Saturday, 4 June 2011

Does Cornwall Council have too many councillors?

The issue of the size of Cornwall Council and the number of councillors has reared it's head again. The argument kicking around is that we need less councillors and I completely and wholeheartedly disagree with this view. Below are some of my ideas on the subject and a frank and brutal undermining of the preposterous arguments put forward.

As a background and for those not in the know, Cornwall recently had a major reorganisation of local government, the Labour government and the Liberal Democrat administration decided to streamline Cornwall's administration into one simple unitary council. Hitherto Cornwall had six district councils based roughly on the ancient hundreds, west to east; Penwith, Kerrier, Carrick, Restormel, North Cornwall and Caradon and above this Cornwall County Council. These were all amalgamated into a new unitary authority simply called Cornwall Council.

The areas of the former six district councils with Penwith highlighted

(As a side note the reorganisation was supposed to save money, but alas every morning I awake waiting for a council tax rebate to hit the doormat but none arrives)

The new administration is composed of 123 councillors and is one of the largest unitary authorities in the UK, this replaced the old system whereby the county council had 82 seats and the districts combined had 249 councillors. So Cornwall lost a great deal of democratic representation with the move to unitary. Nonetheless there has been calls to further reduce the number of councillors. In an article in the Western Morning News (Councillors call to shrink size of Cornwall Council after spending investigation)

Whilst leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jeremy Rowe offers:
"Is the council bloated? I think so. We have 123 members, with a small cabinet which makes all the decisions. The rest of us are left on the back benches. I am not sure a comparison with Devon County Council can be made because we are a unitary authority and we have greater roles to fulfil. But at some point I think we should make a case to the Boundary Commission on the council's size."
Whilst Independent Andrew Wallis:
"Cornwall Council has to have enough members to carry out local investigations for planning issues as well as strategic work....I have seen some members turn up to meetings having not even opened the agenda papers. I think the council could be reduced to 100, but they would have to be the 100 hard-working members, not those who turn up every now and then yet still collect their £12,000."
Now I do not fundamentally disagree with any of these statements, it is indeed the case that many councillors don't turn up too often. It was very sad in particular to see the council's budget in February passed by 65 votes to 40, a majority of 15, with 18 not present (of perhaps 17 my knowledge doesn't extend to whether the chairperson votes).  But this seems to be a fundamental problem with UK democracy, anyone that has watched BBC Parliament will be more than aware of the empty seats during House of Commons votes. I would suggest that the problem here is not the number, but the self regulation of the councillors. Perhaps if they forfeited their seats by non-attendance, they might be encouraged to turn up and represent their constituents. There is nothing to suggest without such a rule being introduced that the problem would be reduced by reducing the number of councillors. That is to say if only a 100 turn up out of 123, then with a 100 we might see 80 regular faces.

Moving on to the preposterous, the article in the Western Morning News states that:
"The cash-strapped unitary authority has 123 members – twice the size of the Welsh Assembly, despite having far less power and covering a fraction of the geographic area."
Now this is true, Cornwall does have more members than the National Assembly for Wales and the Assembly does have lot greater powers than our humble council. Perhaps it is a secret only obvious to people like myself that have been fortunate enough to have lived in Wales but the assembly actually is an extra tier of government. There is in fact 22 authorities underneath the Welsh Assembly all with their own councils and councillors. The article goes on to cite Devon County Council's 62 councillors as much smaller than Cornwall Council, again neglecting the fact that there is a tier of local government beneath the Exeter based council all containing councillors. To be fair to the WMN, the BBC's Graham Smith has also made the fundamental mistake of comparing apples with pears in his blog from last year: Number Crunching. The peopl of Cornwall suffer from a smaller number of representatives and miss an entire tier of governance than vurtually anywhere on this island.

Cornwall Council's chamber

Now I know it is fashionable to bash politicians and many politicians themselves go along with this. But let's be realistic about this, Cornwall Council's £1.2 billion budget covers education, social services, fire and rescue, libraries, car parks, planning, highways, parks, leisure centers etc etc and is overseen by a mere 123 democratic representatives. Now there are a whole host of problems with Cornwall Council and how it is run, but there seems to be no coherent argument that reducing the number of councillors will fix any problems. Jeremy Rowe and Andrew Wallis all identify common problems; non-attendence, small cabinet taking all the decisons and lack of work by councillors, let us try and solve these problems.

There is a real need for reform at Cornwall Council but reducing the democratically elected members and thus the democratic accountability of the council will not solve any of these problems.If we want the council to be more accountable to the people of Cornwall then reducing the number of councillors would be a retrogade step. And if such a move were to take place there would in fact be less scrutiny of civil servants actitivites and more confused councllors trying to explain headlines such as these:
Council's £9M credit card bill to face scrutiny