Democracy Devalued by Cherwell District Council
Last night we saw the Cherwell Conservatives in their true colours as they waved through some fundamental changes to the council constitution despite the report they were based on being full of errors and inconsistencies.
The report itself had not been through the scrutiny and overview process, neither had any councillor, to my knowledge, been previously consulted or invited to comment on it. It was simply dropped on to the December meeting agenda, possibly in the hope that it wouldn’t receive too much attention from councillors in the run up to Christmas.
This throws up a fundamental question on how the council is run. Should significant issues of democratic accountability be amended by officers with virtually no input from elected councillors? I’d argue not. Councillors are bound by the constitution and the rules governing meetings. They should at the very least be consulted appropriately on any changes that will affect these rules.
The proposals included restrictions on motions and amendments length, shorter notice periods for questions to council, and the ability to reject motions on the basis of heavily subjective assessments of them being ‘vexatious’ or ‘frivolous’. They are arguably designed to limit both the scope of debates and, by implication, the ability of councillors to fully represent their ward residents.
Arguments were put forward that these rules already exist on some local councils, yet in Oxfordshire only one out of 5 district councils have similar rules (although with far greater latitude on things like motion length) and only the County Council has anything approaching this level of restriction. It’s arguable that the County, with usually a far greater number of motions and procedural matters need a more streamlined system, but at district level this has never been an issue in Oxfordshire.
One has to ask what the motivations would be for the council agreeing to these proposals so readily. It’s probable that after the recent change in the makeup of the council, with more non-conservative councillors being elected every year, the Tories are simply frightened of public debate.
This would appear to be predicated on the Conservatives bare-faced admission that they had already decided how they would vote on issues before any motion was proposed or debate initiated. Barry Wood’s repeated claim in meetings that all his councillors will essentially do as they are told completely undermines the basis of individual councillor representation.
Even though the report containing these proposals was significantly flawed, it was voted through by the Conservatives on the apparent understanding that it could be re-written or corrected later, without the need for further ratification. That in itself would seem to be a ludicrous approach. How can any such changes be approved in advance of knowing what they are?
As we have seen on numerous occasions, this is the reality of democracy in Cherwell, where the dominant follow-my-leader Tories vote en-bloc on everything, regardless of the interests of the people they represent.
This was evident during the debate at the same meeting over a second successive motion brought to the council calling on it to oppose the Oxford to Cambridge Expressway. This included claims from Councillor Dan Sames – the council’s lead on green issues – that he is “passionate” about the environment, whilst simultaneously keeping an ‘open mind’ about a huge motorway being built, possibly through environmentally sensitive areas like Otmoor, which he represents. Councillors like this voted for a climate change emergency motion and then somehow reconcile that with building a huge motorway. This shows just how little commitment they really have towards care for the environment.
Cherwell District Council is now the only council in Oxfordshire not to have voted to oppose the Expressway. As a result they are tacitly supporting it subject only to the final route. Any route will be environmentally damaging, but this doesn’t seem to be an issue for the ‘Concreting Conservatives’.
The fact that council leader, Barry Wood, is also the Chair of the Arc Leaders Group appointed by the MHCLG to promote the expressway plans, as well as being an OxLEP and Oxfordshire Growth Board member – both organisations with a vested interest in promoting the expressway – seems not to be regarded as significant bias by the council. I’d surmise that that is the only reason why we’re still having this debate in Cherwell – the instruction from Cllr Wood to his poodle councillors appears to be that they should not undermine his position on all these bodies by opposing one of their keynote projects.
I do not have an open mind about the Expressway and will continue to oppose it at every opportunity in favour of much more sustainable and environmentally sensitive projects such as East/West Rail. We do not need any more massive major road building projects in this part of the county (or arguably anywhere else) regardless of which route they may take. The Green Party’s commitment to tackling climate change cannot be overruled by the imperatives of growth for its own sake that lie at the heart of Conservative proposals in Oxfordshire.
You can view a webcast of the entire meeting on the Cherwell District Council website here http://modgov.cherwell.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=114&MId=3240&Ver=4