Opportunities lost

At last week’s meeting of Dorset Council I found myself in a difficult situation. One of the principle items on the agenda was the Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Strategy, which was finally ready for adoption. I didn’t want the Council to reject this strategy – it contains much to be valued, and it is surely better to have a strategy than not. But, and this is a big ‘but’, it lacks the vision, it lacks the ambition, and, most importantly, it lacks the sense of mission that I genuinely believe is necessary if we are going safeguard the wellbeing of current and future residents of Dorset.

For example, my original CEE motion to Council (which was referred to the cross-party panel that ‘advised’ on the creation of the strategy, and which has never been debated) called for the development of a Dorset wide transport strategy that discouraged car use, encouraged walking and cycling, and brought about drastically improved rail and bus services. This has not been addressed by the strategy. One way this could be achieved would be to develop an idea sketched out in the Royal Town and Planning Institute research paper ‘Net Zero Transport’, published earlier this year. This could develop Dorset into a network of eco-towns, towns with high levels of self-sufficiency that facilitate local living and the local economy, connected by a comprehensive public transport infrastructure.

Such an idea would require what the economist Marianna Mazzucato calls a mission-oriented approach, a way of thinking that “is about setting targets that are ambitious but also inspirational, [that are] able to catalyse innovation across multiple sectors and actors in the economy. It is about imagining a better future and organising public and private investments to achieve that future.” An approach like this would put the problem of achieving net zero living at the centre of a redesigned Dorset economy. That, I truly believe, is the level of vision and ambition we need to adopt. But sadly the strategy I voted with a very heavy heart to accept gets nowhere near such levels. The battle continues.

The other item which I was hoping to speak on was a motion from the Leader of the LibDem group calling for the Council change its model of governance. The current model is one where the main decisions are made by a cabinet of ten members selected by an elected leader. The motion called upon the Council to adopt a model where these decisions are made by a number of committees made up of members from all political groups in proportion to that group’s success at the previous election. For example: at the 2019 election 43 Conservative councillors were elected out of a total of 82 (52%); so rather than a 100% Conservative cabinet making the decisions, they would be made by committees containing only 52% Conservative councillors.

I wanted to voice my support for this motion on two grounds. First, from a philosophical perspective, because definitive answers or solutions to any problem simply do not exist. It is impossible to say, with an absolute sense of certainty, this is how things should be, and this is how we achieve it. There are no ideal models for human behaviour or relationships existing in some Platonic heaven, and due to the inherent uncertainty of all complex systems there is no guaranteed way of achieving any desired outcome. No, the only way to conduct our affairs is by listening to all perspectives. All views and opinions, reflecting the views of all the residents of Dorset, not just those of a small group of the majority party, need considering and debating. This is the only way to make important democratic decisions that affect the lives of those people living and working in Dorset.

Second, because one of the seven principles of public life (incorporated into our members Code of Conduct) is openness: “Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.” I see no evidence of such openness from our current Cabinet system. When I have attended cabinet the vast majority of decisions have been unanimous – with no debate, no exploration of alternatives, no transparency of decision making at the actual meeting. The members of the cabinet are not unintelligent; they must have questions to ask; they must have differences of opinion; they must feel the need to at least challenge some of the reports they are presented with. But as none of this is evident at the cabinet meeting open to the public, press and other councillors I can only assume it is taking place behind closed doors. A healthy democracy requires these doors to be opened.

Sadly I never got an opportunity to make these arguments because the ‘debate’ quickly descended into farce. In fact it hardly deserves the name ‘debate’. None of the key issues were examined, none of the main arguments were made. My interpretation of events is that the Leader of the Council, sensing the real possibility of defeat, introduced an amendment that would have effectively kicked the issue in the long grass. Fortunately a yet further amendment was introduced, and supported by a majority of councillors, that will require the Council to decide this issue before the next elections in 2024. I think it really sad, and not good for democracy, that the opportunity to discuss, examine and debate these important issues was lost.

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