Local Government in Northamptonshire is now in a critical state. The 2000 Local Government Act which was intended to help revitalise our local democratic institutions, has for us in Northampton delivered nothing more than fudge and fountains.
Cabinet/Executive style Councils were supposed to make it far easier for ruling party's to govern and for opposition party's to hold the party in control to account, but have they achieved that?
The simple answer is NO.
Backbench councillors outside of the Cabinet of from all parties and none are mere onlookers, bystanders, and are never asked for an opinion in the formation of any decision and are only involved after the event as an act of appeasement. They hardly ever make any real decisions nor are they ever asked for thier input in any meaningful fashion
We of course should not be surprised at this parlous state of affairs within Northamptonshire County Council, after all the ruling Tory party which has controlled the shire authority for the majority of its years simply want "small local government" Councillors accept their role (outside of a selected few) as simply turning up on a handful of occasions (either side of an unnecessary lunch) 5 times a year to rubber stamp the cuts imposed by an authority committed and bound only to setting the lowest council tax in England irrespective of the impact on ever dwindling local services. The secret desire held now by the current leadership at County Hall to jointly appoint a new chief executive in conjunction with a local Health Trust (Quango) shows just how little respect or concern they have for any democratic deficit that may exist between their actions and the needs of the people they allegedly serve
But thats the shire Tories, surely over the road at the Town Hall the ruling Liberal Democratic group would act differently? and want to promote more involvement and partnership and transparency? Not at all.
I guess it is easy to understand to a degree how a Party who has never before tasted real power at the Town Hall might get a little carried away with their actions and to be a little self indulgent in their execution of that power. But in doing so they have destroyed by their inaction and subservience to the officer class, the very foundations of a Council which should now be offering an alternative to the people of our town in respect of any future change to local governance and any drive for a Unitary Council for the town.
That NBC was in a mess at the time they came to power is accepted, and the other two main party's must accept the role they played in creating that mess.
I would also not question that the Council has improved as an operating body and has a better management structure than it had in previous years as a new Chief Executive has taken the authority by its shirt collar and shook it to its shoes. We now have a senior management team at NBC which on the whole are more professional, more able and more determined than their predecessors, good news? to a point yes but in so may other ways no. Outside of this internal management control the Council is now weaker, delivers less and is far less relevant to the electorate it serves.
You see in its drive for improvement the council has left its elected members far behind standing at the roadside, lost in the outback.. Senior Officer Boards and Cabinet Advisory Panels and Senior Management Boards make all the decisions, set the direction the council is going in and impose changes on the Council with as little interference from its elected members as they think they can get away with. These apolitical acts defy the very reasoning behind any candidate/party proposing a manifesto or set of political ambitions in the first place.
OK so the Council's Cabinet are kept informed to a degree, and made to feel part of the decision making process, but any dissent from within is easily quelled by a reminder to them that "we really have no other choice" "the budget won't support any alternative option" or even worse "It is fully in line with what other councils are doing" Often this Mantra is then delegated down to the Leader of the Council to use against his own ever frustrated party at it's group meetings (or perhaps that should be "Groups" meetings as half of the group detest the other half and can't even abide drinking with them afterwards, leaving the Mailcoach and the Cordwainer to split the trade between the warring factions)
And all this is why that in 2010 you have a Liberal Democrat Council on Northampton Borough Council turning the other cheek as underpaid and unprotected agency staff turn up in the morning to beg for a days work on the bins or cleaning the streets, before often being turned away without work. It's why a Liberal Democrat Council is selling off the towns built heritage (such as Archway Cottages in Abington Park) to fund in their own words a "war chest" to help pay for "organisational change" (redundancies to you and me) It why a Liberal Democrat Council is defending against all common sense a ridiculous line which says that a return to resident wardens for our sheltered housing schemes for the elderly would not bring about any improvement to the service and cannot be achieved. Its why a Liberal Democrat Council has made us a laughing stock amongst our District and Borough Council friends. A population of over 200,000 citizens and we can't even afford to employ a rat catcher or keep our public toilets open?
And it is for all these reasons that backbench councillors across all party's including the Liberal Democrats have had enough of the excuses and weasel words coming from a powerless cabinet doing the bidding of an officer class which knows it will outlive and outhink any political administrations short life span.
To make matters worse this week in my email came an explanation of how the Councils new "Neighbourhood Management" arrangements recently introduced by the Lib Dem's will operate. You see they have split the town into four areas for the purposes of service delivery (One area stretches from Kings Heath in the North of the town round to Hardingstone in the South!) Area public meeting will be held chaired by local councillors in rotation (one of the areas has 16 councillors meaning that ii meeting twice a year only half of them will ever chair a single meeting in any four year term!) However if there is a Parish Council in the area then the Parish Chair will chair the meetings. These meetings will take on board the publics view as to what services should be delivered in the area and what the local priorities should be, and then (and I promise you this is for real) the views from the meeting will be forwarded to a separate meeting of a Senior Officer Board who will determine what services can be delivered. So there you have it, we have closed the circle, Councillors are sent out to meet the public and manage down expectations and take the flak from an ever growing angry crowd fed up of paying more Council Tax for an ever decreasing level of service and then the unelected officer class will make all the decisions as to who gets what. And the Council and its Councillors are redundant. Another triumph for Liberal Democracy I hear you all cry.
So why bother electing any of us at all? If we are not included in the decision making and used only as cannon fodder for Joe Public who will give us both barrels over the Conservative/Lib Dem governments cuts led agenda? The officers might as well do this for us whilst they are at it and save on paying Councillors expenses out? But no because most officers wouldn't have the first idea as to local need or community identity
So what price do we put on our democracy? and are the backbenchers at the Guildhall happy to continue to sit silent whilst our local governance is further dismantled? we already have an under funded and weak scrutiny process incapable of responding to the ever growing officer led decisions coming through cabinet. We have a cabinet unable to keep any of its promises on future consultation. Remember when they told us they would come back to Cabinet and to Councillors over their plans to outsource services such as Refuse Collection and deliver them in conjunction with Daventry District Council? We have heard nothing since and yet I understand the preferred bidder has already been selected?
The Independent group on the Council together with a growing public gallery attend all Cabinet meetings and we challenge the administrations/officers plans but far too often we are on our own (with very little support from either the Tory or Labour Party members) but it is clear to all those present that we may be the smallest of the opposition party's but we are certainly the most vocal.
For the past 3 years the Liberals have been trying to hide all of these problems behind a smoke screen of "Market Square" improvements and entertainment paid for out of separate grants and capital funding pots but like the infamous fountain, these are now drying up and like the Market Square at night the light is finally being shone on the truth and the Liberal Democrat Emperors clothes have been exposed as being nothing more than bare arsed naked ambition dressed up in a transparent haze of false economies and bad decision making.
So will the last Councillor to leave the Town Hall switch off the Market Square lights? or at least ask an officer for the permission to do so first.
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