It's time to scrap party politics to restore democracy at council
A series of seemingly undemocratic decisions has prompted criticism of Cornwall Council. Here, Bert Biscoe, Independent member representing Truro East, offers his analysis.
Cornish communities are aghast to see their council imploding as allegations abound that the democratic process is being abused, that the sovereignty of the council is being ignored, and that decisions are being made against the will of the majority.
What is the institution – and those who populate both its workforce and its political arena – supposed to be doing, and how should they be doing it?
The Localism Act has given Cornwall Council the opportunity to challenge the leader/cabinet model of governance which was imposed by the 2000 Local Government Act. A process is going on at the moment to look at options, the most clearly supportable of which is to evolve away from that model to a modern form of committees.
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Some might say that is looking backwards. Others will say that, having tried the experiment, its failure means we must evolve new structures. We can all see that the present set-up is failing. Alec Robertson is the second partisan leader of Cornwall Council to end up being vilified, isolated and without critical authority. He is the victim of a poor system, not the architect of bad decisions. It should be an honour, and it has become a burden.
The council itself (the institution) is actually doing well. It has managed the merger of six districts and a county council quickly and effectively. Thank you, Kevin Lavery! Generally speaking, performance is good, structures are embedding and services are (while under intense financial pressure) doing their jobs well.
There are always problems – it's a big and complicated organisation, and new stuff isn't always easy. And it's not all good – relationships with parish councils and other partners are very poor.
In the modern world the unitary is, I believe, the right thing to be doing. It unifies and rationalises services. It also enables Cornwall to speak with a single voice in London (government), Brussels (our economic funders and generic regulators) and New York (the arbiters of one of our most potent and as-yet largely unrealised assets – the World Heritage Site), as well as to partners, markets, overseas Cornish communities and to our own communities.
That single voice is, in my view, worth the struggle.
As for governance, the council is at an early stage in its development. Now we need to ask, as a community: 'What do we want it to do? How do we want to do it, and why is it important to do what we want to do?'
We need Cornish values for a Cornish institution that runs Cornwall well and presents Cornwall positively to the rest of the world. Cornwall Council needs to clarify its culture, a culture that blends with and reflects the culture of place and people – it needs to embody Cornwall, not compete with it! This is not a process which can be successfully achieved if the elected body is acutely divided, not by opinion or philosophy, but by label and party. Perhaps the needs of modern society are rendering party politics obsolete, and Cornwall Council is symptomatic of this.
It is crude to apportion blame. What is urgent is to establish a successful culture which reflects and expresses Cornwall, and which enables legislating Cornwall's future to be meaningful and positive. There are major issues – like the forthcoming economic regeneration package (due in 2013), our future uses of precious land – should we plan for use of all the land or just continue to focus on buildings at the expense of food, energy, and the natural world? There is much concern about how we are managing our property, why we own farms and how we should properly manage the farms estate. How shall we provide good services to an increasingly ageing community while sustaining an economy which is attractive to the young, and balancing with a tax regime which is affordable? Can a peripheral region like Cornwall afford to out-source basic functions to private companies? Should we dispose of waste productively and sustainably?
The current democratic controversies are, it seems to me, symptoms of two causes – party politics, which distorts and distracts local government by imposing ideology over common sense, and a bad governance model which confuses electors and disenfranchises their councillors.
Is party politics inevitable? No! Use your vote to stop it!
People say: 'Committees are time consuming and clumsy!' Yes! But, committees are inclusive and encourage participation rather than exclusion – they are where public decisions can be made openly and honestly, rather than in glass boxes on the top floor, out of sight.
Write to Cornwall Council's Governance Review at County Hall Truro to give your views.