Last Thursday, Canterbury City Council voted to establish a COVID-Emergency Committee of 17 councillors to make all major decisions of the council, potentially up until May 2021. The Labour Group, whilst acknowledging the scale of the emergency that we are in, proposed and voted in favour of amendments which would bring about greater accountability and prevent this decision being understood by many as a return to the ‘Executive’ system of governance which dominated local politics in the area in the early 2000’s. In this piece, Councillor Alan Baldock reflects on the discussion:
‘We all inhabit an ever changing new normal, local leadership has never been more important and nor has a willingness to listen and engage with local communities. It is those communities that need local Councillors to be there helping them to survive today and have hope of a better life to come when this horrible disease is no more.
Thursday last week CCC stopped listening and started hiding, running away from scrutiny and challenge and the very people they represent.
The Conservative administration excluded twenty-one of the Councillors you elected last May from representing you and your family in the debates and decision making until quite possibly next May. They have been deliberately and knowingly excluded during a period that in history that shaped the beginning of our recovery to a new normal.
Not only has the Tory administration now excluded Councillors it is in a panic driven rush towards, what is to all intense and purposes, a return to the Executive system so hated in Canterbury and Whitstable especially. An Executive system of Governance, where a small group of Councillors take all the decisions, was replaced after a long and bitter campaign by a Committee system in CCC. This Committee system now involves almost all Councillors one way or another and offered good opportunities for scrutiny and challenge, openness and public involvement. All those checks and balances leading to robust and generally wise decision making, it’s not perfect but hugely better than an Executive.
Labour Councillors for Canterbury and Whitstable tried to prevent a Tory and LibDem sleepwalk back to the quasi Executive system. The Torys excuse was the COVID19 emergency, they even named this new, all powerful Committed the COVID Emergency Committee.
The Tories empowered the Chief Executive to make significant decisions and choose what to bring to the new CEC Executive style Committee. They have prevented opposition Parties from presenting Motions or asking formal Questions, they have prevented members of the public from Petitioning and finally refused to agree that all Councillors should be involved in a future decision to extend this emergency arrangement past August. All these lost checks and balances were ways of holding an elected Council to account, making democracy work for the people that elect their representatives. This Tory administration has chosen to believe it is above challenge and has a devine right to rule and as such can do as it chooses without scrutiny or public accountability. Opposition for Opposition sake is poor governance, that’s not what Labour do. At the Council Meeting on Thursday last week we presented a workable and legal solution that offered the stability of the Committee system we have now, encouraging good debate, challenge and public engagement. To speed up the process during the emergency period we would have empowered the Committees to ratify all their decisions without reference to a full Council meeting. The existing appointed Councillors, with there Committee knowledge and experience would be there for the emerging recovery online in virtual meetings and of course in the heart of their communities.
Along with the LibDems, Labour Councillors wanted certainty in writing that this was a temporary governance arrangement. Frighteningly we did not get this, in fact the Tories voted against just such assurance. How confident would you be after seeing the obedient whipped Tory Councillors vote against every single opposition amendment submitted to protect the democratic process, a process that must always be there to hold a Council of any colour to account. Never has it been more important than now as it leads its residents into an unknown new normal along a long and challenging path that crosses all our lives and those of our loved ones. Sadly, that is in doubt in Canterbury for the foreseeable future.’