A Threat to Democracy?
By Cllr Jonathan Harris
With the current COVID-19 crisis unfolding all around us and our eyes all focused on daily news briefings, you would be forgiven for having missed an emerging local story which will affect us all.
Most will be familiar of the mass failings of Northamptonshire County Council which have evolved over the last few years almost like a plot from a 'you can't believe it' TV soap.
As this is being written, in normal circums tances we would be entering the final month of campaigning for the new West Northamptonshire (Unitary) Council elections. However, quite rightly, these elections have been delayed - perhaps surprisingly for twelve months - but nonetheless they have been delayed.
Amidst the current chaos the Government has taken some decisions which require urgent challenge and scrutiny. In effect, the Government has taken the decision to carry on with the formation of the shadow council. You may be aware that a shadow council was always the plan. This shadow council would run in conjunction with existing councils for twelve months to ensure a smooth transition into the two new Northamptonshire (West & North) Unitary Councils in Spring 2021.
Following the Government's decision there will of course be no elections. For West Northamptonshire, all existing councillors (some of whom were last elected 6 years ago) will be thrown together - that's 157 councillors in total - to effectively form the new shadow council. Pragmatic you may think. However, each of the two new councils (West Northamptonshire and North Northamptonshire) will form a cabinet of eight people who will lead these shadow councils. What's more, the Government itself is going to decide who will run the cabinet. There will be no nomination process or elections for any of these positions.
So what does this mean in practice?
It is most likely that the new cabinets will be made up of a large number of people who were primary contributors to the creation of the existing mess. What's more, the new West Northamptonshire cabinet will more than likely be the leader and and deputy leader of each of the existing councils (Daventry, South Northants, Northampton Borough) and members from Northampton County Council.
What do they all have in common? Of course they are all Conservative led!
So welcome to the new world - which basically is a rehash of the old one.
The Daventry District Council (DDC) Liberal Democrat group have written to the Leader of DDC to express grave concerns about this 'new' arrangement, and effectively have been accused of have no empathy for the current crisis.
How dare an opposition group challenge at a time of crisis - has been the response!
The reality is that at a time of crisis it is precisely the time when decisions need scrutiny. A local shadow government is being created with absolutely NO democracy. This group of people will be shaping our day to day lives and services and the people of both West and North Northamptonshire will have had no opportunity to express a view on the past performance of these people, let alone the future.
Be clear, we did not simply write to complain. Our letter set out some practical recommendations to make the best of an extremely poor situation.
These were our recommendations:
- The Proposed Executive/Cabinet should be cross-party to recognise the difficult position we find ourselves in and to provide a greater level of democratic legitimacy for the new council. A suggested approach for West Northamptonshire could be 5 Conservative, 2 Labour & 1 Lib Dem.
- A great number of the existing district councillors have already decided not to stand in the elections. It seems fool hardy to 'shoe them in' to a new structure when many of them have little or no interest being part of it. So rather than simply 'appointing' all the current district/borough & county councillors to the new council we propose that it is time to be more creative in an electoral approach, perhaps through a public online vote, excluding those not elected within the last 4 years or those who simply have no desire to be part of the new council. There is also the question of how you treat councillors who sit on both the county council and the district council - do they get two votes?
- The Leader of the Council is elected by members as is the usual practice therefore avoiding the undemocratic anointment of someone from afar.
- A robust Scrutiny Committee is set up to shadow the new Executive/Cabinet and to provide democratic challenge and support.
- The council lobbies the Government to hold elections earlier than May 2021, should the national position have improved, as suggested by the Electoral Reform Society.
- Council by-elections should be held where an area would otherwise be without representation - this could be by all postal ballots/electronic voting.
- All meetings are conducted through the use of video conferencing/digital technology to enable full access by councillors as well as ability for members of the public to view.
The response? Well let's just say it was hardly positive.
The first meeting of the full council is written into the legislation and must take place on the 19th and 21st May 2020. That's all 157 unelected shadow councillors. What's more, with lock down and/or social distancing still being in place, it will mostly likely take place via video conference with each councillor dialling in from home.
Now, about that scrutiny. Can you imagine?
We must, of course, all pull together during times of crisis, but we will have failed if we do not provide challenge and scrutiny. We will have failed the very people who elected us in the first place (at least in my case fairly recently in 2019).
We urge all residents of Northamptonshire to lobby for better.
We can't have 'best' as there will be no elections until 2021, but we can have better, specifically, at the very least, a scrutiny committee made up of opposition councillors to ensure that decisions don't go unchecked. There was no scrutiny committee at county level and look at the resulting mess. Please write to your local MP and the respective council leaders to express your views.
I leave you with this highly pertinent quote from journalist Marina Hyde:
"There is more than one way to love your country - and no member of the public should ever surrender the right to question what is in the public interest".
Cllr Jonathan Harris
Jonathan is a Lib Dem Daventry District Councillor for Brixworth ward and was first elected at a by-election in July 2019. He is Deputy Leader of the Lib Dem Group on the Council and Vice Chair of Daventry Liberal Democrats