No appetite for structural changes at county council as some members labelled ‘sheep’

The council chamber at County Hall, Chichester
The council chamber at County Hall, Chichester

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has hit out at the ‘stifling of democracy’ at West Sussex County Council.

Dr James Walsh spoke out at a meeting on Friday (October 17) after a debate into whether the council should change its governance system from cabinet-based to committee-based was ‘curtailed’ while several people were waiting to speak.

Dr Walsh had tabled a notice of motion calling for the cabinet system to be scrapped, before agreeing to an amendment from Labour’s Michael Jones that it should be reviewed instead.

As leader of Arun District Council he had already organised a review of governance there, with the intention of switching to the committee system in May.

In a report to the meeting he said: “It is abundantly clear to all that there is a systemic failure of political leadership of West Sussex County Council encompassing all our major services, and further evidenced by the high turnover rate of most senior officers at director level, including chief executive, over the last few years, and the churn of cabinet members.”

Members were told that 70 staff at senior level had left their posts over the past ten years, adding that the lack of stability led to ‘low morale’ and was ‘staggering, unprecedented and probably unequalled in other local authorities’.

There was no support for the idea from the ruling Conservatives.

Michael Cloake (Con, Worthing Pier) said he understood why many opposition members were keen on a committee-based system, as it would give them a ‘lot greater influence’ than their numbers currently allowed.

Mr Cloake added: “A committee system is wishy washy, it reduces accountability, it limits creativity, it stymies innovation and it focuses on the loudest person in the room not the best.”

Andrew Barrett-Miles (Con, Burgess Hill North) said: “I do not believe in leadership by committee. You do not reach decent decisions through leadership by committee.”

The meeting broke for lunch while the debate was still on-going and was put straight to the vote afterwards, even though eight members were still waiting to speak.

Dr Walsh said: “This is part of the problem. The stifling of democracy in this council chamber is becoming a recurrent theme.

“Whenever inconvenient things are discussed, there’s a clampdown, either from a cabinet member, from the leader or a scrutiny chairman.”

Several councillors commented on social media that the majority of people who had yet to speak were Tories.

The amended motion was voted down.

At the same meeting some backbenchers were lambasted as ‘sheep’ by one of County Hall’s senior councillors.

Bill Acraman (Con, Worth Forest) said some members of the various scrutiny committees simply ‘went along’ with decisions made by cabinet members.

The point of the committees is to review council policy, scrutinise decisions made by cabinet members and hold them to account.

Earlier in the meeting, Morwen Millson (Lib Dem, Horsham Riverside) spoke about a recent review of scrutiny at the council.

Looking at the way the system was run and how it could be improved, she said she found most of the Tories could be split into two groups, which she called the awkward squad and the young turks.

Explaining her words, Mrs Millson said the former could be as ‘challenging as any opposition member’ while the latter could be ‘much less challenging’.

She added: “They believe that what cabinet members want to hear is either nothing or something praising the cabinet member for what is being done.

“I don’t think that leads to very good scrutiny.”

Mr Acraman was more blunt in his appraisal.

He said: “I’m afraid my division would be slightly different from that. It would be the awkward squad certainly but the other group I would call the sheep. And I’m talking about all parties.”

Mr Acraman said he was not a fan of the cabinet system and felt a review of governance ‘might not be a bad thing’.

Pointing out that the true decisions were made at cabinet level before going to scrutiny ‘for a pat on the back and the approval of what has been done’, he added: “I think that means that too many of the scrutiny committee say ‘well I’m not bothered either way, I don’t know the details, I’ll just go along with it’.”

Earlier this year, a survey of scrutiny committee members revealed that only one-third believed they had enough influence on decisions made by cabinet members.

Less than half felt they had an input into policy development.

Mr Barrett-Miles said: “I’m a strong believer in scrutiny. I do believe we can do better at scrutiny but actually a lot of that depends on us – the backbenchers.

“I think a lot of us do not pull our weight enough on scrutiny. We do not read the papers and we should do.

“And if we did, we would then give a stronger message to the cabinet member.”