Lib Dems Propose Motion For Council To Revert To Committee System

Guildford Dragon Reports

Localism Act 2011 with hands

The Liberal Democrat Group at Guildford Borough Council (GBC) have proposed a motion for the council to scrap the Executive and return to a committee system. The motion will be debated at the next full council meeting on Tuesday, October 7.

The motion has been put down in the wake of criticism of the Executive system and the concentration of power some feel it represents. A petition, which the council say must be in a paper format, has already been raised to try and force the council to revert to the committee system but it has, so far, only obtained around 2,000 of the 5,000 signatures required.

The council Executive is similar in organisation and function to the cabinet, at central government level.

During the last Labour government nearly all councils in the country had to adopt the “strong leader” model where the council elected a leader who then appointed a cabinet or executive of individual members who were each given as much delegated power as the leader determined. It was believed that this would allow more effective governance.

A new Localism Act in 2011, put through by the current coalition government, reintroduced the ability of councils to choose a committee system with far less concentration of power and, according to some, where back bench councillors feel less sidelined.

For the Lib Dem motion to succeed next Tuesday at least ten of the 33 Conservative councillors and both Labour party councillors would have to vote with the 13 Lib Dems, discounting abstentions and absentees.

A rebellion of that size is considered unlikely even by supporters of the motion as but there appears to be a significant number of Conservative members unhappy over the Local Plan or the council leadership, or both, who might vote with the Lib Dems or abstain.

These could include : Cllr Bob McShee (Worplesdon), recently removed from the Local Committee and the three councillors representing the Clandon and Horsley ward: Cllrs Andrew French, Jen Powell and Jenny Wicks. They represent the “East of the borough” singled out for criticism by council leader Mansbridge in his statement following the enforced resignation of Cllr Monika Juneja.

Several Conservative councillors have made known their intention to stand down at the next election and some of this group may feel they have nothing to lose if they decide to rebel. They include: Cllrs Melanie Bright (Holy Trinity),  Terence Patrick  and Keith Taylor (both Send).

Additionally there are those who lost power during or shortly after the Stephen Mansbridge takeover in 2012. Some fall into the two groups above but they also include: Cllr Tony Rooth (Pilgrims), the previous council leader, and David Wright, (Tillingbourne), Cllr Mansbridge’s former deputy.

The Lib Dem motion has been proposed by Councillor David Goodwin, until May this year (2014) the leader of the Lib Dem group and seconded by the current leader, Cllr Caroline Reeves (both represent Friary & St Nicolas).

It reads: “We the Liberal Democrat group recognise there is increasing concern that the current executive system used to govern this council is no longer fit for purpose and believe that it is time for this council to move to an alternative governance model.

“It was a Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment in 2010 that led to the Localism Act 2011 giving local authorities the freedom to determine for themselves whether to operate an executive system, a committee system or other agreed governance arrangements.

“We therefore propose that this council takes steps to prepare for a move towards a modernised committee structure, creating a more democratic council with the opportunity for all councillors to be involved in making real decisions on matters that affect their residents and being held accountable for them.

“Therefore council instructs the Executive Head of Governance and appropriate officers to prepare a report on options, in liaison with political group leaders, for changing Guildford’s existing governance arrangements to be received and discussed at the Full Council meeting on 11 February 2015, with a view to implementing any new governance structure from January 2016.”

It is understood that even if the motion were passed changes could not be effected until after the next election in May next year (2015) and possibly not until 2016. But Lib Dems are saying privately that any kind of significant Tory rebellion would be regarded as a success and a shot across the Executive’s bows.

Susan Parker of the Guildford Greenbelt Group, and also one of the petition organisers, said: “We really welcome the proposal by Cllr Goodwin to consider a return to the committee system. This shows that councillors understand the degree to which the people of Guildford are unhappy with the Executive system.  We’d urge all councillors to vote for this.

“But we are a little nervous that the motion is only “for the Executive Head of Governance [Cllr Spooner] and appropriate officers to prepare a report on options” for discussion in February.  This could allow the Executive too much power over the process. In the past similar votes have not always resulted in compliance with council decisions.  We don’t yet know what the proposals will be.

“So this initiative is very warmly welcomed.  However, just in case the Executive seeks to manipulate or subvert the process, or kick it into the long grass as they have with other issues, we will continue with the referendum petition in parallel and urge people to sign this.”