Council report to boundary committee

Report by Nicky Davis

Stoke-on-Trent full council met today, 8th September 2009, to vote on a report to be sent to the boundary committee which concludes that the number of councillors should be reduced from 60 to 52-56.

In practice it wasn’t “Ëœfull’ council as there were many absent due to another meeting scheduled at the same time.  Ross Irving said it was quality rather than quantity.  The Lord Mayor Jean Bowers quipped “that remains to be seen councillor Irving” which was quite an amusing start, but she then resolved to settle down to serious business.

Mike Barnes moved a motion to approve the report.  He said he was disappointed they had been given so little time to consider the report and also that the public had been given little time to respond to the council, they had only received 6 or 7 public responses.  He said he was aware there were views that do not support the 52-56 councillors but he wants a compromise.  We had a boundary review only a few years ago so in that period of time he would expect the number of councillors to be a similar figure to the current one.  Mike’s view in terms of democracy is that we shouldn’t reduce the number of councillors.  When communities organise they don’t start with this overall structure, they form residents associations and the council should follow this type of example.  The labour group wants area committees for neighbourhood management which could have a bearing on the number of councillors.

Clive Brian seconded the motion.

Councillors then spoke regarding the motion, the number of councillors, the report and issues of governance and democracy more generally.

Ross Irving pointed out that contrary to rumours in the media the governance commission had never recommended 20 councillors and the council could not function with so few.  He said that the suggested figures 52-56 were an “Ëœexecutive’ view taking input from all groups, not just the leader and cabinet.  Officers had been asked to look at the requirements to run the council effectively, their report had produced slightly lower figures but then a compromise had been reached.  Ross’ personal view is that it should be a lower number but he wants to send the boundary committee a united council view.  At the leaders meeting there had been considerable differences of opinion.

Peter Kent-Baguley was also annoyed at the media myth of 20 councillors.  Nevertheless, he said, the governance commission’s report which council had accepted conveyed the impression of wanting a lot less than 60.  It is not the job of the governance commission or councillors to decide, it is the job of the boundary committee.  It is quite subjective, any document could be cobbled together to use as evidence and he thinks it has been worked backwards from a decided number.  He worries about the future and thinks even the governance commission ducked the real issue, that whatever number you choose it is irrelevant if all councillors are there to do is endorse government diktat, which is a waste of public money.  Peter Kent-Baguley posed the question “Are we representing the wishes of the people in this chamber or are we not?”Ã‚  He said although residents’ associations are not perfect and some areas don’t have them, at least they represent the wishes of people at street level.  At that level people are not very impressed with strategies discussed at council, they want action in their communities.  He personally was elected to state there should be 40 councillors with one member per ward.  He will vote against the report because the way council operates makes councillors look a bit silly.

David Sutton wants a 10% cut to 54 in 18 wards of 3 councillors each.  He prefers not to have single member wards because of for example lord mayor duties or illness, requiring cover.

Alan Joynson agreed with much of what Peter Kent-Baguley said about there being too much government diktat, but doesn’t agree with the 40 councillors or single member wards.  He doesn’t see why we suddenly need to reduce the number of councillors.  There is not enough democracy, this is about cuts rather than supporting people.

Pauline Joynson asked who would take the flak where people don’t get the democracy or service they should.  She will not support the report.  She referred to a “ËœLyons’ report that had gone only to the general purposes committee, she was annoyed this had not come to full council.

Joy Garner had concerns about democracy and representation.  She wants the consultees of this report to send separate submissions to the boundary committee.  She said previous boundary reviews were in 1976 and 2002, so a large gap and then one quite recent.  She pointed out that in the consultee list some residents’ associations are missing and some names are incorrect.  The boundary committee should have a full and correct list.  Jean Bowers asked Chris Harman to arrange for the list to be looked at.

Lee Wanger said he would break ranks by not supporting the report.  He doesn’t think it’s worth going through the exercise for a change to 52-56.  He thinks it should be much less, 40-50, in order to attract professional people.

Alby Walker thinks there is no formula for the ideal number of councillors and wants to leave the decision to the boundary committee so he will vote against the report.

Kieran Clarke will support the report.  Personally he would like ~60 councillors but will support the compromise to try to avoid something unacceptable being forced on the council.

Derek Capey stressed he was expressing a personal rather than a city independent group view.  He hoped everyone would support the report for unity.  He had researched the issue in his ward and found many people unaware that there are currently 60 councillors and 3 per ward.  He would like to try one member per ward.

Steve Batkin asked how we get people to vote if elected members have no say in anything.

Denver Tolley felt there was a danger of indecision.  The population had fallen so councillors should reduce to 56.  When the unitary council was introduced councillors dropped from 4 to 3 per ward.  The boundary review in 2002 was to provide electorate equality in wards.  He had seen one councillor per ward operate elsewhere but with elitism within a ward so he prefers more than one councillor per ward.  He reiterated issues of the type of councillor wanted, remuneration and that a younger person may have to give up a job but may lose their position after 4 years.  He supports the 52-56 councillors.

Mike Barnes who had moved the motion then “Ëœsummed up’.  He reiterated that the boundary committee will decide this.  This is difficult but deciding ward boundaries will be even more so.  The number may have to change by the end of that process.  If the number drops it tends towards full time councillors, if it rises it tends towards part time councillors.  It is not easy to get good democracy, this needs debate, passion and community, there are deficiencies.  He wants more councillors so ordinary people can easily take the role.  Where are the women?  How do ordinary people with work or care responsibilities fit in, they tend to be excluded.  He stated that the governance commission’s report had no evidence for its 14 recommendations including the one for fewer councillors.  Professor Clarke, in charge of it, had at the same time been involved in another report elsewhere pointing out that unitary authorities have more people per councillor than others and this imbalance should be addressed.  For unitary authorities the people per councillor is ~2550, for others it is ~1500, in Europe it is ~780.  Mike Barnes would like 82 councillors to achieve the UK unitary average of 2550, this would be in his personal submission.  Despite this he still supports the report.  In producing the report, the information was input first then a calculation performed to arrive at the 52-56 councillors, not the other way around.

The vote was carried with 23 for, 8 against and one abstention.

For the most part but not exclusively it seemed that conservative, city independent, liberal democrat and labour councillors voted for the report with the 52-56 councillor recommendation.  British national party, non-aligned group and potteries independent alliance councillors voted against.

Following my blogger’s prerogative I present a few observations of my own:

Having a clash of meetings was not a good move and would invalidate the vote, except that with the support of many in the larger groups it would likely have been carried even if all could have attended.

I don’t think from Ross Irving’s description that the origin of the report is clear, who wrote it and how did the group views get fed in?

My personal submission to the boundary committee recommended 57 or 60 councillors, but having read the report and attended the meeting I am much more inclined towards a larger number.  Many of the points the report makes are arguments for increasing the number of councillors, although it concludes a reduction.  I disagree with the view of Lee Wanger to have fewer councillors, which would encourage career politicians.  I agree with the view of Mike Barnes that having more councillors would help address equality issues and give better representation.  I also agree with the dismay about the proper operation of democracy and representation expressed by Peter Kent-Baguley, Alan Joynson, Pauline Joynson, Joy Garner and Steve Batkin.  If I’d been a councillor, despite that 52-56 councillors is not very far below my 57 or 60, I would have voted against the report because of the lack of logical inference between the data presented and the conclusion drawn.

I don’t think any of the councillors were deliriously happy with the report, it was very much a compromise.  There were it seemed huge differences of opinion.

I would hope that all our councillors do send their individual views to the boundary committee and that consultees will have a proper chance to contribute.  Remember with residents’ associations there needs to be time for leafleting and a public meeting.

We currently have ~3100 electorate per councillor with 60 councillors (that is excluding children etc. who don’t vote).

Well done to whoever fixed the microphones in the council chamber.

I would like to see more come out about the Lyons report.

I hope that Joy Garner’s point and Jean Bowers’ support of it results in an accurate list of residents’ associations, and could this please be updated on the web site too?  Maybe we could even have a map of residents’ associations?  One very good feature of the report was the maps included.

There really needs to be much more proper grass roots consultation as the boundary committee progresses with its work.

Finally ““ on a different topic:  The other item on the agenda today was political balance calculations for committee membership which need to be redone because of individual movement.  Remember Joan Bell has left the labour group again.  Well this item was deferred to a future meeting because it is expected that there may soon be further political group changes.  Interesting times to come on that one possibly”¦

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