Out of the blue, Shropshire Council has decided that it will no longer publish councillors’ home addresses. Anyone wishing to send letters, will need to send them to Shirehall where the overstretched secretariat will redirect them to councillors. As far as a I can see, this was a decision taken in secret by an increasingly secret council. I certainly wasn’t consulted. Current rules would allow a resident in Oswestry to stand for a Shropshire Council seat in Ludlow. But now you are not now allowed to know where a councillor lives.
This is just the latest step in the Conservatives erosion of democracy on Shropshire Council. They talk democratic language while undermining democracy at every step.
Excepting where there is an identified risk to a councillor, the public have a right to know where their councillors live. Public figures should expect and accept that.
Yesterday morning, I attended a briefing on corporate matters within Shropshire Council. It was interesting and I learnt a few new things. But I also felt that I was looking a Fantasy Council rather than the Real Council we deal with. For example, if a procedural matter needs to be varied on the fly due to specific circumstances, that will need the approval of the appropriate scrutiny committee chair. It is part of the checks and balances that are needed for a council that runs on a model where the cabinet makes almost all decisions.
But those checks and balances do not work in Shropshire Council. All the scrutiny chairs are held by Conservative councillors. If they were to oppose the leadership and cabinet, they would lose their jobs (and £12K a year). There are significant limits on their powers to challenge the leadership. And because they are Conservatives, they vote how they are told to vote by the leadership in council meetings. When a small number of Conservatives voted against the reorganisation of planning committees two years ago, they were told by then council leader Peter Nutting they would lose the Tory whip if they did that again.
I am never happy with any system where elected representatives get told how to vote., even if that is sometimes against the interests of their constituents.
I can’t speak for Labour or the Greens, but the Lib Dems are not whipped and we don’t always vote the same way. That’s good democracy.
Shropshire Council practices bad democracy.
That is not the case in other councils, where scrutiny chairs are shared out between the parties. That creates the right degree of challenge within the council. Challenge doesn’t need to be political, in the sense of party political. Challenge needs to come from a viewpoint independent of the council leadership.
Council minutes now rarely record debates. Just the decisions. In the Zoom Era, videos are available. However, officers have leady decided any videos are to be deleted after two years. I have never understood the rationale for this policy. It is deleting history. The records of the success, failure and struggles of local democracy should remain in the public domain in perpetuity.
In one positive move, the Conservatives have agreed to a review of how questions are asked by members of the public and by backbench council members. It is overdue as the current system is not fit for purpose and does not present enough challenge to the council (details below).
Electors have a right to know where their councillors live. Councillors have a right to be consulted on whether their addresses are published online or anywhere else.
I love the community I live in. If you want to write to me using a letter, I’m at 11 Chestnut Grove, Ludlow SY8 1TJ. I hope Shropshire Council will republish my address on its website shortly.
Question to cabinet from Andy Boddington on council questions
The new council leader has pledged to improve communication. The ability to question elected representatives and to challenge the administration of the day is central to the democratic functioning of local government.
The current arrangements, which have changed incrementally over the last few years, don’t serve us well; for example, leading to long answers being read out at meetings. There is an informal limit on the number of questions at any meeting governed by a need to keep the meeting to time. This does not always reflect the importance of the questions and the urgency of answers required.
Q1) What plans does the cabinet have to ensure that an appropriate committee reviews the current system of members’ and public questions with a view to the cabinet giving future advice to council on any changes?
Q2) Could any review consider the possibility of written questions and answers to complement oral questions and answers?
Q3) If there is to be a review, what is the indicative timetable?
Answer from Lezley Picton, council leader
Thank you, Councillor Boddington, for your question. I am indeed keen to improve communication at the Council but want to add that formal questions are just one aspect of that process. In terms of “challenging the administration”, I have asked that the Scrutiny function be looked at so that its effectiveness is strengthened.
Turning to your specific questions
Q1) I had already decided that the system of member and public questions should be reviewed. I will ask the Chief Executive to ensure that this happens and for a report to be taken in due course to the Constitution Working Group (made up, of course, of the Group Leaders) which in turn will come up with proposals for Council to consider.
Q2) The suggestion to include the option of written questions and answers to complement oral questions and answers is certainly one possibility I would like to see considered but I want the review to look at all options to improve the current arrangements.
Q3) I don’t particularly want to circumscribe the process as I would prefer it to be done properly but I would hope that some initial proposals could be drawn up by officers by early July.