Councils are using this emergency to shut out democracy

“Unfortunately, there appears to be an alarming number of cases where democratic scrutiny and accountability in councils is being shut down, with several using this crisis as an excuse for handing over sweeping powers to unelected chief executives and leaders.”

At  EDDC all meetings have been cancelled, including this month’s scrutiny meeting, but not yet the Annual Council – Wednesday, 13th May. So who is making the day to day operational decisions, how and under what authority? Previous announcements indicated extensive use of Skype. 

Remember that Ben Ingham has lost his majority and is Leader in name only (LINO). Shutting down democracy would be very convenient wouldn’t it?

Jonathan Bartley 

The return of Parliament is undoubtedly a welcome development. At a time of national crisis, we know just how vital proper democratic scrutiny and debate is.

The decisions being made right now will affect every single one of us and so it is essential that a forum such as Parliament is able to use its experience and knowledge not only to scrutinise the decisions made, but also to offer help, guidance and support to the government so it can make the best decisions for us all.

The same could be said for local authorities up and down the country who are on the front line of this crisis and are responsible for delivering many of our essential services.

Unfortunately, there appears to be an alarming number of cases where democratic scrutiny and accountability in councils is being shut down, with several using this crisis as an excuse for handing over sweeping powers to unelected chief executives and leaders.

In Lambeth, where I am the official leader of the opposition, I had to watch on Wednesday night as Labour councillors pushed through changes to the constitution that allow the chief executive to make decisions that would otherwise be made by a democratically elected leader, cabinet, or any council officer, simply if he considers it is “expedient” and “necessary” to do so. There were no reasons given. And it already had an urgency procedure for emergency decision-making.

Putting to one side the suggestion that the way it made the decision may actually be in breach of the council’s own constitution, such a move is bad for democracy. It is also downright dangerous at a time when the local authority is already making bad decisions such as beginning the unnecessary demolition of large council buildings in densely populated areas and park closures, bringing national outcry. More than ever it needs scrutiny and to be harnessing as much expertise as it can.

Regrettably, Lambeth is not the only place where this is happening. Green Party colleagues in councils across the country are reporting similar power grabs in both Conservative and Labour-held authorities.

From South Hams, where it has been proposed the Head of Paid Services and the council leader are given the power to decide if meetings should take place, to Norwich where the council met online to decide not to hold any online council meetings, we are seeing an erosion of democracy at the most fundamental level. Decisions which have real impact on people are being made without the scrutiny they require.

Of course, many authorities are already hiding behind the logistical problems lockdown brings for taking decisions behind closed doors. But it’s not just Parliament that is able to sit and discuss issues virtually.

If a parish council’s grants committee in West Yorkshire is able to meet virtually, as my Green Party colleague Andrew Cooper highlighted last week, then I see no reason for any other council to hide behind this emergency as an excuse for closing down democracy.

At a national level we have seen just how vital proper scrutiny is in helping to shape government policy for the better, whether that is by the media or by opposition politicians. Whether it’s on the numbers of testing or access to personal protective equipment for health workers, we have seen throughout this crisis how proper questioning of ministers has led to changes in government policy.

At the local level too, we have seen how often it has been individual councillors and local communities who have led the response to the crisis through mutual aid, foodbanks and delivery services, being best able to identify where the needs are from the bottom up. It is this kind of expertise and knowledge that councils should be looking to harness and be led by.

We need more democracy, not less in this crisis. Before the coronavirus epidemic hit many local authorities were just beginning to embrace the idea of citizen assemblies as a response to the climate crisis, recognising that we make better decisions when we work together. Now they appear to be going in the opposite direction by excluding residents, councillors and the experts from decision-making right at the time that they need them most.

Those in positions of power are faced with an unprecedented and extremely challenging situation and nobody would blame them for finding it difficult. But this is why we have such a strong democratic system in the first place. Now is not the time to be letting that slip away.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party and Leader of the Opposition on Lambeth council