Happy families

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.

Policy prospectus decidedly short on specifics. Appears that the Greens aren’t keen on a return to the committee system?

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.

So where next for the York Council

The LibDems emerged from Thursday’s elections with the most seats. …..but they are short of an overall majority.
The York Council HQ at West Offices

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 entirely bogus.

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 information).

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.