Barnet Council to scrap cabinet system in move to ‘greater local democracy’
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
Barnet Council leader Cllr Richard Cornelius describes it as a “step towards greater local democracy”.
In just over a week, the council will conclude its public consultation on proposals to shake-up the way town hall decisions are made by scrapping the council’s cabinet and replacing it with a cross-party committee.
The changes, set to take effect from June next year, will mark a return to a process of decision-making in place during the years of Tory rule in Barnet up until 1994 when it was replaced by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.
At the turn of the millennium, armed with legislative powers bestowed by New Labour’s Local Government Act 2000, the Labour-Lib Dem axis brought an end to the Tory way of doing things.
The coalition council introduced a cabinet comprised of Labour and Lib Dem councillors to make decisions on all budgetary issues affecting the borough, rather than a committee compiled of councillors from all three political parties.
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But that is all set to change again after Barnet’s full council, now returned to Tory control, agreed in January that Barnet’s system of governance be changed from an executive system to a committee system.
It will spell the end of the cabinet and the individual portfolios that its current members are tasked with. Instead decisions will be taken by committees with responsibility for particular themes and made up of members from all political parties in proportion to their representation on the council.
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The changes follow the Localism Act 2011 which gives local authorities greater choice over which system is used.
Barnet’s leader Cllr Cornelius said: “The real idea is that all councillors should be involved in decision-making rather than a tiny group. The current system was imposed on us. We didn’t want it and this is the first opportunity to get rid of it.
“With these changes, opposition councillors won’t be able to say, ‘It wasn’t our decision mate, it was someone else’. It shares the work out too. Everybody on the cabinet gets pretty knackered so this gives some extra work to backbenchers.”
The new system will also see the scrapping of scrutiny ‘watchdog’ committees which unnecessarily delay the decision-making process, according to Cllr Cornelius.
It is a view flatly rejected by Barnet Labour leader, Cllr Alison Moore.
“I think there has been a real failure in the last 10 years to effectively use scrutiny as a policy development process,” said Cllr Moore. “This has led to a huge waste of talent and disillusionment from councillors outside the cabinet.”
Cllr Moore also questioned the efficiency of the proposed new system, arguing that without the hours of behind-the-scenes work carried out by cabinet members and officers currently, the new committees will be forced to attend countless meetings for decisions to be made.
She added: “It raises some questions on how we can ensure timely decision-making which is democratically accountable and effective.”
Barnet’s Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Jack Cohen has experienced both the executive and committee system, having served on the council since 1986, and takes a very different view from Cllr Moore.
“The cabinet system was a total disaster,” he said. “It put the power in too few hands and left ordinary backbench councillors with no authority whatsoever and very little idea of what was going on.
“So I’m a great supporter of the committee system if it’s done properly. It’s more transparent.”
However, for all the new system’s supposed advantages, Cllr Cohen conceded: “If one party has a huge overall majority they will still retain overall control over the committee, so they could stitch things up behind the scenes and have a veneer of democracy at the committee.”
For more information, and to comment on the consultation, visit engage.barnet.gov.uk