I must firstly apologise for not posting recently.
The proposals below were presented to the Labour Group who basically tried to ridicule them. In trying to create a more democratic Darlington the Conservatives it seems are putting residents first, the Labour Group on the other hand are showing themselves to be even less democratic than before.
At the local elections in May the Conservatives polled the largest number of votes with the Liberal Democrats polling half as many as Labour. Through the vagaries of the first past the post system at ward level, Labour won most seats but with a greatly reduced majority. Turnout across the town was an average 40.51% and as low as 30% in some wards.
Politicians of all parties need to be concerned about this level of disengagement from politics. A healthy democracy requires the active participation of its citizens. To achieve this, new and imaginative ways need to be found which allows people to voice their opinions and indeed participate in decision making on the key issues which affect them. People need to feel that their vote counts and that their elected politicians will
work together constructively and consensually. They want to see grown up politics which is accountable and scrutinised in a robust and open way.
To meet these challenges the way we do politics needs to change. Indeed the new Prime Minister in his call for a cross party debate on the constitution said “the need for change cannot be met by the old politics”
A clear message from the May elections was that the people of Darlington want to see changes in the way that local politics is carried out. Many are disengaged and have no faith in the process. They see an excellent council at an executive and operational level but not in the way that its politics works. This is also reflected in the frustrations of many hard working councillors across the political spectrum. One expression of all of this is the campaign for a directly elected mayor.
As a result of these pressures proposals are being made to change the constitution of the Borough Council. Some interesting ideas are emerging to open up the process, to get local people more involved and to have the minority parties attend cabinet meetings. This needs to be taken much further to extend the participation of the public and of the elected members. It is here that we have specific and vital proposals to make.
The prime role of the opposition groups is to scrutinise policies being proposed by the executive and to monitor their development and performance. This role is fundamental in a healthy democracy and provides the checks and balances. Many local authorities see this very clearly and lay the responsibilities out in their constitutions. The chairs and vice chairs of scrutiny committees are seen to be the necessary domain of the opposition parties.
The House of Commons with its select committees provides a good model here. The select committees play a vital role in holding Government to account and many of the chairs are provided by the opposition parties. A notable example is Edward Leigh’s much admired chairmanship of the influential Public Accounts Committee.
Here in Darlington, apart from a token chair and vice- chair allocation to the two opposition parties, the ruling group holds the overwhelming majority of the chair and vice chair roles to itself. It holds all of the Cabinet portfolios as well - a fundamentally unhealthy arrangement. In practice this leads to a prime focus on after the event scrutinising of performance and rarely the scrutiny of policy and its development. Cabinet portfolio holders do not appear before the scrutiny committees and the Leader of the Council is never scrutinised in this way. This needs to change.
A fundamental right of any council member should be that they can ask questions in the Council Chamber on any subject relating to the portfolio of Cabinet Members. Under the current constitution they cannot do this and must restrict themselves to the specific subject that the Cabinet member chooses to report on. This is an abrogation of democracy and must be corrected.
So along with pressing on to achieve a much more participative involvement of local people, as we called for in May, the Conservative group are calling for changes in the constitution of our Borough Council to make it more democratic and accountable by:
- strengthening the checks and balances in the scrutiny process through all chairs and vice- chairs being made the responsibility of the opposition groups
- directing the work of scrutiny as a matter of course to incorporate policy review and development as well as performance
- making it the practice that the Leader of the Council and Cabinet members appear before the scrutiny committees
- making the Council a place of robust debate where every Councillor as of right can ask questions which are of importance to them and the people they represent.
Finally we believe that it is important to incorporate into the constitution a duty of public involvement which underpins the right of the residents of Darlington to be consulted about and involved in the decision making on the key issues which affect their lives.
Author: Cllr Alan Coultas [ Conservative group summary ]
Endorsed by: Cllr Heather Scott Conservative group leader
Endorsed by : Cllr Charles Johnson South Durham Conservatives Chairman