At the end of last year, Shropshire Council proposed cutting the Ludlow Registrar service by eight hours a week. Bishop’s Castle would lose its service. Oswestry would get extra hours. Alternatively, these offices could close altogether.
Fortunately, the council has now come its senses on this very sensitive matter. Ludlow’s registrar office is to remain open for 16 hours a week, four fewer hours than now.
Given the scale of current cuts, I think we got a good deal for Ludlow (my objection to the original plans).
But the process by which the decision was made shows just how far Shropshire Council has to travel before it becomes an open and effective democracy.
The decision on reduced registrar hours was made in a portfolio holder decision session held on Wednesday morning. These sessions were introduced under the previous leadership to give more power to cabinet members. The public and press are barred from the meetings and the cabinet member is the only voter. Some of Shropshire Council’s most controversial decisions have been made in camera, including the cancellation of Link buses and closure of the Coder Road recycling and waste centre.
I didn’t attend this meeting because I disagree with the secret sessions in principle. They are an affront to democracy. They conflict with the new council leader’s commitment to become a more open council.
The town council has described the current arrangements for the registrar’s service in Ludlow as a “disgrace”. I agree. The accommodation is cramped, undignified and lacks privacy.
Shropshire Council moved its staff into our library without consultation or, as far I can see, any proper planning. Residents discussing confidential personal matters at the customer service desks can be overhead. There are administrative staff based in the library that do not deal with customers face to face. So why are they are taking up valuable community space?
The council has been reviewing this since I was elected nearly two years ago, if not from before. We are have frequently been told that plans are being drawn up to sort out the problems but nothing seems to get done. Wed urgently need better registrar facilities in Ludlow.
The reason for this failure is that Shropshire Council operates in silos. The registrars service, customer services and administrators squatting belong to different departments, and the library is a different department again. These departments don’t seem to communicate. This lack of coordination extends to the top where cabinet members make decisions in secret sessions rather than around the cabinet table.
There have been many good moves since Malcolm Pate stepped into the leader’s shoes. Communications have improved. Yesterday, the first edition of a monthly Backbencher Briefing was circulated. The council is directly lobbying the government for a better financial settlement. It has asked the Local Government Association to look at aspects of our finances and services. The council’s flagship company ip&e is being reviewed.
But some of the old ways of working that have brought Shropshire Council into disrepute linger on. Last week, we were faced with the extraordinary situation of councillors being barred from seeing the final draft of the council’s financial statement before the media were briefed. This week, we find that the council is continuing to make important decisions in camera, even though they affect our local communities.
It will take time to turn Shropshire Council into a modern, open and business-like democracy. But abandoning portfolio decision maker sessions and ensuring that councillors know what is happening before the press are simple moves that could have been made immediately. It doesn’t bode well that these old anti-democratic habits linger on under Malcolm Pate’s leadership.
. Ludlow has been the most efficient of the county’s registrar offices, filling more of its customer appointments in 2014/15 than other offices and costing less. Nevertheless, one original plan was to cut Ludlow and expand Oswestry, which would have made the service less efficient.
. The documents accompanying the decision suggest that Ludlow service will be open 10am-2pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. I have said that it would be more sensible that the service is closed on Thursday, when the library is itself closed.