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A first proposal for how Cheshire East Council could ditch its cabinet in favour of a series of committees from next May has been turned down, writes Stephen Topping.

Following a petition last year and a manifesto commitment from independent councillors in May’s election, CEC agreed to work towards scrapping the cabinet at the May annual meeting.

Work has since been carried out by officers and a cross-party working group, which met four times before a first proposal on how CEC could switch from a cabinet to a committee system of governance was produced.

But at a constitution committee meeting, members voted against recommending the first plans to December’s full council meeting, and instead called for more work to be done.

Before members debated the proposal, Kath O’Dwyer, CEC’s acting chief executive, said she believed councillors could not make an informed decision on the “irreversible” move with the information currently available.

She said: “The decision to change governance arrangements is one of the most important decisions this council will have made, and the decision should be made on the best possible information.

“Officers and members have and continue to work really hard to deliver the aspiration of the May 2020 implementation of the new arrangements and provide the information requested.

“I believe this timescale can be achieved. However, our learning from other authorities has clearly demonstrated the importance of the organisation being completely ready for that change.

“I believe it is my responsibility to advise members of this committee of my view that there is currently insufficient detail to place before all council members for them to make an informed vote.”

The proposal would have seen the cabinet replaced by six committees:

children and families
economy, communities and environment
health and adults, and
transport and highways

But councillors who attended workshops on the changes called for more details on what the committees would be responsible for, what roles the council’s leader and committee chairmen would perform, and how the positions of chairman would be split between political groups.

The committee also discussed concerns about the number of committees proposed and how decisions would be followed-up and scrutinised.

Cllr Joy Bratherton, Labour, said: “Quite a lot of members are not actually aware of how the committee structure actually works.”

Independent councillors suggested the committee system would make CEC more democratic, open and transparent when they campaigned for the switch last year.

Cllr Toni Fox, independent, suggested the move would be worth the wait as long as CEC gets it right.

“We all agree with the committee system but what we need to consider is whether the committee system that comes forward is going to be fit for purpose and serve the residents,” she said.

“To me, it doesn’t matter if it happens next year, the year after or the year after that – but when it does come in it has got to be fit for purpose.”

But Cllr Janet Clowes, leader of CEC’s Conservative group, insisted she is “uncomfortable” with delaying the May 2020 target agreed at May’s full council meeting.

“We made a promise to the residents of Cheshire East in May that we would do this in 12 months,” she said.

“I think we do need to not – by giving a deferral – have that potential of yet another further year of indecision.”

A new report on how CEC could switch to a committee system is now expected in early 2020.

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