How deeply disappointing the announcement by the Boundary Committee is for an opportunity to strengthen democracy in Stoke-on-Trent.
The whole review seems very focused on how the council works and is run. Surely the first priority when reassessing any part of the electoral processes or structure should be improving the relevance of the representation and reconnecting with the electorate.
Has the Boundary Commission and the Government missed the point?
In Stoke-on-Trent, how many councillors are women, young working family men or women? The answer is the same not just in Stoke-on-Trent but is reflected right across the country.
I strongly believe reducing the numbers of councillors will only make the situation worse without a fundamental change in the law that supports and protects ordinary people who, from all walks of life, who want to make a commitment and contribute to society by becoming an elected representative of the people and their communities.
Only seven years ago the Boundary Committee assessed the Potteries as needing 60 councillors. What’s changed?
Over the lifetime of this government, legislation has deluged local councils, with constant changes to structures, without addressing the fundamental issues of who, how and why people chose to try and become councillors and why citizen do not.
If anything is to blame for the state of Stoke it is this tirade of changes destabilising the foundation or our democracy.
But should this be any surprise?
For many Civil Servants, officers, the establishment, big business, democracy is nothing more than an obstacle; a speed bump in the road that slows them down, but they still drive over non the less.
I am convinced that the aim is to remove that obstacle/ reduce the height of that democratic speed bump.
Take the language that is used when pushing forward the changes they have made:
“Elected Mayors”, “Strong Leadership to make the difficult decisions”, “value for money”.
What they really mean is “ordinary people can’t be trusted to do what we want”, “democracy costs too much”, “the less of these ordinary, ignorant people we have to deal with the better”.
One of the arguments made against D4S’s campaign to get rid of the Elected Mayor within the Labour Party and more widely by political “experts” like Mike Temple (I have always had my suspicion about academics who tell other people how to do things without actually doing it themselves), was that “people don’t care about the structures of a council ““ all they care about is street cleaning, empty bins etc”¦”
Murderous dictators can keep street clean and get the bins emptied.
For me democracy should be about consensus, about debate and facts. It should be about moving forward and making decisions together, not rammed through by an individual or a small out of touch elite.
It seems that the key player in all of this has been Professor Michael Clarke. Chosen by the government to lead the Governance Commission in Stoke, and then the Transition Board, and he has spent many years working for the Boundaries Commission doing boundary reviews.
But where does he come from? What world does he live in? How much, for example, does he understand about the needs of a single mum in Abbey Hulton, or the concerns and needs of an unemployed 22 year old in Meir?
Reducing the number of councillors will only increase the workload on each councillor, further excluding many people from participating and making it harder to engage with the council and the councillors, with the potential to erode the trust(is there any?) needed by citizens in there government at all levels.
In recent times we have had the Governance Commission, The Governance Transition Board & The Boundaries Commission positively thrust upon us!
But I asked this in all sincerity – have they made a blind bit of difference to our city, our city council or indeed our lives?
First we had the Governance Commission who came along and after a considerable period of time, came up with 14 recommendations.
Now being a typical quango it set about it’s work all arse about face and as the 14th recommendation was to appoint a Transition Board it set about this task first!
If this Transition Board was completely made up of ‘Mike Tappins’ – I could understand the value added to the guidance to the council. There would be a certain amount of respect from our councillors and officers.
Our Transition Board is made up of people that in my opinion have no political standing or proven track record in the areas required. Just who appointed them? What selection criteria was used to determine who was suitable? What has been achieved by this body of people? Why are their minutes not open to public scrutiny? Why are there no checks and balances on the targets that were set? Who is monitoring their output and are ensuring that they are value for money for the allowances that they are drawing from the public purse?
They may well be nice people, a cross section from our society but after two years and a substantial sum of money, have they made an impact?
The latest in the line of quangos that are feasting on our city is the Boundaries Commission. They have decided that the total number of city councillors that are serving the fantastic people of this great city should be reduced to between 52-56.
The previous Local Government Minister John Healey said that he was going to make funding available to attract new blood into the council chamber. We all know that councillors work relatively hard, for a very meagre amount of money. OK this ‘allowance’ is to be upped to the massive figure of £13,000 per annum. Well let’s try some honesty for a change here shall we. Would you sign up for the abuse, the endless meetings, the constant battle with the over inflated ego’s of the council hierarchy and some of the officers? And now it would seem that on the say so of the Boundary Commission, we are to reduce the number of councillors, ensuring that the number of citizens interested in serving will reduce also!
So, after the influence of these quangos have things changed in the council chamber? No, not one bit!
We still have councillors resigning, re-joining and resigning again. We still have councillors crossing the floor as if dancing the military two step. We still have councillors leaving groups and accepting cabinet places and then resigning and re-joining their original group, picking up written warning from NEC’s as they pass go and try to collect the £200!
We have leading and much respected councillors complaining that since their colleagues sold out to join the EMB2 that they are being ‘kept out of the loop’.
We have the Independents in the Conservative & Independent Alliance splitting away from the 1st October. This split is being led by Lee Wanger and we may well see Roger Ibbs walk the walk as well!
We have the BNP who whilst shamelessly latching onto every cause and trying to claim credit for everything, just sit and say nowt. They never bring anything to the table, no policy, no scrutiny, no values, no ideas. Yet they continue to claim that they are the champion of the people – yeh right! They leech on the people claiming allowances for doing what exactly? Can you think of one good local BNP initiative?
There is even a suggestion that Peter Kent-Baguley will cross the floor and join the City Independent Group.
Unprecedented times, I’m sure you will agree, but I ask again in all sincerity….
Doubtless such a question will attract a few ribald responses!
The Electoral Commission’s Boundary Committee starts Stage 1 of its electoral review of Stoke-on-Trent on 4 August 2009. Stage 1 is concerned with deciding how many councillors are needed.
At present, of course, there are 60. Whatever number is considered necessary, whether that be more, the same or fewer, must be justified in relation to local needs and not by comparing our Council size with that of other places.
When you suggest a particularÃ‚ number, therefore, you must try to justify it by outlining what you think a councillor has to do. That will includeÃ‚ the workload within the ward and the workload at the Town Hall, which could include special jobs, such as being a Cabinet member, chair of a committee, member of a committee and so on. Very few people would seriously suggest that the democratic needs of the city could be met by half a dozen councillors. On the other hand, very few would argue that 200 councillors are necessary.
The Government’s Governance Commission which reported last autumn with 14 Recommendations took the view that fewer councillors were needed. It was their Recommendation 3. However, they said: “…we are not proposing a particular council size. Indeed we do not consider it our place to do so.”
The final date for submissions on the council size is 14 September 2009.
After the Boundary Commission has announced it decision about the number of councillors, it will then consider the number of wards and the number of councillors per ward. That period of consultation will begin on 27 October 2009 and end on 18 January 2010.