08:07 Tuesday 13th May 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[P]AUL STAINTON: Let’s get into the committee system that Cambridgeshire County Council are adopting today. They voted to abandon the local government cabinet model in May last year. Later this morning roles within the new system will be allocated. It’s proven to be a controversial decision, inciting Leader Martin Curtis to hand in his resignation. This is an edited excerpt from Martin Curtis’s blog, which has been voiced by one of our journalists.
VOICEOVER: “As I stand down as Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council I thought I would end my term of office with a series of articles which highlight where I think Cambridgeshire is on a service by service basis, and explain the concerns about why the change of direction forced on the Council is not good for you the Cambridgeshire resident. My view has always been that the decision to implement committees as the response to moving to no overall control was wrong. The decision to move to committees was made at the first full Council meeting after May’s election, with 39 out of 69 councillors newly elected. More than half of the Council had no experience of working in a county council. In those circumstances, nobody could convince a reasonable person that it was a well thought out decision, but it was one that practically ties us to a committee system for five years. So if it doesn’t work, the decision made in haste without any depth of thought leaves you the council tax payer stuck with a failing system for the next five years.”
PAUL STAINTON: That’s Martin Curtis’ words voiced up by one of our journalists. Not a big fan it’s safe to assume. He describes it as a decision made in haste without any depth of thought, and he claims it’s a system no longer supported by the majority of the Council. However we heard earlier from Catherine Staite the Director of University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies. She says there are pros and cons to each system, and the success of the Council will depend on how councillors work with officers.
CATHERINE STAITE: A lot of backbenchers have got frustrated in the cabinet and scrutiny system, feeling that they as local members don’t have the amount of say that they would like to have, and therefore they feel that by spreading the power across committees, that would give more people opportunities. I think that does work to a certain extent, but I think a local authority the size of Cambridgeshire is an enormous business. It requires strategic leadership, and there’s a risk that if you spread the power out too widely, it would take too long to make a decision.
PAUL STAINTON: That’s Catherine. Well joining me in the studio now is Chief Executive of Cambridgeshire County Council Mark Lloyd. Mark, morning.
MARK LLOYD: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Nice to see you. Is this true democracy at work now, or are we going to be in some sort of state of paralysis as is the fear?
MARK LLOYD: The reality is that the people of Cambridgeshire last May voted for a Council that has no one party in the majority. For the last thirteen years the Council has run a cabinet system of governance, and that put the control in the hands of small group of politicians drawn from the majority party. Now we face a situation where no party is in the majority. Therefore councillors have voted to have a distributed system of managing the Council that will bring in the voices from all of the political parties. And that system starts today.
PAUL STAINTON: But the fear is that there will be arguments, there will be rancour, there will be no agreements. It will take forever to get things done. And this is an incredibly important time for Cambridgeshire, with the A14, Northstowe and other projects on the horizon.
MARK LLOYD: You’re absolutely right it’s an important time. You need to add to your list dealing with austerity, because there is at least another five years of reductions in public expenditure to come. But what we should have, if we run the committee system well, are the voices from across the spectrum of politics, representing the full range of views of the population of Cambridgeshire. And the committees will make decisions, because they’ll have no choice but to make decisions. I spent yesterday with my senior officer colleagues, going through the agendas for the first round of committee meetings.. There are some really big issues on there, and the councillors on those committees, even though they’ll be brand new to their role, will be faced with some tough choices. And the reality of running a public service today means they’ll have to make those choices. And I’m confident that they will.
PAUL STAINTON: In a way, most people see democracy in this way, don’t they? They see everybody having a say. But when you look at Cambridgeshire and you look at other authorities, as a business effectively, they need to be run like a business, don’t they? Not like a democracy, they need to be run like a business.
MARK LLOYD: Well it’s both. It’s a public service organisation, led by people who represent Cambridgeshire. So they need to bring the views in as democratically elected individuals, and then we need to run the organisation in a business-like way. The lady from the University of Birmingham is absolutely right. We have to make sure that we continue to provide strong leadership for Cambridgeshire. We’ll do that in a cross-party way in the future, rather than through one party when we had majority politics in play.
PAUL STAINTON: Are you confident this will work?
MARK LLOYD: I am confident.
PAUL STAINTON: As well as it worked in the past?
MARK LLOYD: It will work well. The job of us as officers is to make sure we support our councillors, our elected bosses.
PAUL STAINTON: Because obviously your Leader didn’t think it would work very well.
MARK LLOYD: I’ll come back to that in a second. So it’s our job to make sure that we as officers support our elected bosses to make this system work well. And what we’ve also done, as well as setting up the five service committees that will run the parts of our organisation, the chair and the vice-chair of each of those committees will come together in one place to try and make sure we run this like a management board. So that will bring the oversight and the coherence to what we’re doing as a council. Because one of the criticisms of the old committee system, and what we’ve tried to do is to invent a new one fit for today, one of the criticisms of the old system was that you end up with fiefdoms or silos that were disconnected from everything else. And through bringing the chairs and the vice-chairs together in something that we’re calling a general purposes committee. Not a great title I have to say, but through that committee we’ll try and ensure that we can continue to maintain a coherent approach to leading and managing the Council, through our five service committees.
PAUL STAINTON: Your Leader, as I said, doesn’t think this is going to work. That’s why he’s walked away. And quite vitriolic, some of the things he said, and very angry. If he doesn’t think it will work, I mean he was the Leader.
MARK LLOYD: Yes. I really really enjoyed working with Cllr Martin Curtis over the last twelve months when he was Leader of the Council. He’s a great contributor to life in this county, super, and it’s a real shame he’s chosen to step away right now.
PAUL STAINTON: I’m sure many people listening to this show have heard him on here before, talking a lot of common sense.
MARK LLOYD: Yes. Absolutely. He is a common sense politician, and as I’ve said an absolute pleasure to work with. Councillor Curtis is I think the fifth Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council since it was set up. names that your listeners will recognise, going back a little way we’ve got councillor Keith Walters, councillor Shona Johnstone, councillor Jill Tuck, councillor Nick Clarke. And then most recently councillor Martin Curtis as we’ve said. They’ve all provided strong leadership in majority politics. And what we’ve got now is a situation where no one party controls the Council. So we need a different formula, and a different way of working together. The Conservative group on Friday, which is the largest single group but not in a majority, appointed a new leader of their group to replace councillor Curtis. He’s councillor Steve Count. Councillor Steve Count already met with the other leaders of the political groups, the four other groups, and he’s confirmed that his group wants to take part in a collaborative approach to making the County Council work for the benefit of the residents of Cambridgeshire. So as some of your previous correspondents have said, it all comes down to the commitment and the will of the politicians. And right now, they’re all committed to doing the best to make the system work, even if it wouldn’t have been their first choice.
PAUL STAINTON: If it doesn’t work, and I hope it does, obviously, if it doesn’t work, will there be a review? Will you have a review after a couple of years?
MARK LLOYD: Within the committee system it’s in the gift of councillors to tweak and adjust the model. But we are committed to having a committee system of governance for five years,.
PAUL STAINTON: So no review.
MARK LLOYD: We have the system for five years. But of course there’ll be reviews. And indeed the group of councillors that engineered the model that starts today said they will keep the system under review, and will tweak and adjust, as anybody would in any organisation, who have a particular form of governance in place.
PAUL STAINTON: I know you don’t want to get into the politics of it all for obvious reasons, but one of Martin Curtis’ accusations was that certain groups on the Council were making life difficult for the Conservatives, and other groups were getting in with other groups, and falling out. If this all goes pear-shaped in a year from now, and there’s no agreement, we can’t get on with Northstowe, the A14 becomes a problem, the austerity measures become a problem, nobody’s voting, people are playing tit-for-tat politics, and we’re committed to it for five years, what do we do?
MARK LLOYD: We simply have to face up to addressing the issues that face the residents of Cambridgeshire, our business community, and the Council as an organisation. So the reality is when the chips are down, people will have to deal with those issues. So we will need, twelve months from now we will need to set a budget for this council. We’ll be doing it through a committee system. One of my earliest conversations with the leaders of the five political groups was about how we were to do that. And we anticipate bringing to the Council next February a set of budget proposals that are not contested, because they’ll have been worked up across each of the parties, working as a collaborative. So I am confident that we as the officer team can support our councillors to make this work. They’ve all signalled to me as of now that they have a commitment to make this work. Ultimately the responsibility will rest with them to deliver on that commitment.
PAUL STAINTON: We shall see.