Conservative plans to abolish many of South Gloucestershire Council’s decision-making committees have been denounced by the district’s Labour councillors.
Four years ago South Gloucestershire became one of the first councils in the country to take advantage of the Tory-led Coalition’s change in the law that enabled a move to committees to take the council’s main policy decisions in public.
Prior to the change, the council ran a Cabinet or ‘executive’ system where the power for making decisions was vested in just seven councillors. Many decisions were made by the stroke of a pen behind closed doors. Other councillors – the 90% – could participate in a number of scrutiny committees which could question these decisions, but did not have the power to change them.
This week the ruling Conservatives voted to give a green light to return to this system – but with a massively reduced scrutiny set-up.
Opposition arguments that committees are more democratic because they involve more elected councillors, and more transparent because they conduct their business in public, were ignored by the ruling Conservatives.
Conservative councillors also voted down moves to set up a cross-party working group to oversee the arrangements, and a commitment to appoint an opposition councillor as chair of scrutiny, which is national best practice.
Labour Group Leader Pat Rooney has denounced the plans, and the attitude, of the Conservatives, saying:
“Labour Group’s principle has always been that decisions should be made in public and that all councillors should have a voice and a vote. The committee system delivers just that and has served the public well. Our committees, by law, reflect the political balance of the council, so the majority party is not prevented from getting its way.
The significant advantage of our committees is that they have to take decisions in public. That can sometimes be uncomfortable for the decision takers, but our arrangements should be based on what is best for the general public, not the councillors.
This change will see South Gloucestershire become the least democratic and transparent council in the West of England. Not only are our Tories reintroducing decisions made behind closed doors, they are also limiting the opposition’s capacity for valid challenge by proposing just one scrutiny commission. All of the other West of England councils have at least four standing scrutiny committees that can monitor specific services and departments in far greater detail.
South Gloucestershire used to be praised for its co-operative political culture, but the Tories are trashing this by taking us back to the bad old days where power is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, decisions are made with the stroke of a pen, information is not shared with the vast majority of councillors beforehand and valid challenges get treated with contempt.”
The Conservatives’ plans will return to the Council for formal approval in late March 2017 for implementation in May 2017.