Democracy in Peterborough

07:07 Friday 23rd March 2012
Peterborough Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: Could the way that Peterborough City Council is governed be about to change? From 4th May, councils across the country will have the option of scrapping the current cabinet system, which we have in Peterborough, and replacing it with a new system which would see a committee run various departments. Now some say this is a fairer and more transparent way to run local authorities. Critics say though it makes the whole system way too slow, and you get nothing done. Nick Sandford is Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Peterborough, and is in favour of the change, Nick?
NICK SANDFORD: Yes I’m broadly in favour of the change. I’m one of those councillors who’s been around for quite a while, and I’ve experienced both the committee system and the cabinet system. And my view is that the committee system is more open, more accountable.
PAUL STAINTON: Well you would say that, because you’re not in power.
NICK SANDFORD: Well I think it’s not just about giving more power to opposition councillors. What the committee system used to do, it meant there was a meaningful role for those members of the controlling group who weren’t in the cabinet. The problem with the cabinet system, particularly the extreme version of the cabinet system that we operate in Peterborough, is ..
PAUL STAINTON: When you say extreme ..
NICK SANDFORD: Well extreme in the sense that not only do we have power concentrated in the hands of the members of the Cabinet, our version means Marco as the Leader of the Council has a lot of personal power. And there’s probably two or three other Cabinet Members who have virtually all of the power, take all of the major decisions.
NICK SANDFORD: I would say Councillor Seaton as the Cabinet Member for Finance probably, and the Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care, and probably the Childrens’ Services Cabinet Membber.
PAUL STAINTON: They effectively run this city then?
NICK SANDFORD: Yes. If you look .. what happens is that although .. one of the features of the cabinet system that we’re not keen on is it gives a lot of power to individuals to take decisions themselves. And by an individual taking a decision, they make that in private, whereas we’d like to see, or I’d like to see, more decisions made in public through committees. And if you look at the decision notices that these Cabinet Members publish, if you put a pile of them on the table, you would see about 80% or 90% of them came from two or three Members of the Cabinet.
PAUL STAINTON: But things get done, don’t they, whereas if you go through committees, doesn’t it take forever, and you’ve all got to have a little chat about it. Then you’ve got to .. you have your chat and you have your chat and then it goes on and on and on. Doesn’t it take forever to get anything done?
NICK SANDFORD: Well I think when you’re spending millions of pounds on, in some cases, even hundreds of millions of pounds, it’s important that you have .. that the members of the public are consulted, and all the issues are properly examined. I’ve been on your programme talking about a number of issues over the years, like the secondary education review, even things like the trees in Bridge Street, where either people haven’t been consulted, or they’ve been consulted and their views have been ignored. I have to say, under the committee system, where a decision is urgent, you can do it in the same way that any committee does. You can delegate some power in urgent circumstances to the Chairman or a group of councillors.
PAUL STAINTON: Would it be more democratic to have a committee system?
NICK SANDFORD: I think so, yes. One of the things that the committee system, when we had it in the past, what it achieved was it meant that decisions could be challenged at the point that they’re happening. So myself as an opposition councillor, or a member of the public could turn up at committee and say to the controlling group, this decision that you’re putting through, have you considered it might have an impact on X, Y and Z. And on some occasions, the controlling group would say, yes, we hadn’t thought of that. We’ll take it back and we’ll think about it again. The problem with the cabinet and scrutiny system is you can get to scrutinise decisions, but it might be two weeks or three weeks after they’ve happened.
PAUL STAINTON: I don’t want to call Marco Cereste a turkey, but turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. You’ve got no chance, have you?
NICK SANDFORD: I think that’s true, and one of the things .. it’s one of the achievements that the Coalition Government has put through. ¬†Whereas the previous government, previous Labour and Conservative governments, prescribed how local authorities should be organised, how they should spend the money, the current government is giving a choice. But I think you’re absolutely right. There is a danger that there’s a saying that Lord Acton used, that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And I think what he was meaning there was that if you have power, you don’t want to give it up. So I think there’s a danger that we might see very few councils actually changing, because the controlling groups, or the personalities controlling the councils, will always want to keep the power to themselves.
PAUL STAINTON: Are your thoughts pure here Nick? You’re not politicking? It’s purely for the greater democratic good that you’re ..
NICK SANDFORD: Well, I’ve come to the conclusion, having seen both systems operating, I think the Government’s absolutely right to give local authorities the choice. The Government should not be prescribing. I don’t think I should make the choice. I think we should go out and talk to people. We should go out and talk to our constituents, explain the pros and cons of both systems, and see what people think. Far too often on Peterborough City Council it’s the Leader of the Council, or one or two other members, who prescribe what’s going to happen. What the Government’s doing is saying, you’ve actually got a choice. We’re not just talking about academic things here about constitutions. We’re talking about more openness,. more democracy, more accountability.
PAUL STAINTON: You might find, come the local elections, that a committee system might come in anyway, because who knows? There might be a different Leader. There might be a different party in power in Peterborough City Council. You never know.
NICK SANDFORD: I think that could happen. I think we should certainly explore all the possibilities.
PAUL STAINTON: Nick, thank you for that. Come 4th May then. councils across the country have their chance to scrap the current cabinet system. .. Should we have more people deciding what happens in Peterborough, or should it stay as it is, with as Peterbroough City Council have told us, a leader and a cabinet system. They say we’ll continue to go on like this, unless Full Council resolves to adopt a different type of governance arrangement offered by the Localism Act. “Any councillor may put forward a motion to Council to consider an alternative system. And the motion will be voted upon in the usual way. There is no obligation upon councils to change the current system. The Act simply allows them the freedom to do so if they wish.” And of course, at the moment, the Conservatives rule Peterborough City Council in a big way, don’t they? They’ve got a massive majority. But, come the local elections, things might change. You never know.

PAUL STAINTON: We did ask somebody from Peterborough City Council to come on and talk about this this morning, but they refused. However, Councillor David Seaton has been on the text this morning, and he says, “You can call in decisions Paul. Councillor Sandford has a very strange view of how cabinet works. Flattered he thinks I have such a big influence in Council, perhaps because I work so hard.” says David. Well, nice of you to text David, but it would have been nice for somebody from Peterborough City Council to agree to come on the show this morning, wouldn’t it? Text us if you want to come on.