Not unexpectedly York Liberal Democrats have announced that they are entering into a “partnership” with the York Green Party to run the York Council. Together the two groups can command a majority of the votes on the new Council.
it was perhaps too much to expect that the new administration would have some policy announcements to underpin the “happy families” photographs. They may be right to adopt a cautious approach although there are pressing issues to be addressed not least those relating to empty property, strategic planning, financial strategy and hiccups in leisure programmes.
As a minimum we would have expected the two parties to have issued a statement indicting how the new authority would be managed. We await confirmation that they will attempt to re-introduce all party decision making committees for example.
There is also the “elephant in the room”. Lack of transparency has been a hallmark of the York Council for the last 8 years. The Council has become semi detached from people who live in the City. Assurances that this will change in the future are needed before any new officials take office on 22nd May.
NB. The Liberal Democrat Group has not announced who its officers will be for the forthcoming year. The Leader of the Group would also expect to become Leader of the Council next week, so there is a certain amount of urgency.
The LibDems emerged from Thursday’s elections with the most seats. …..but they are short of an overall majority.
The onus will be on their Leader Keith Aspden to negotiate a programme which will guide the City through, what are likely to be, 4 challenging years.
He would be wise to pause for thought. The immediate aftermath
of a successful election – and the hyperbole that surrounds it – doesn’t always
provide the best environment for considered decision making.
There is, however, an element of urgency. Towards the end of
the last coalition administration growing tensions were evident. They weren’t restricted
to the, rapidly disintegrating, Tory group members. Decisions were put on the back
burner while some long held LibDem polices were jettisoned.
That needs to change quickly.
If a coalition arrangement is to continue, then the only two
groups which could together commend a majority in the Council chamber are the LibDems
and the Green Party.
The latter are not
famous for their tight discipline and consistency. But it could work if a policy
programme could be agreed. If they are to negotiate, then the Greens must not
overplay their hand. They remain a small party with limited electoral appeal. They
need to identify a small number of policy areas where tangible change – and improvement
– is deliverable. It will mean some realism about what is possible given the financial
constraints placed on the Council.
There are two areas where there may be common ground between
the two parties.
The first relates to the way in which the Council does its business.
The “Strong Leader” executive model may
work efficiently where there is a party with an overall majority. It is markedly
less successful where the Council is “balanced”. It reached its nadir when, two
years ago, the then Tory Council Leader summarily sacked two (LibDem) members of
the Executive. It later turned out that the justification for doing so was
A return to the committee system may be a potential area of
agreement. The system allows for all members of the Council to participate
directly in the decision-making process. No party, after all, has a monopoly on wisdom
The Committee system might also help to address the second
major failing of the Council – a lack of transparency. The Greens said in their
manifesto that there should be a presumption in favour of disclosure (of
They were right.
At the moment the Council hides behind an opaque wall of silence.
Freedom of Information requests flourish. The costs of answering them are
greater than would have been the expense of voluntarily publishing information routinely.
With openness people would come to trust the Council more.
There are other more specific policies which would signal that
change had taken place.
Public service standards in the poorer wards continue to decline. Life expectancy is lower there and obesity levels – and lack of attractive active leisure facilities – are higher.
The LibDems could
address their growing “Middle England” image by prioritising a programme
focusing on improving public services in the poorer neighbourhoods
The voting patterns on Thursday revealed that the electoral turnout was as much as 15 points down in neglected wards when compared to the leafy suburbs and villages.
That can’t be good for democracy and may explain why some extreme politicians have seen success over recent years. Extremism feeds on disillusion and neglect.
Action now may be the best way for the politicians of the centre
to consolidate their influence on the reins of power in the future.
Of course, it takes two to tango and there may not be a majority for discursive decision making on the new Council.
If so, the LibDems may try to establish a minority administration.
If they do, they would be wise to spread power around the Council chamber as far as they are able. Scrutiny committees should be chaired by opposition Councillors, as should the influential Audit committee.
There are experienced independent Councillors who could contribute by taking senior roles in the planning process.
Whatever happens an early statement of intent will be expected
by the residents of York.
It looks like the coalition, that has run the Council for the last 3 years, will be coming to an end.
The faction that plunged daggers into the back of the last Tory Leader are now re-sharpening their blades. They hope to cut into core public service standards in the City. Four right wingers, emboldened by national changes in the Tory party, are demanding low (or zero) Council Tax increases funded by a widespread close down of public services like libraries. They are disparagingly referred to by other, more moderate, Tories as the “Wild Bunch”.
On the other side of the Council, new Labour Councillors lack experience and historical perspective. They embrace a high tax, high borrowing philosophy. They cite “austerity” as the cause of all evils without actually explaining how any alternative would be funded (or even allowed by central government). Despite adopting locally the Corbynite tactic of never quite explaining their policies (e.g. Europe, single market, tax etc), the Labour group is clearly now far to the left of anything seen in the City during the last 60 years. Many experienced, moderate Labour representatives have quit, or are likely to face the “Momentum” ice pick, before the May 2019 Council elections.
So should the LibDems seek to reach an administration agreement with either of these Groups?
The answer is probably “yes”.
The City faces a difficult year. It is a time when Councillors, from all sides, should put York first. That inevitably means compromise and ideally seeking a broad consensus on dealing with issues.
The Council can now choose to revert to the committee system which was used to run the City until 1995. Councillors from all parties (and none) would be more directly involved in the decision making processes
Council officials – some of whom must bear some of the blame for the current crisis – will need to burn the midnight oil if an alternative constitutional model is to be made available in time for the Council’s annual meeting, which is scheduled to take place on 24th May.
There are many other Local Authorities who now operate using the committee model. These include the Nottinghamshire County Council (Tory/Ind majority), Kingston (Conservative), Sutton (LibDem), South Gloucestershire (Conservative), Brighton and Hove (Green when Committee system adopted, now NOC), Newark and Sherwood (Conservative), Barnet (Conservative), Norfolk (Conservative, NOC when Committee system adopted) & Reading (Labour)
Numerous smaller authorities never changed to the “Cabinet/Leader” governance model.
Some councils have chosen to create versions of the Leader/Cabinet system (which means that they do not require a formal change under the Act) that include aspects of the committee system.
The most common arrangement is to set up non-decision making group of councillors, usually corresponding to cabinet portfolios, which examine papers and make recommendations about how decisions should be made. This system worked in a balanced Council in York between 2007 and 2010 (Labour then decided that they would not participate) The decisions are subsequently made at meetings of the cabinet or by individual cabinet members, and may well follow the recommendations of the ‘committees’ although they are not legally required to do so.
Either way, it is time to put personal and party ambitions to one side and do what is best for the City.