Independent councillors in Cheshire East

A plan to transform the way Cheshire East Council is run has been rebuffed by the ruling Conservative group – paving the way for a referendum, writes Stephen Topping.

Independent members – including two Nantwich councillors – wanted to see Cheshire East change from a cabinet-led system to a committee system of governance.

They suggest it would mean decision-making is more open, transparent and democratic.

The vote had the backing of Labour and Liberal Democrat members in the vote.

But Conservative councillors warned a committee system would mean decisions take longer.

Cllr Barry Burkhill, independent, said: “The creation of CEC in 2009 has resulted in a firm conclusion amongst voters that their borough council is too remote.

“It comes as a surprise to residents when they discover that the added problem of the cabinet system concentrates information and decision making amongst a small group of favoured members of one party and that their elected councillor is side-lined.

“The reputation of this council will never improve in the eye of the public if this broken, undemocratic cabinet system is allowed to continue.”

CEC currently has a cabinet including Cllr Rachel Bailey, the council’s Conservative leader, and seven councillors who she has appointed from her own party – each with their own responsibility such as health, environment or planning.

In a committee system – which had been used by Cheshire’s former borough councils until 2001 – decisions are made by committees with proportional representation from all CEC’s political groups.

Tuesday’s debate on the issue followed the launch of a petition by the independent group last year calling on CEC to adopt a committee system.

If more than five per cent of Cheshire East’s electorate – around 15,000 signatures – sign the petition it will go to referendum, and independent Cllr Craig Browne predicted a “huge majority” would back the committee system.

Cllr Mike Parsons, independent, added: “This will end up at referendum – there is no two-ways about it.

“We have a great opportunity here to do the right thing and the wise thing – that is, for the council to vote for change and show some respect to the public.”

Cllr Sam Corcoran, Labour’s group leader, suggested the existing cabinet system has “not served CEC well”.

And his party colleagues questioned the point of turning up to debates when key decisions are made by the Conservative cabinet.

Cllr Suzanne Brookfield said: “Do I make a difference in this current form of governance? I don’t think I do.”

Cllr Stephen Carter added: “It’s pointless being here, it’s pointless listening, it’s pointless speaking and it’s pointless me even voting on this issue.”

But Conservative councillors insisted cabinet decisions are more efficient than ones taken by committees.

Cllr Liz Wardlaw, cabinet member for health, suggested questions over transparency of cabinet decisions raised by the independent group were “old arguments”.

She said: “Lessons have been learned – progress has been made in culture.”

Her cabinet colleague Cllr Paul Findlow reminded members of the “infamous referring up” procedure from committees which could not reach a consensus up to full council – which led to “chronic delays”, according to the Conservative.

Cllr Martin Deakin, Conservative, suggested it would become more difficult to attract working people to serve as councillors because the committee meetings would be more time consuming.

“People simply won’t have the time or commitment,” he added.

“How can they be sufficiently attentive to residents when they will be spending most of their time at committee meetings going over procedural matters?”

And his view was shared by Cllr Stewart Gardiner, Conservative, who insisted councillors would “have to become more of an expert on a wide range of technical issues”.

Labour Cllr Laura Jeuda urged members to “mark the beginning of a clean break from a dark past” by changing the governance style.

But Cllr Derek Hough, Liberal Democrat, suggested the committee system only worked well in the old Crewe and Nantwich Council when it had no overall control.

He added: “Until you have a system of elections whereby no overall control will be the majority – that is the system of PR – then you will not resolve this [issue] by either cabinet or committee.”

Members rejected the proposal by 39 votes to 25, with one abstention.

Two more votes to share committee chairmanships proportionally along party lines and to give scrutiny chairmanships to opposition members were also voted down.

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