Last month Geoff Reid of www.talkshwindon.org commented at swindonlink.com on the inadequate procedure used since last August to establish how Swindon Council should be led, including the fact that the council had again by-passed the opportunity to give people the chance to consider whether the town should have an elected mayor.
Here council leader Rod Bluh explains why Swindon has retained the cabinet and leader model and how the coalition government’s Localism Bill will impact on all aspects of civic society.
"Of the many letters and emails I receive covering the hundreds services that the Borough currently provides, few deal with the constitutional issue of executive arrangements.
That said, there have been a handful, and there are a number of facts about elected mayors that those who argue in favour of them have forgotten to tell you: it could cost over £150,000 just to hold a referendum; in two thirds of cases elsewhere, electors have said no to mayors when they did hold such a vote; once elected, you are stuck with an elected mayor for his/her full four year term – there is no way short of a criminal conviction to fire them. Fact, an elected mayor needs the support of just one third of the councillors to force through a budget. How democratic is that?
It is for these reasons that Swindon chose to remain with the cabinet leader model. It is the system that has worked well in England, not just Swindon, since 2002. The Leader can be sacked by Full Council at any time if he or she loses a vote of confidence and a majority of councillors must support the budget. It is clearly the better option
The Government’s Localism Bill itself has the potential to be the most radical change in local government since the creation of modern elected borough councils in 1835. The key clause is the power of general competence. At the moment, the borough can only spend money or take actions if there is a law saying that they can. With a power of general competence, the council will be able to do things providing there is no law stopping it. This will give us tremendous flexibility to respond to residents’ needs.
The change this represents cannot be understated. It is about freeing the council from the dead hand of Whitehall. As a result of the last government’s inspections through the Audit Commission, the council saw its role as serving Whitehall first and residents second.
A second welcome reform will be to allow councillors to speak on planning issues even if they serve on the planning committee. At the moment, any councillor on the committee who joins residents in campaigning against an application runs the risk of being excluded from the actual decision because they are deemed to have made up their mind already. It is no wonder that people find local government arcane and obscure when their local representative is barred from speaking on their behalf. This Bill, if it becomes law, will change that.
The third and final change is about allowing greater control over local spending. Before 2003, under the previous Labour administration, residents had to endure a series of inflation-busting council tax increases – 42 per cent in just 3 years. There are still councillors who think that we must always seek to increase our budget, because it is the job of the council to spend money. Under the Localism Bill, there is a proposal to allow residents a chance to reject excessive council tax increases through a referendum.
Finally, the Localism Bill will give more say to local neighbourhoods about planning matters. The strategic decisions will still lie with the council, but the neighbourhood plans that will support the borough’s development plan will offer residents a real chance to shape their local communities.
This will not work if it is just a nimby’s charter, but if people are responsible then it could allow us to preserve all that is best in the borough while still meeting the growing demand for new houses."