COLUMN: How clear is county transparency?
An incredibly well-known, dynamic and charismatic airline boss was asked a few years ago whether he enjoyed his job. I seem to recall he said it was the best fun you could have with your clothes on.
I don’t know why that thought came to mind as I walked in to the West Sussex County Council full meeting last Friday (17th October), which was held at the council’s Horsham hub, due to our Chichester roof falling in.
Well, certainly I had all my clothes on – as did all of my UKIP colleagues. In truth, so did the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats, not forgetting the smartly-clad Independent (ex-Liberal Democrat) sitting right behind me in the chamber.
Anyway, I think I was pondering on whether I really enjoy this Politics thing. Having lectured in it for many years and having won my Lancing seat with a 53% vote share last May, I ought to know by now. Like most jobs it’s a mixture of the satisfying, the challenging, the cantankerous and sometimes the farcical. Little did I know that Friday’s full council would touch firmly upon the latter.
I had tabled a formal motion, asking the County leadership to set up a working group to investigate a major and - in my eyes – hugely beneficial structural change to our fundamental governance structure. Currently, we have what is known as a Cabinet system, whereby ultimate key decisions are taken by a very small number of councillors belonging to the controlling party (known as Cabinet Members) – and all behind closed doors.
OK, we do have an array of so-called Select Committees, which on the face of it scrutinise what these mighty mandarins get up to. So all’s well, right? Well, not really. Trouble is, all Select Committees are dominated inevitably by the controlling party and so even if a decision is deeply unpopular with the minority party councillors, i.e. Labs, Libs, Independents and UKIP (who together represent 62% of the county electorate), the Select Committee members drawn from the controlling party have a distinct tendency to close ranks in support of their own mandarin chums. It’s scrutiny, Jim, but not as we know it.
Perhaps some councillors are afraid of reprisals if they rock their own party boat? At this point, I have to admit that cynicism is one of my strong suits, so regard all that I say from here on with – well - your own cynicism. So, by now you may wonder what outcome I was after. It’s one thing to whine about what’s wrong, but another thing to come up with an alternative solution.
The Cabinet system was actually foist upon local authorities in 2001 by the Blair administration and displaced an earlier system, which did not involve Cabinet Members, but much broader committees (I shall refer to these from now on as Open Committees), where decisions were not taken behind closed doors by a privileged few, but in a more open, transparent arena, giving all parties a more tangible influence on the final outcome.
So, in short, that was what I was after. Still not perfect, but clearer and much more credible.
I believe, in this era of tough decision-making and brutal cutbacks, residents would prefer more consensual governance through Open Committees. A prime example would be the latest County Council plan to downgrade its fire and rescue capability, which has been of deep concern to minority parties. Given the Council has been spending around £14,500 per head just on recruitment costs for some of its new senior employees, we in the minority parties are not exactly chuffed that money is being saved on saving lives, but merrily blown on fees to recruitment agencies.
Before I do you a favour and bring this article to a close, I hear you ask where the farcical bit came in.
Well, farce is in the eyes of the beholder - unless you are talking about Fawlty Towers, of course. So log on to the West Sussex County Council website, look at Meetings, Webcasts of Meetings and then Full Council – 17th October. Go forward to elapsed time 03:12:30 for the debate. See if you can spot the bit when I am asked where in my motion about County Governance I would address the Ebola crisis! Come back Sybil, all is forgiven.
I also demanded a recorded vote, so you can find out how your own County Councillor voted. Now there’s transparency!