Published in 2010
Since August Swindon Council has been considering models of leadership and on 16 December agreed that the leader of the council should hold the post for four years, instead of being voted in annually by the councillors of the party with most seats. You may not know anything of this because, apart from an obscure public notice in the daily paper and some leaflets in the Central Library, there has been no public discussion or publicity about it whatsoever.
Geoff Reid of online forum www.talkswindon.org poses controversial questions about the way the town is run.
For the second time this decade Swindon councillors have looked at whether the town should be led by a publicly elected mayor or continue appointing its leader on a party political basis. Swindon’s voters have again been largely excluded from the discussion.
In June 2001 The Link magazine was the only local media to publicise the possibility of Swindon electing a mayor to lead the town but our political elite, determined to retain power for itself, used a biased public consultation to prevent a public vote on the issue and in September 2001, the proposal to adopt the ‘Leader and Cabinet’ method of governance was nodded through the council without debate.
Nine years later, the Leader and Cabinet model of governance seems to have delivered little for Swindon apart from a noticeable decline in transparency and accountability, and a corresponding increase in secrecy and resistance to public scrutiny. Far from delivering better democracy and encouraging public engagement with it, the council executive – the leadership – is now so secretive that few backbench councillors or members of the public know how millions of pounds of public cash is spent, lent or wasted.
In 2009 the leadership became planner, developer and financier of the Wichelstowe development after its development partner ended a ‘collaboration’ deal with the council. The leadership is now funding over £100 million worth of infrastructure works directly from council bank accounts. Where’s the money coming from? North Swindon residents will be dismayed to learn that several £million of ‘section 106’ developer contributions from the building in their area has been slipped quietly south, depriving North Swindon of facilities that should have been provided.
Swindon remains fascinated by the on-going wi-fi debacle, in which the leadership secretly lent £150,000 of public money to a start-up business with no track record or credit history. As widely predicted, the project ran into trouble almost immediately forcing the council to ‘vary’ its progress measures to make it appear successful to justify lending it another £250,000. One year on the project appears stalled, Swindon has no ‘free’ wi-fi, and the public loan remains unpaid.
In January 2010 the leadership changed Swindon Commercial Services into an ‘Arms Length Management Organisation’ and lent it £4 million of public money. This short term loan of public money remained outstanding on its due date.
‘Austerity’ is upon us and the leadership wants to cut £45,000,000 (£45 million) by losing jobs and making ‘efficiency savings.’ Is it morally right that colossal sums are being secretively spent on development projects while council workers are being made redundant, services reduced and assets are being readied for sell off?
It is strange that while the public can now use the internet to find out what our council is doing, the council increasingly makes the information it publishes difficult to understand or place in a meaningful context. If the intention is to exclude the public from council business it is almost as effective as barring the doors to the council chamber. The irony is obvious when the leader of the council says: “This is about people who will end up suffering when the money isn’t there. We want a partnership with Government but we’re not even invited to the table.”
Leaving aside the leader’s complaint about exclusion, council spending shows that ‘the money’ is there, but is being spent on the wrong things at the wrong time. The leadership should be focussed on people, and not funding expensive regeneration and vanity projects until economic conditions are better able to support them.
The issues of council leadership, local governance, spending, competence, accountability, transparency and public engagement are inseparable and local democracy cannot reach its full potential for the public good if any of them are suppressed or controlled for political gain.
The coalition government instructed Swindon Borough Council to take another look at its leadership model, including whether the leader should enjoy a ‘fixed term’ of four years. Predictably, our councillors have, with the notable exception of coun Steve Wakefield in West Swindon, completely avoided discussing this with the electorate.
The governance changes were nodded through council as quietly as they were in 2001, the political status quo maintained and most of Swindon’s 140,000+ voters remain unable to hold the council leadership properly accountable.
Now the question is whether the new council constitution will hold the ‘strong leader’ in check.
• If you have things to say about Swindon, contribute your views at: www.talkswindon.org