Tuesday 11 October 2011

Constitutional democracy and control freakery

The preamble to Carmarthenshire's constitution states, "Carmarthenshire County Council has agreed a new constitution which sets out how the Council operates, how decisions are made and the procedures which are followed to ensure that these are efficient, transparent and accountable to local people."

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when this "new" constitution came into force, but my best guess is in April 2004 when the council adopted its current political structure, since when it has undergone a very large number of changes. Perhaps, then, it is new in the sense that unlike most constitutions, it is evolving month by month and you never know from one visit to the next what changes will have been made to a document which sets out the rules by which the county council governs itself. These goalposts seem to be on jet propelled wheels.

A trawl through the minutes from the last seven and-a-bit years reveals at least 21 changes, although most of these were made in the period 2005-2007. For anyone who believes that all these tweaks were designed to enhance transparency and make the council more accountable to local people, it is worth having a brief look at some of them.

  • July 2005 - changes to the rules governing the sale of council-owned assets. Henceforth the key players are to be council officers. Local members will be consulted, but not community councils.
  • September 2005 - changes to the rules on contract procedures. The aim of these is said to be to improve transparency, but in the very long list of exemptions you will find that sales, leases and purchases of land and legal services are excluded from the new rules.
  • January 2006 - a raft of changes, including restrictions on the right of the public to ask questions, changes in the procedures for electing chairs of committees and a relaxation of the requirement for members of the executive board to attend scrutiny committee meetings.
  • July 2006 - changes made in order to comply with national legislation. These include new rules on the appointment of senior council officers. Henceforth, posts must be advertised, and the council must issue a policy statement explaining the duties, qualities and qualifications for each post. One way around this, it seems, is for the chief executive to make interim as opposed to permanent appointments to fill posts with his preferred candidates, irrespective of their qualifications.
  • September 2006 - changes to the planning committee structure, so that planning applications which mark a departure from the council's own UDP will no longer have to be considered by a separate committee. A reduction in transparency, therefore.
  • September 2006 (another meeting). This time changes are made to the rules to provide indemnities to councillors and officers. Carmarthenshire becomes one of the first local authorities in the UK to give itself powers to fund legal actions on behalf of its officers and councillors.
  • April 2007 - changes to the rules relating to "exempt" information in response to changes in national legislation. The effect of these changes is, very marginally, to tighten up the definitions of what information councils may classify as exempt (i.e. secret). As we know, Carmarthenshire is very liberal in its use of the exemption rules, and several of its recent decisions, e.g. to fund the "Towy Community Church" would seem to be open to challenge under these rules.
  • May 2007 - more changes needed because of national legislation. These include changes in powers which are delegated by the council to officers or the Executive Board, including a requirement for approval of "various plans, schemes and strategies" by the elected councillors in full council rather than by the Executive Board alone. This marks the only change in 7 years in the direction of greater democratic accountability and came about because the county council was forced into it.
  • March 2009 - the change which never happened. Plaid Cymru, then as now in opposition despite being the largest political group on the council, proposed a public consultation in favour of a change away from the cabinet system to a politically balanced board. The then head of Administration and Law drew up a very partisan report which recommended rejection of the proposals. The Independent and Labour groups were also opposed to any change which would have meant having to share power.
  • July 2009 - abolition of recorded voting in committees. Henceforth only members who wish for their votes to be recorded will be recorded. Others will remain anonymous.
  • September 2011 - changes to planning committee procedures to allow officers to determine more planning applications without referral to elected councillors.
The last of these changes is representative of quite a few other rule changes involving the delegation of powers away from councillors to officers. How does that add up to accountability and transparency?

Another change on its way will further tighten the rules on motions submitted for debate to the full council. These are already effectively impossible without the agreement of the chief executive, but possibly to give him some political cover, the threshold for the number of councillors proposing the motion will be raised to ensure that no minority groups will be able to introduce critical motions.

The effect of all of these changes to rules and procedure has been to create a board game where, no matter what route you take, you will end up on a square which sends you back to the chief executive's office, where all wisdom, power and control reside. 

To underline this, the two members of the People First group have been told that any questions or issues they may have with matters relating to the constitution, they must now address to the chief executive in person. The various very highly paid officers in the so-called Democratic Services Unit (head currently another interim appointment) have apparently been upset by the way in which one of the councillors has spoken to them, and the chief executive, control freakery to the fore as ever, has relieved them of the necessity to talk to elected councillors.

Many of us will have experience of working in jobs which paid much less than £100,000 per annum and having to deal with difficult customers or people we did not like very much. Sadly we did not have sympathetic bosses who would intervene and send them to the naughty step. It speaks volumes about the culture Mr James has created, doesn't it?

No comments: