CABINET could stay as the “top table” for Herefordshire Council if all parties choose to take a seat.
In a letter to the Hereford Times, former deputy chairman of the council Cllr Chris Chappell says the abolition of cabinet in favour of committees is wrong.
The cabinet system faces a ground breaking survival vote when the full council meets on September 26.
Cllr Chappell, who defected from the Labour group to the Independents a year ago, is fighting for cabinet to stay saying a single executive body cannot be completely replaced by committee made decisions.
“Someone has to be held accountable for implementing committee decisions, and to make the daily decisions that come up in any executive members portfolio,” said Cllr Chappell.
“There is already argument that Council takes too long to make decisions. With solely a committee run Council, there has by law, to be an agenda published and seven working days notice published, before meeting can take place, too long to get Balfour t,for example, to be asked to take on extra gully cleaning duties,” he said.
Ahead of the cabinet vote, the Independent is examining options for a more flexible system that offers “backbench” councillors a greater say in decisions, along with stronger scrutiny.
Cllr Chappell sees a solution in an “executive of all the talents” with input from each party.
“I hope that It’s Our County, the Lib Dems, Greens and if they wish, the Tories, will join the Independents now, to draw up a new system of government prior to May's election. We need to consult the public too, all of which takes time. Once decided, a new Constitution and Standing Orders will need to be drafted,” he said.
A similar concept was rejected by opposition parties when offered by the Tories in December last year.
As deputy chairman, Cllr Chappell seconded a motion in January this year that effectively ended the taking of named votes at full council unless that named vote had the support of eight or more members.
The way is clear for councillors to end cabinet control of the council should members vote to do so.
Legislation allows for the council to re-adopt a committee system of governance with relative ease.
A combined opposition vote at the September 26 meeting would defeat any Tory attempt to defend cabinet.
The Tory group currently controls the council – through cabinet – as a minority.
A committee system is still a permitted form of council governance under the Localism Act 2011.
The Act allows for a change in governance arrangements through a full council resolution.
A notice must also be published informing the public that the council intends to change its governance arrangements having passed a resolution to support the change.
Copies of the documents detailing the changes must also be available for inspection.
Ending cabinet control would also require a re-write of the council’s constitution.
Once a council has passed a resolution to change its governance arrangements, the Act says those arrangements cannot change again for another five years, unless the second resolution is approved following a referendum.
Cabinet control of the council could over ahead of the next local elections if full council votes for the abolition motion at its meeting on September 26.
The motion is proposed by Cllr Terry James, Lib-Dem group leader, who headed the council’s first cabinet in 1999.
Support for the motion is expected from the Independent group and It’s Our County (IOC).
Alternatives to cabinet include a wider ranging committee system and more voting power for the full council.
Cllr James said successive cabinets had come to forget their purpose to appear as little more than a body delegating decisions to officers rather than running the council.
“We see millions of pounds being spent on setting up new offices at Plough Lane and Hereford Shire Hall while grass doesn’t get cut to save a few thousand,” he said.
Dissatisfaction with the cabinet system has simmered on the council’s “backbenches” for some years.
Many members believe cabinet stifles their voice and diminishes the role of ward councillor.
Equally long-running are concerns over “closed doors” when key or sensitive decisions are discussed.
IT’s Our County (IOC) leader Cllr Anthony Powers said his party was already “actively exploring” alternatives to cabinet that could be presented as policy.
“There is a need to re-build the council’s decision-making processes. Cabinet leaves too many decisions to too few, more councillors should be getting a greater say in decisions,” said Cllr Powers.
Cllr Bob Matthews, Independent group leader, said his members wanted “changes in some form” to decision making ahead of the election.
Those changes, said Cllr Matthews, centred on ideas around a system that was based more around specific committees than a single cabinet – spreading the scope of representation.
Cabinet, as such, could be made up of the committee chairman with the council leader getting the casting vote, he said.
The intention to change, outlined by Cllr Matthews in a letter to the Hereford Times earlier this month, moved the abolition motion forward.
The role of scrutiny is widely seen as in need of an overhaul too.
In May, the Independents and Tories took control of the overview and scrutiny committee, ousting the IOC chairman and deputy chairman.
That move brought fears over the political and strategic function of scrutiny - as a body specifically set up to challenge cabinet decision making – to the fore.
The concept of a cabinet was one the first executive issues to face Herefordshire Council from its start in 1998.
Then, a government white paper outlined the abolition of traditional committee and sub-committee systems, seen as diffusing responsibility and leaving voters unclear as where decision making powers lay.
The then group leaders were united on the idea of a cabinet that met only behind closed doors – as the white paper allowed.
Arguments in favour of closed doors cited the “openness” offered by mixed party scrutiny committees responsible for specific service areas.
The Hereford Times led calls for cabinet to open its doors, but resistance to the body meeting in public continued to January 2000 ahead of a reform motion being put to full council .
That motion was headed off in the chamber, with the then council leader Cllr James conceding that cabinet proceedings would go public.
The size of cabinet, and the roles available within it, has fluctuated since with opposition leaders allowed a say at each meeting and local members when issues specific to constituencies were discussed.