Cabinet - Independent councillors in Cheshire East

Cheshire East Council has taken a big step towards scrapping its cabinet – but there are concerns that coronavirus COVID-19 could delay the process, writes Stephen Topping.

The council’s constitution committee has agreed on a series of recommendations outlining how CEC can ditch the cabinet in May 2021 and replace it with a number of decision-making committees instead.

It will be the biggest constitutional change in the council’s 11-year history.

And the recommendations mean there is now a clear plan ahead for it how it can be achieved, subject to ratification from full council which is expected to take place in July.

Brian Reed, head of democratic services and governance, said: “We now have a really clear route map towards the implementation of the system.

“We need to provide certainty to the organisation and pave the way for a seamless transition to the new committee system.”

CEC’s Independent Group launched a petition calling for the cabinet to be replaced in September 2018.

And the council unanimously committed to the idea following last May’s election, with the group holding the balance of power.

An initial plan for how the change could take place was turned down by CEC’s constitution committee last November, when Kath O’Dwyer, former acting chief executive, advised members that more time was needed to thrash out the details.

CEC’s political group leaders agreed to delay the change from this May 2020 to 2021 in January, before the plans were refined to the point they were presented on Thursday.

But the subject on everybody’s minds was raised by Cllr Liz Wardlaw, Conservative, at what was the final public CEC meeting to go ahead before a raft of cancellations.

She said: “I don’t want to delay the process but I feel the democracy of the process is going to be challenged over this next 12 months.

“How are we going to achieve what we need to achieve if we are in lockdown at some point over these future months?

“There will be illness, there will be distraction, and God forbid anyone in this room, but there will be a very serious disruption to democracy over the next few weeks – if not months.”

Jan Bakewell, CEC’s monitoring officer, explained that the council’s decision would need to include a date for the new system to come into effect by law – but the target date could be reviewed before that decision is taken to take coronavirus disruption into account.

Cllr Janet Clowes, leader of CEC’s Conservative group, said: “However well we try to prepare, we will not have a perfect committee system.

“We will have to tweak it, model it, go back to it and be prepared to make it better as we go along.”

The latest plans would see the cabinet replaced by six ‘service committees’, while other committees such as planning would continue.

A number of tweaks were proposed at Thursday’s meeting, with a key sticking point being the way decisions are reviewed, as the current ‘call in’ system would be scrapped.

It is proposed that full council could review decisions, rather than a specific board, but independent Cllr David Marren raised concerns that the process could be manipulated.

He said: “It would be very easy for a political group to bring the authority to a halt, should it wish to do that, by having everything referred to council.”

The issue of referrals is to be considered by a group of councillors and Ms Bakewell before a proposal goes to full council.

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