Residents’ group calls to reform council structure for ‘more transparency’

Havering Town Hall. Picture: Ken Mears

Havering Town Hall. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

A new residents’ group is calling for more transparency and more democracy in council decision-making.

It’s Our Havering, made up of business owners and residents, was originally formed to challenge a change in car parking prices in Havering last year.

Now, the cross-party group wants to bring change to the way decisions are made in the council.

A spokesperson said: “Our borough is slowly on a downward spiral.

“Funding cuts to SEND charity First Step, parking charge increases, selling the pitch and putt course, gerrymandering allegations - we are concerned by local political decisions.

“We’ve become quite a big group and we thought about how we could legally change the system to have more transparency about how it’s run.”

“Anything they [the cabinet] want, they can just bulldoze through because they have a majority. There should be fair share in each committee making decisions from parties across wards and alliances, rather than a Romford-centric council.”

The group proposes reverting to the old committee-style of council organisation.

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Currently, the executive management of the council – the council leader and a cabinet of seven – make most of the day-to-day decisions.

What is the committee-style of decision-making?

In the old committee-style, all councillors had a direct say in most council policy decisions. Proposals were initially referred to specialist subcommittees or committees of councillors covering relevant subject areas.

This “bottom-up” method meant every councillor sat on at least one committee and therefore had a direct input, however minor into the policymaking process. Committee meetings were couched as “recommendations”, subject to final council approval.

Why did they change it to a leader-cabinet structure?

In 2000, the Tony Blair government changed the decision-making process.

The idea was to introduce a way to speed up council decisions by reducing committees’ tendency to delay final decisions and introduce a quicker cabinet and council leader style structure, which came into force with the Local Government Act.

The biggest difference meant non-cabinet didn’t have a say in the majority of decisions but although they have less input in daily decisions now, for the most significant decisions which affect two or more wards or ones that incur significant amounts of funding, then a full council is called to approve such decisions.

How could it revert?

Following severe criticism of the reforms and a lack of equally distributed powers of the new councils in the 2000s, under David Cameron, the Localism Act 2011 was passed whereby councils can be permitted to bypass or abandon the leader and cabinet systems.

It’s Our Havering’s petition calling for reform has to get 5 per cent of the electoral vote, which in Havering is 8,000. If this happens, it has to be put to a referendum. Currently the petition has more than 2,000 signatures.

Since the 2011 act, some councils have reverted back to the old style.

In Havering, at a council meeting on September 9, a “constitutional review” was put forward to debate Residents’ and Upminster and Cranham Residents Associations’ Groups.

The motion said that “in Havering, under the current leadership, democracy, fairness and the rule of law have been eroded over the past two years to the detriment of this council”.

The motion called for an “urgent review” of council procedure rules, overview and scrutiny committee procedure rules and the committee procedure rules.

The Conservative Group responded saying it recognised the “well-developed system of overview and scrutiny” in Havering,“empowering all non-executive councillors to take part within democratic debate”.

It said the administration has kept all members of the council informed and updated during the national lockdown with weekly all-member briefs and weekly group leader meetings, “going significantly above and beyond what many other authorities did”.

The group added that the monitoring officer will examine the constitution and make recommendations to the government committee, for any areas that “require modernisation”.