The Canterbury Society is concerned about the system of governance in the Canterbury District and the gulf that exists between the executive and the residents of the city. In a survey of public opinion which the Canterbury Society carried out when preparing its Vision for the city, governance ranked as the single greatest concern among residents of the city. In the last couple of years, high-profile disputes over development of the Kingsmead playing field, the Westgate Tower traffic scheme and plans to build mass housing estates on greenfield land to the south of Canterbury have highlighted a democratic deficit in the way the district is run. More recently, the Council has ignored almost all of the 5,000 received during a consultation on the 2013-31 Local Plan. This begs the question how best to restore public confidence in the governance process and ensure that elected councilors and paid officials reflect the views and priorities of the electorate when making decisions on their behalf.
At the moment, decision-making in the district is concentrated in the hands of a ten-member executive, controlled by a strong leader. All members of the executive are from the majority party, which polled 45% of the vote in the 2011 local election, or just under 20% of the total electorate. This co-exists with a highly effective whipping system in the council chamber, which ensures that the executive’s decisions invariably pass without resistance. The effect is to exclude the representatives of the majority of residents from the decision-making process in Canterbury district. The problem is even more acute for residents of Canterbury, since almost all members of the executive represent seats outside the city.
While we recognise the right of the winning party in an election to play the dominant role in government and the value of efficiency in decision-making, we do not believe this should come at the price of monopolization of power. Recent experience provides strong evidence that the absence of a broad input of views and a lack of effective scrutiny of decisions leads to bad policy, to the detriment of both the city and the council.
The Canterbury Society is therefore pressing to move to a committee system of government, in which cross-party committees have greater control over specific areas of decision-making, such as planning, housing and finance as is the case in Westminster, and was the case in Canterbury until last decade. In this context, we are opposed to the planned reduction in the number of elected councillors from 50 to 38, which undermines the viability of a committee system by reducing the availability of councillors to sit on such committees. As a second best, we would like to see a broader representation of parties on the executive.
Recent history indicates that the most divisive issues in the city are related to planning, meaning that particular care needs to be made to ensure that planning decisions are democratic. To this end, we are encouraging the Council to subscribe to the following eight recommendations when agreeing planning decisions:
- That the Council restores the 16-member Planning Committee with a strict quorum for decision making.
- That members of the Planning Committee are given five minutes to speak (instead of the current three) and that officers are required to respond immediately to points raised.
- That councilors voting in either Committee or plenum are given a free vote on matters of planning
- That major developments are preceded by a development brief, agreed with the public after a period of consultation.
- That development briefs, once adopted, cannot be changed without further public consultation.
- That the Council should be allowed to make decisions on the development of its own planning applications.
- That major development applications are subject to a four-week consultation period rather than the current three weeks, and that consultations must be prominently advertised.
- That the Council takes into consideration all the relevant planning documents when considering planning applications, and not just its own Local Plan.
As a matter of democratic principle, the Council should not assume that victory in a parliamentary election is an unrestricted mandate to act. Instead, it should engage with residents in an ongoing dialogue about the future of the Canterbury district, and continually justify their actions in terms of the best interests of the community. This would be good for the city but also for the Council which can tap into the immense insight and expertise of the resident population.
Such an approach would require a culture change within the Council and among residents. However, this would be consistent with the 2012 Localism Act which encourages civic engagement and grants specific new rights and powers to local communities. Public consultation should allow for discussion beyond the constraints of formal Council sessions. In particular, we would like the Council to establish working groups with representatives of the city, and to work with local communities to develop Neighbourhood Plans. We are pleased to say that in the course of 2014, we have noticed an increasing willingness by the Council to engage with civic society on issues such as the Local Transport Strategy (etc).