Five years ago today, on 4 June 2009, Shropshire Council was elected for the first time. Within a year, the Conservative administration was faced with a financial crisis due to government expenditure cuts. It has used this as an excuse to undermine local democracy.
The transition from four districts and a county council to a unitary authority was unpopular in much of Shropshire. Voters rejected the idea in referendums not just here in South Shropshire, but also in Shrewsbury and Bridgnorth. Philip Dunne described the government’s consultation on the unitary proposal as a “complete sham”. He accused Labour ministers of masterminding a “party political plan” to reduce the number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition councillors in the county. Along with Daniel Kawczynski, MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, Dunne sponsored a parliamentary Early Day Motion, calling on the government to “to reject the Unitary Bid for Shropshire and instead look at moving to an enhanced two tier system of government in the county.”
This was not to be and local views were ignored. The new unitary authority, which was elected with a large Conservative majority, was founded on the “strong leader” model much loved by Tony Blair and John Prescott. This model concentrated power in the hands of a leader who appoints the cabinet and can’t be removed by the council during a four year term of office.
The Labour government of the time thought that scrutiny committees would act like parliamentary select committees, calling the administration to account. In Shropshire they are pretty much toothless, every one chaired by a Conservative. An alternative or independent voice is not tolerated.
Shropshire Council’s cabinet was once a body that discussed major decisions. As its agenda today shows, the cabinet has become little more than a monitoring and rubber stamping committee. Council meetings have also been cancelled – not because there is a lack of business but because the council’s role as a democratic body has been undermined.
Most decisions are now made by portfolio holders, cabinet members sitting on their own in private meetings from which the public and press are barred. Or they are made by officers, without democratic oversight.
A portfolio holder closed our tip and recycling centre, despite two consultations showing unanimous opposition. Our Youth Centre has been partly turned into offices; again after furious opposition. The Link rural bus service was cancelled; that decision didn’t even go to a portfolio holder meeting, let alone the cabinet or full council. The decision on student travel costs was made by officers and cannot be challenged through scrutiny processes, even though it affects a huge number of families.
The council’s commercial company ip&e has struggled to get going. We are not allowed to see the company’s business plans, just promotional guff. The ip&e structure creates a complexity and obscurity that reduces oversight of Shropshire Council operations and spending.
Chief executives come and go, as do the people running ip&e. Management consultants are paid a small fortune and chairs of scrutiny committees are remunerated at consultancy rates. Many of the best staff has jumped ship, leaving the council struggling to keep up with its obligations. That includes in planning where slow preparation of SAMDev has left the county vulnerable to speculative developments that are approved despite being described by councillors as “awful”, “horrendous” and “dangerous.”
Shropshire Council has scrapped the community grants previously awarded through the local joint committees. It seems to have no wish to fund communities to help themselves improve. Contrast that with Telford & Wrekin council has just introduced a Pride of Place community fund.
None of this adds up to a strong leader model.
Strong leaders don’t need to centralise power. Strong leadership is created by listening to people. It is strengthened by working alongside communities. It flourishes best where it is embedded in democracy.
In Shropshire, we have a leadership that’s turning its back on local democracy. We have a leadership that’s disengaged with local communities.
This is not strong leadership. It’s weak leadership driven by political dogma.
Shropshire deserves better if it is to flourish.