without going back to councillors.
Since many committees hear new information and opinion that are not in agenda papers , it is not necessarily conducive to good or even streamlined committee local government to have minds made up beforehand. It should be a principle that councillor do not commit one to another or one to a group to vote in a certain way before a committee meeting. Indeed it should be laid down as a breach of the Council’s own code of conduct now that committee government has returned( CCC is free to modify its code these days as it wishes). If such a principle is not adopted, it is not impossible for the Council to revert to an informal Exec style of government with the majority party with more than half of the seats entering all key committee meetings committed to act in a pre-agreed way.
The method by which the Planning Management Committee works is a good example of this; even if it is not perfect.
A skills audit of all Councillors.
Portfolio holders are given jobs purely on the basis of toeing the party line/ desire for extra allowances we are told by councillors inside the system and not on their background and/or knowledge and / or skills as a chair (including working with the communcity and external experts) and or ability to absord complex arguments. Even if portfolio holder disappear under the new system, chairs should not be adopted for these reasons . Committee rules are only as good as people running it.
There needs to be a assessment of performance. There need to be annual reviews and those reviews included a healthy weighting for the extent to which committee chair maximise, within reason, the involvement of the public and the openness to critical information during meetings. The view of some councillors that we were elected and do not need any other opinion or input; especially when as has been the case for decades, even the manifestos say nothing about key local issues. They also must be open to officers opinion being questioned; including by the public and especially external experts.
Possible cross party ‘COBRA’ type committee for urgent decisions
For example, how to deal with the sudden announcement of the closure of the crucial Gorrell parking for the summer or the Jan/Feb 14 floods.
Criteria for resolving
Each committee refers decisions to policy committee. The PC then refers to Full Council unless time is of essence and then they will resolve it. If resolved it cannot be changed. It is critical in our view for strict criteria to be met before a matter can be ‘resolved’ in this way.
To maximise the benefit of the interaction with the public and external experts from the public, we request that the new system have as a guiding principle that all confidential documents where possible are published by using redactions. The Council does not use redactions at all and hence a whole document can be withdrawn just because one sentence is confidential under the legislation. Since legal officers decide what is confidential after reading a document, they know which element or even just sentence or even word or figure is confidential under legislation and hence it would be easy to redact (eg by blanking).
Area Members Panels
We agree with this quote from a current councillor and request that the new system include this . AMPS must have more power particularly to initiate capital projects within their areas and to deal with 106 contributions. There is a widely held view that the District has a Canterbury bias and this needs to be corrected.