The need to exercise democracy

I’ve been reminded of that famous quote about democracy from Winston Churchill this week: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” There is no perfect form of either national or local government, but if we want to avoid the slow creep towards oppression, abuse of power and ever growing inequality we need to nurture the democratic process. We need to guard against its erosion by people who either allow political power to go to their heads or to their bank accounts. Whilst the notion of political sleaze has resurfaced in Westminster this last week, with even the normally loyal Conservative supporting press starting to ask questions, it’s the more subtle erosion of democracy within Dorset Council that I want to focus on.

But first, let’s be clear about what I mean by democracy. We have a representational democracy, which means that for both national and local government citizens elect representatives to make decisions of their behalf. As it is not possible for an elected councillor or MP to know what the majority of the people they represent think on any particular issue it is incumbent on them to think for themselves and then be judged on their decision making at the next election. Democracy only works when those elected fully participate in the process of government. It’s the erosion of this ability to participate that most concerns me.

In last week’s post I wrote about my anger at the decision to not allow a motion (concerning the Climate & Ecological Emergency Bill) that another councillor and I had submitted for debate at last Thursday’s Full Council meeting. Well, I was finally given an explanation for this decision. I was told that it was because “it does not relate sufficiently to the responsibilities of the Full Council and does not directly affect the Council.” This statement echoes Standing Order 14.2(a)(i) which states that a valid notice of motion should be “about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the council or the district.” This is all a matter of interpretation. I would argue the opposite, that because the Council’s Climate & Ecological Emergency Strategy document clearly states that “The Council has a key role in lobbying government for clear policy and financial support required for the transition to a zero-carbon future and to actively participate in national forums and consultations on policy development” it very much does relate to its responsibilities. But in terms of the erosion of democracy, this decision should have been made by a full body councillors. I should have had the opportunity to make my argument. The decision should not have been made by an officer together with one or two councillors from the ruling party!

Another example of this erosion of democracy concerns the Cabinet system. Rather than Full Council being asked to endorse decisions made by council committees (comprising councillors from all political parties according to the ratio of their electoral success), most local authorities operate the system whereby Full Council is asked to endorse decisions made by an executive committee of the ruling party. On the surface this is a very open process. I can attend meetings of the cabinet. I can ask questions on any of the reports being discussed. Except there is no discussion. No debate. Any question asked gets a very factual response. And when it comes to approving a report, in the vast, vast majority of cases the chairman simply asks if other cabinet members approve, and they all say yes. No discussion amongst cabinet members. No debate. No challenging questions. I really find it hard to believe that questions, or even concerns, do not occur to members of the cabinet. But if they do, when are they aired? When are they discussed?

The recently approved Council’s ‘Member’s Code of Conduct’ clearly states that “councillors should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.” If the questions, discussions and debate that result in decisions made by the Cabinet are not taking place during Cabinet meetings, then where and when are they? Assuming that the brains of Cabinet members are working (and I have every reason to believe they are) then these members are not being very open in their decisions. More importantly, without this open debate we have no way of knowing whether Cabinet members are failing to “act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias”. Let me be clear, I am not accusing Cabinet members of breaking the ‘objectivity’ requirement of the Code of Conduct. I’m simply saying that without open discussion how do we know? How can I, as a councillor representing residents of Bridport, effectively challenge, let alone participate in, decisions made?

I also have growing concerns about the planning system, concerns that, I admit, need a great deal more thinking through. For purely practical purposes approximately 95% of all planning decisions are made by planning officers under delegated authority. If our planning committees heard all the applications received they would be sitting constantly. My main concern here is that many of these officers make very conservative (small ‘c’ – I’m not suggesting any political bias) and safe decisions, particularly when it regards heritage buildings – not approving solar panels and double glazing on listed buildings for example. Planning guidelines, like the Council’s Standing Orders, require interpretation. They are written in abstract terms that need applying in particular situations. They often also need balancing against other guidelines. I’m starting to feel frustrated, however, that these guidelines are not being interpreted in the way many councillors would like, particularly in relation to our climate and ecological emergency. I will write more on planning in future posts.

The value of a healthy democracy is that the electorate genuinely think and feel that they are being listened to, and do not feel that they are being used simply to give politicians the power they believe so many crave. But to allow the heart of democracy to beat in a healthy fashion it needs to be exercised. Politicians, all politicians, need to be allowed to engage in the decision making process and to be totally open regarding any and all decisions they make.

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