Chapter 7: Governance (John Walker)

Chapter 7: Governance (John Walker)

SDG Target 11.3: “… enhance sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries.”
SDG Target 16.7: Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

The Cambridge Dictionary defines governance as: “The way that organisations or countries are managed at the highest level and the systems for doing this”. In this chapter we consider the arrangements that Canterbury City Council have in place for the management of the District and of the City itself.

In our original vision for the future of our city (June 2014) we were critical of the Council’s Leader and Executive system then in place. This left decision making in the hands of the Council leader and a small executive committee of just 10 members, none of whom represented wards within the City itself. We recommended that the Council should return to a committee system of decision making, which would enable councillors to better represent the views of their constituents, and to undertake a governance review to consider among other things whether the City should have a Town Council to manage certain delegated responsibilities or whether there were other ways of making public participation more open and transparent.

We were pleased to note that the City Council adopted this suggestion in 2016 and undertook a governance review in 2017 in which they stated that: “The aim of the review is to consider and bring about improved community engagement, better local democracy and efficient, more effective and convenient delivery of local services and ensure electors across the whole District will be treated equitably and fairly.”

The Review decided against the option of setting up a Town Council for the City and instead opted to introduce a system of Members Forums to replace the previous Area Member Panels. However, the new Forums have no powers or budgets, are advisory only and therefore depend for their effectiveness on their recommendations being adopted and acted upon by the relevant decision-making committees. This is where the problem may lie.

The first major unanimous cross-party recommendation by the Canterbury Forum was that the Council abandon the idea of constructing a multi story car park in Station Road West. This recommendation was completely ignored by the Policy and Resources committee on the grounds that it had already taken a decision to proceed with this project and therefore the matter was not open for consideration. This has caused many local residents to question whether the new Forums are genuinely intended to meet the aims of the governance review or are simply a device for making it appear that policy makers are listening to people’s concerns when in fact they are disregarding them.

We recognise that as currently constituted the Forums can only make recommendations, not decisions, but the public need more assurance that the recommendations are going to be taken more seriously. We suggest that such recommendations should be formally presented to the relevant Committee by a councillor from the Forum, with a statement of the reasons for the recommendation and the numbers voting for it, and the Committee should provide a formal response to the Forum, in turn giving its reasons in writing for accepting or rejecting the recommendation.

On the positive side, the meetings so far have been well attended by the public, drawing in new people and new points of view not previously apparent at meetings of the former Area Member Panels. The contributions of young people talking about skateboarding, and buskers and residents engaging with one another’s points of view, were good examples at recent Canterbury Forum meeting. The discussions have been more open and participatory than at meetings of AMPs. The more permissive rules about speaking rights for members of the public have been a big help, as has the work of council officers to create a more informal atmosphere, with the serving of refreshments, and the provision of a leaflet welcoming people and explaining the format of the meetings. At the Whitstable Forum in particular it was felt that the ‘meet and greet’ was valuable in enabling the public to know who the councillors are that have been elected to represent them.

A recent meeting of the Whitstable Forum was cancelled on the grounds that that there were not enough agenda items to warrant a meeting. We suggest that if councillors and council officers do not have items which they wish to put on Forum agendas, the opportunity should be offered for members of the public to raise issues and concerns.

We should like to see reinstated the ‘Question and Answer Session’ as an agenda item. This feature of meetings of the Area member Panels was a valuable opportunity for the public to raise issues which councillors and council officers might be unaware of. With a strict time limit and a limit to the number of questions, it could again play a valuable role.

We also suggest that the Forum web pages should be regularly updated, with links to the monitoring sheet and the record of past decisions, guidance on how to raise items, and previous dates removed from the list of upcoming meetings.

We strongly support a more collaborative approach between policy makers (both elected and at officer level) and informed local residents. We feel that decision makers often considered this a “high risk” strategy because they regard the electorate as often being ill informed on many of the matters the council have to manage. This is not always the case. It is clear at many committee meetings that when members of the public speak up they are better informed than committee members, but their contributions are often disregarded when in many instances a more collaborative approach would improve the quality of decision making.

Finally, we fear that the future of the City Council to play a real part in traditional local government affairs is rapidly eroding. We have seen that recently imposed national austerity measures means that our Council has lost 60 percent of its funding since 2010 and it is likely that this situation will not be reversed. The effect of this is that the Council, through taxation revenues, will hardly provide any services and their only sources of revenue will be from the sale of services such as parking, property rents and a small range of other services. In other words central government will be in more or less complete control over what goes in the local domain.

Recommendations

  1. A more collaborative approach between elected members and informed local residents should be implemented. At many committee meetings, when members of the public speak, they are better informed than committee members but their contributions are too frequently disregarded. Good quality decision-making is more likely when councillors take on board expert knowledge that is offered’
  2. The decision-making committees should provide a formal written response to the recommendations of the Forums, giving their reasons for accepting or rejecting these recommendations.
  3. ‘Question and Answer Sessions’ should be reinstated as an agenda item at most committee meetings. This feature of Area Member Panel meetings was a valuable opportunity for the public to raise issues about which councillors and council officers might be unaware.
  4. A better record of local councillor attendance at the Forums needs to be attained.

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