Thursday, 25 October 2012

Time to reform the structure of Cornwall Council

It has been an eventful and, let’s face it, rather chaotic ten days at County Hall with the loss of Alec Robertson as Council Leader followed by a series of bizarre events which resulted in every political grouping voting for a leader from someone else's party.

Alec Robertson deserves credit for the hard work he has put in over the last three an years. It is easy to criticise, but leading a divided council without a majority is a thankless task and there have been achievements. Under the last Lib Dem regime, Cornwall Council was one of the worst performing councils in the country, in the bottom four percent, adult social care and social services were in special measures and borrowing was out of control. Now it is one of the most improved councils in the country, adult care and social services are improving rapidly and the finances are back on track with council tax frozen.

The jury is still out on the new council which has its work cut out to establish authority. After the divisive events of last week, there was a very strong case for a “unity” administration where all parties worked together over the next six months for the good of Cornwall. Extraordinarily, the Lib Dems rejected an offer to work with the new council leader they themselves elected which shows a real lack of maturity on their part.

Once the dust settles, it will be important to learn lessons and sort out the institutional weaknesses inherent in the way this unitary authority was set up. Firstly, the notion that, after a vote of no confidence, councillors must elect a new leader immediately is clearly bonkers and the procedural rules need to be overhauled to enable an interim leader to act as caretaker for a couple of weeks to allow time for a considered transition to someone new.

Secondly, the council is too large and finds it difficult to reach clear decisions, so we should consider cutting the number of councillors. At the same time, we need to strengthen local accountability by passing more control to parish and town councils.

Finally, we need to review the way the council is structured. The advantage of the current "cabinet" system is that it is easier to make decisions but too many councillors feel excluded. The alternative is a "committee system" where more councillors are involved but it is harder to make decisions. A third option would be to replace the office of the Chief Executive with a directly elected Mayor for Cornwall with a political staff to manage the council day to day. However, my own favoured model is that pioneered by Kent County Council who have adopted a cross between a cabinet and a committee system which gives them the best of both worlds.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.