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Inside Out: New skills required for return of committee system

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The cabinet form of governance is boring. In the old days of committee decision making made for lively meetings with proper political debate in public before democratic decision making with a vote. We are discussing bringing back committees and I, for one, am in favour.

The motivation for bringing in cabinets was good in theory. It was about increasing accountability by focusing decision-making power in a named politician. The process would be faster, cheaper and lead to better quality decisions. But it has not happened in practice.

Take accountability. It is true that one politician “fronts” decisions and can be blamed if things go wrong. But there are few checks and balances. In practice we know the weakest councillors normally end up on overview and scrutiny committees and the whole process is under-resourced and largely toothless. In councils controlled by one party, key decisions are taken collectively in private by leading councillors at party meetings or private dress rehearsals before public cabinet meetings. It all leads to stilted predictable cabinet meetings.

Is it faster, cheaper and are decisions better? Having worked under both systems, I think the change has made very little difference.

The real test is what residents think. I think the majority of ordinary people don’t really care. They judge a council by the quality of local political leadership and council services. But is that changing? There are a few councils that have decided to revert to a committee system, and only one so far that has been forced to do so by residents.

A residents’ group in Fylde near Blackpool has forced a referendum and residents have voted to reintroduce the committee system at the borough council. Good for them!

We have a private meeting this week with the leaders of all the parties at the council to discuss doing the same. The soundings I’ve made suggest the minority parties are in favour. The council leader is also pro, although a few of his cabinet are opposed. I expect to be asked to produce a draft paper for further discussion.

I am confident that this time next year we will have a committee system. My only worry is for council officers. There is a certain skill in appearing at an old-style committee, for example knowing how and when to speak – most importantly knowing when to keep your gob shut! They will soon learn!

FIND OUT MORE or email

The one thing he won’t comment on is his identity…

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