As I stand down as leader of Cambridgeshire County Council and move to the backbenches, I thought I would end my term of office with a series of articles which highlight where I think Cambridgeshire is on a service by service basis and explain the concerns about why the change of direction forced on the Council is not good for you, the Cambridgeshire resident.
But I am going to start with an oversight of where we are from a whole Council perspective, but focussing on the dangers going forwards.
I can’t comment on the corporate view of the County Council without including comment on the move to a committee system of governance. My view has always been that the decision to implement committees as the response to moving to no overall control was wrong and that a review of structures with a more open view based on “what is right for Cambridgeshire” was the right one. The decision to move to committees was made at the first full council meeting after May’s election with 39 out of 69 councillors newly elected – more than half of the council had no experience of working in a County Council under cabinets or committees. In those circumstances nobody could convince a reasonable person that it was a well thought out decision, but it was one that, practically, ties us to a committee system for five years. So, if it doesn’t work, a decision made in haste without any depth of thought leaves you the council tax payer stuck with a failing system for the next five years.
I am now clearer than I have ever been that a move to committees is no longer supported by the majority of the council. I have had many opposition councillors tell me over the last year that they now realise the early decision was wrong ( incidentally this includes councillors from every single political group in Cambridgeshire County Council). But a less informed, less well advised decision has won the day.
Now if Cambridgeshire was in a mess, then there would be some merit in a move to a different system, but it isn’t. Nobody is perfect but the only area we are really struggling with is the cuts agenda, and that is because of circumstances forced on us and not because of internal failings. Whilst I do have an issue with the disproportionate way local Government has been treated, we are clearly more efficient as result of the austerity agenda. There are very few, if any measures that say Cambridgeshire is in a bad place. Here is some information, that demonstrates we are in a good place:
1. Cambridgeshire’s local Government is the lowest spending per head of population and per household in the East of England
2. Local Government Association evidence shows that, compared to other councils, we are struggling financially with the cuts agenda, but that the difficult decisions we have made in the last few years mean things are looking better moving forwards.
3. Cambridgeshire’s Peer Challenge, held in the last year, described Cambridgeshire as “premier league” but also as a very, very lean authority in terms of its management structure; a good, efficient organisation that if anything, has gone too far in taking out senior staff to reduce costs.
Interestingly, one of the the main concerns in the Peer Review was the very low level of our reserves. Despite that evidence and the fact that we have one of the lowest levels of reserves compared to other local authorities (331st out of 336) there is still huge resistance from some of our opposition when it co es to addressing it. That reluctance to bite the bullet could cost us dear. If we have, say, an adult social care crisis that forces an overspend that exceeds our reserves we could be in a position where we are technically bankrupt. As we take increasingly difficult financial decisions, that sort of scenario becomes more and more likely.
In other posts I will go through other areas where we stand out service by service. But, part of the reason we have been successful is that Cabinet Governance combines three powerful things:
1. The ability to give executive authority to Councillors. Something that is not allowed in a committee system and effectively means that the most senior Councillors cannot make decisions and therefore there is an inevitable transfer of power to officers – there is less political control in a committee system, not more.
2. A system of scrutiny (potentially combined with other structures) that holds decision makers within the council to account and ensures advice and guidance to help deliver the process. At the same time it retains clear accountability about where the decision making rests. When bad decisions are made under a committee system, that accountability becomes cloudy. Under a committee system you, the electorate, will have less understanding of why and how decisions have been made, not more.
3. Under a well managed Cabinet System when a decision is made, every single Cabinet Member will have had the ability to challenge and fine tune decisions, through listening to scrutiny and other members, but also by responding to member and public challenge, by asking questions of officers and making improvements to recommendations well before decisions are actually made. So, a Cabinet of 9 makes decisions where every one of those 9 has had an element of intricacy with the underlying issues. Under the committee system we will be using from May 13th, of the 17 members who sit on a particular committee and who will be voting you can only guarantee that 4 or 5 people will have had anything approaching that same intimacy with a decision. The first time the majority of the committee will have challenged and questioned officers will be at the meeting where they are required to vote and actually make a decision. Many times Councillors will have had a party whip applied before they have had the opportunity to properly debate an issue in public.
Ask yourself a question. What is more important to you, the quality of decisions or the number of people that stick their hands up when the decision is made? Cabinet is far more of a guarantee of the former, committees the latter – and that is not just because of who the cabinet members are but because functions like scrutiny and, potentially, policy development groups support the process . The lack of scrutiny and in depth challenge is one of the reasons why, when Cambridgeshire last had a committee system, its Adult Social Services was put into special measures by Government.
Despite all I have said here – I believe that committees could work if the mindset of councillors was geared up to a change in their approach and thinking. But, the evidence from this year says that this hasn’t happened. In fact the political group that has changed the most over the last year has been the Conservatives. As an example, one thing I am proud of having achieved is an ability to separate the important from the less important; as a result the Conservatives have far less whipped votes than previously (a part of my own personal philosophy about improving politics and democracy). But, at the same time, we have maintained our ability to focus on the long term interests of Cambridgeshire – the sort of focus that has got us into such a good position (preventative policies, A14, City Deal and Wisbech to March Rail are perfect examples of this).
This is my biggest concern. The next two biggest political groups under the Conservatives are very short term in the way they behave – albeit for slightly different reasons. The Lib Dems are primarily interested in what they can say in their next leaflet – irrespective of the long term interests of Cambridgeshire. A great example is their obsession with selling Shire Hall which would generate, at best, £8.5m as a one-off receipt, but would increase the running costs of the Council and cost us more in the medium term. The Lib Dems have been shown clear, far more beneficial alternatives – but this one looks better in their leaflets, so it’s this one they stick with.
UKIP on the other hand are primarily interested in doing everything they can to promote UKIP Nationally, irrespective of what local damage they do. A great example here is the TB outbreak in the County. TB outbreaks in Britain are not unknown and Public Health England are experienced at dealing with them. When the UKIP group leader found out about the outbreak his immediate response was a press release that was all about trying to get National recognition for UKIP in exposing the outbreak and accusing others of secrecy – this claim of secrecy ignored the fact that the UKIP councillor in the Electoral Division where the outbreak happened was fully briefed weeks before His so-called press reveal (the local councillor is, by the way, a good Councillor who I have a lot of respect for). The most disturbing part of the press release was a claim that TB could be spread from touching contaminated fruit – there is absolutely no foundation to that claim and it forced local businesses, fearing for their reputation, to put out denials. UKIP in Cambridgeshire are a party willing to mislead you the electorate and see businesses suffer in order to further its National aims. Their desire to move to committees is about UKIP’s national interests, not your interests as a resident.
If, under the committee system, this short-term thinking sits behind decision making, Cambridgeshire has a problem. Cambridgeshire is not perfect, but it is recognised as being efficient, low spending and high performing – why risk that for a system that reduces political power, increases risk and weakens decision making?