Creating debate within Dorset Council

Earlier this month, at a full meeting of Dorset Council, I spoke against paying six newly appointed Lead Members an additional allowance of £10,000. These new positions have been created to assist certain cabinet members with their portfolio. Whilst I do not think that now, with so many people facing a very uncertain financial future as a result of the Covid restrictions, and with Council itself having taken a substantial financial hit, was the right time to do this, the argument I tried to make was somewhat different. I tried to say that I would feel much more inclined to support these allowances if the new posts were open to all councillors, not just those who are members of the ruling party. The problem with the current cabinet system is that it either dampens debate, or hides it from public scrutiny. This became very obvious at this week’s Cabinet meeting.

Either there is very little (if any) discussion and debate at Cabinet level (which I find very hard to believe) or this debate occurs in private. On both counts this is very unhealthy. At all the Cabinet meetings that I have attended there are a range of proposals on the agenda for official approval. For each one the cabinet member responsible presents the report and its recommendations. Following this there is the opportunity for other members to ask questions (which usually receive straight forward replies). However, even if a councillor manages to provoke something approaching a debate, by the time it comes to the cabinet deciding on the proposal you get the very strong impression that everything has already been decided. The Chair invites the Cabinet to approve the agenda item, and they do. Simples. Which leads to the obvious questions: Do the Cabinet members not have questions? How can they always be in agreement? The answer to these are yes, they must have; and, they can’t. The problem is that these questions and any dissent are not aired in front of their fellow councillors and any members of the public who decide to attend. I can’t help thinking that this might change if members of different parties were involved in the background discussions.

Also at Cabinet is the opportunity for councillors and members of the public to ask questions on any topic that they think important. These questions get a formal reply from the Cabinet member responsible. And when I say formal I mean the reading of a written statement that more often than not tries to avoid directly answering the question asked. A really good example of this occurred this week when a member of the public asked: “In view of the ongoing crisis in the affordability of housing for younger working people in Dorset, does the cabinet have any plans to build or provide ‘Council Housing’”? This question about the future received a factual statement of the present in reply: “Dorset Council is a non-stock holding authority. It does not have a Housing Revenue Account and therefore is unable to access finance and borrow money to build houses in the same way Councils with their own housing stock can.” This was a classic example of avoiding the question. And there was no opportunity for the avoidance to be challenged.

Whilst only approximately half of local authorities still have a Housing Revenue Account (HRA) there is nothing, as far as I can see, to prevent them from opening one again. Doing so would enable the Council to borrow money cheaply to build their own housing stock, and to have more control over that housing stock in terms of building specifications and cost than they do over other social housing providers. What I find so frustrating is knowing how to get a serious debate started within the Council. In this and many other areas (our response to the climate crisis for example) I feel that any debate that does take place takes place behind closed doors – safely away from any unwanted influence or awkward questions. This is unhealthy. No one, and no political party has all the answers to the problems we face. The decisions we make need to be made after listening to as many viewpoints as possible, after drawing on the widest range of experience and expertise that we have. This is why I am so opposed to the Cabinet system of local government.

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