Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Corporate Governance Working Party

The second meeting of the Corporate Governance Working Party took place on Tuesday lunchtime. The first meeting a couple of weeks earlier had been a real shambles. This time, at least we had an agenda and some papers to look at, though they hadn't been sent out until late on Monday afternoon.

The terms of reference for the working party were agreed, though there was no use of words like devolution or empowerment, as I pointed out. These concepts were probably a step too far for some senior members from both the old parties. Time will tell whether the Labour Group are concerned merely to promote the appearance of openness or whether they're prepared to go so far as to actually devolve decision-making to communities and their elected representatives.

The planned "Talking Together" sessions were discussed. To be held four times a year in various places in each of the five Streetscene areas, these will be opportunities for the public to drop in and meet ward councillors, cabinet members and officers. There will also be activities for all the family, to encourage a better attendance.

As a starting point, these should be useful events, though I fear that if people start attending and then no notice is taken of their complaints, or if all decision-making continues to be exercised centrally, they will wither away through lack of public interest.

As part of these events there will be a one hour "Question Time" session, chaired by a cabinet member, with ward councillors and officers on the panel. I suggested that it should be the caninet members who should be on the panel, with ward councillors being seen as champions of their local communities, rather than on the panel taking the criticism for things they don't have any real power over.
The cabinet members present on the working party then said this wasn't the idea at all: one said it would be a "round table" event, the other said everyone would just sit around in the room with officers, cabinet members and councillors spread around amongst the public.

So why did they describe it as being like "Question Time" with a panel, then? I don't think the committee understood where I was coming from. Perhaps they don't watch BBC1 at 10.30 on a Thursday night.
I guess they just want to see how these things develop naturally, though clearly the early thinking is a bit woolly.

The main item for discussion was the conduct of Planning Application Committee meetings. The proposal was to split off the non-contentious householder applications and have them dealt with by a smaller panel in a more informal setting.

This would free up the main PAC to deal with the more contentious applications. These meetings would allow more members of the public, ward councillors and parish councillors to speak, and give them longer to do so. Objectors and applicants would have a final right to reply and members would be able able to question any objectors present. I suggested that the process should also include the right for the public to directly question officers, but TPTB weren't prepared to include this. Apparently this would happen automatically as part of the process.

This represents a big step forward for Darlington, which traditionally is a closed, centralised Labour authority. Indeed, although there are younger Labour councillors like Cyndi Hughes and Jenny Chapman who both sit on this working party and who are genuinely thoughtful, open-minded and eager for change, the Labour Group still contains its fair share of the "we know best" brigade. You can actually hear them muttering "Oooo nooo, I don't think we want to go down that road".

Overall, though, I think the Labour leadership needs to be given the benefit of the doubt so far. Their backwoodsmen will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new world of open consultation and empowerment - and so will some officers, who do not involve ward councillors in their decision making until it's too late to influence their thinking.


Anonymous said...

Devolution of decision making.

I am certainly not a politician nor in any way party political - but why on earth do you dare to want decision making and spending to be decided by one or two local residents who happen to come along to chat with you and then you and they decide how to spend money in the ward? Democracy? - you do not know the meaning of the word or how to even begin to represent the residents. You even call some areas in North Road Ward, including discriminating against the people you feign to represent but sound ashamed of!

Please do not ask for that power until you have more than proved you are worthy of being one of our Councillors. You seem to be totally out of step and out of place in this ward.

Mike Barker said...

Dear anonymous, why is it that people who want to abuse someone else online never reveal their identity? Frankly, it's some time since I read such utter bollocks as this, so I won't even bother to dignify it with a proper response.