Calls for change to West Sussex County Council’s leadership structure an ‘expensive distraction’

Chichester's County Hall SUS-160818-125926001
Chichester's County Hall SUS-160818-125926001

Calls for West Sussex County Council to make its decision via a committee system rather than a cabinet have not been supported by its governance group.

The county has 70 councillors but only nine – the cabinet – are able to make decisions, and James Walsh, leader of the Liberal Democrats, wants things to change.

The leader and cabinet system was adopted by most councils in 2000, under the Local Government Act, with the committee system dropped by all but the smallest authorities.

The Localism Act of 2011 allowed them to switch back but only two of the 26 two-tier county councils have successfully done so.

A Notice of Motion calling for West Sussex to change back will be debated at a meeting of the full council on October 18 and was put before the governance committee on Monday (September 9).

Dr Walsh said he had heard cross-party complaints from members who were ‘not satisfied with the current system’ and called the cabinet system ‘not representative democracy’.

He also claimed cabinet members ‘frequently’ ignored recommendations from the council’s scrutiny committees when making their decisions.

Dr Walsh added: “The public elect their representative, no matter which party they are elected to, to take decisions on their behalf.

“When I explain that many of the major decisions on this council are made by one member, they are frankly astonished.

“They think we come here and actively all participate in debates and decision making. When it’s explained to them, the astonishment is quite palpable.”

The Notice of Motion was branded an ‘expensive distraction’ by Richard Burrett, cabinet member for education and skills.

He added: “It seems to be a very knee-jerk reaction that we’ve had some problems, we’ve had some challenges – which we’re dealing with as an authority – and the answer apparently is we’ll change the system of governance and it’ll be OK.”

Like Dr Walsh, Mr Burrett has served under both systems and acknowledged that he was originally opposed to the cabinet system.

He said: “I felt it wouldn’t work, I felt it would exclude people and I felt it would be a retrograde step.

“Now having worked with it I feel it’s a much better system to explain to people, it’s a much slicker system, it’s a much quicker system in terms of decision making, and I wouldn’t go back.”

Leader Louise Goldsmith said: “There is work for us to do on our system at the moment.

“I think we can make some significant improvements in how we work and how effectively we work and around scrutiny, without going through a huge turmoil to a system that simply will not work effectively and efficiently.”