Opinion: ‘We want representation for people’

Nick Sandford, leader of Peterborough City Council’s Lib Dem Group, writes...

Sunday, 20th June 2021, 2:37 pm
St Peter's Arcade was shut at the time but has since re-opened
St Peter's Arcade was shut at the time but has since re-opened

As I write this article, the sad news about the extension of Covid-19 restrictions for at least another month has just been confirmed.

This will not be good news for many in the hospitality industry and others in Peterborough. But maybe it is necessary for the protection of all our health.

But this is not an article about Covid-19, but rather about the way decisions are made. Because the Covid-19 announcement was leaked to the press in advance of it being announced in Parliament. This has outraged many MPs, including the Speaker of the House of Commons.

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And it does matter, because in a democracy Parliament is where decisions like this should be announced, so that government ministers can be questioned and held to account. But why is the relevant to Peterborough?

It’s relevant because this is not dissimilar to the way our Conservative controlled city council operates.

Take the “decision” about closure (and now re-opening) of the [St Peter’s] Arcade. It was “announced” early in the Covid pandemic that the arcade had to be closed “for health and safety reasons”.

Conveniently for some, when restrictions eased, it remained closed and provided outdoor seating for a nearby pub/restaurant.

Then Cllr Cereste (then cabinet member for street scene) announced he had decided the arcade would remain closed permanently. The mere suggestion of this outraged disability campaigners, and some other pedestrians were none too happy about it too. Some councillors pointed out that the council’s own transport policy says (and I quote): “…in all aspects of transport planning, priority should be given to pedestrians and cyclists…etc…etc”. A great example of the disconnect that we often see at PCC between what the council says (in the form of policies and strategies) and what actually happens on the ground.

Then there was a changing of the guard in May this year.

A new council leader: albeit still a Tory.

Enter, our good friend, Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald. So, he made another announcement: that the arcade would be re-opening: apparently he had never really wanted it to be closed.

As Mrs Thatcher once said: “Just rejoice at that news!” Well, yes we should. But we should also question, where was the public debate or democracy in either decision.

A closure by cabinet decree and a re-opening by the same process.

It’s a small example but revealing in what is wrong with Peterborough City Council and the “leader and cabinet” system, under which it is run.

A system where major decisions are taken not collectively by councillors at a public meeting but in secret by a few very powerful cabinet members ….all Tories. We can actually thank our former (Labour) PM Tony Blair for inflicting this system on local government. But, what many people do not realise, is there is an alternative. Since the passage of the Localism Act by the coalition government in 2011, councils now have a choice. So what is the alternative way of running councils and is it any more open, democratic and accountable?

You don’t need to go very far from Peterborough to find out. Our city council shares a chief executive, many other senior officers and a number of services with another council: Cambridgeshire County Council. That council is run under a “committee system”.

All major decisions are taken either at Full Council meetings (where all councillors can attend and vote) or by a series of service committees.

Why is that better? Because, except in rare circumstances, all committee meetings are held in public. People can see decisions being made and opposition councillors (and sometimes members of the public) can challenge decisions at the time they are being made.

Cambridgeshire County Council is now Liberal Democrat-led but this system also operated well under the previous Conservative administration.

Are Peterborough residents interested in what happens at council committee meetings? Well, maybe not... but they are interested in the impact of the way decisions are made.

People complain when they think the council is doing things to them, rather than doing things for them. Most people don’t want the hassle of being involved in every decision, but they want to be able to have their say and see that their views are taken into account and acted upon.

That is what Liberal Democrats believe also. Lib Dem councillors believe in empowering people in their localities: they keep residents informed by delivering regular Focus newsletters and seek their opinions through residents surveys at least once a year.

We also want to see the city council transformed, opened up and democratised: not just by making all decisions in public but also by decentralising power wherever possible to area committees and parish councils so that councillors elected to represent a particular area of the city take decisions that specifically affect that area and its residents.

People really do care about decisions that affect their everyday lives.