This was a comment I made to the Leader of Sutton Council at the reception for the new Mayor of Sutton a couple of months ago.
It wasn’t well received and with recent events, I think we have a real gap opening up between our politicians and the public that they claim to serve.
There was a recent Full Council meeting held on 22nd July. Within the agenda was a petition delivered by Extinction Rebellion seeking declaration of a climate emergency and carbon neutrality in Sutton by 2030. Alongside that was another Motion proposed by a Lib Dem Councillor that equally sought declaration of a climate emergency but a later date, 2045 for carbon neutrality
Some days before that meeting, we received an email from Cllr Penneck, a key Lib Dem strategist asking if we felt the two should be combined into one debate. The Conservative opposition were vociferously against that and wanted two separate items.
When the petition came up, the content had been revised into a set of officer recommendations with options of 2030, 2045 or no climate emergency.
The Leader of the Tories, Cllr Tim Crowley quite rightly demanded that there should be a straightforward vote on the content and context of the original petition. After consideration by the Mayor, this was allowed and, with absences on the Lib Dem benches, three votes for the petition as well as two abstentions from the ruling party, and the petition was carried.
Let’s be clear, that meant that on a free vote, the elected representatives of the residents of Sutton voted for carbon neutrality by 2030.
Then we have a “debate” about the very same subject which, with the unanimity of the Liberal Democrat majority (including those who had voted for the earlier petition as well as those who had abstained) was carried against the abstention of all opposition members, Conservative and Independent.
A call came from the rather dumbfounded opposition to the Mayor and Chief Executive of the Council
“Which one counts – 2030 or 2045”
to which the ambivalent answer came
Earlier in the evening, I had posed the question to the Leader of the Ruling Group about the make-up of the Scrutiny Committee. Like every committee, apart from Audit & Governance, it is made up with members in proportion to the overall party representation in Council.
Audit & Governance occupies a unique position of neutrality as it has equal numbers of the ruling group and opposition as well as an independent member of the public.
I quoted the Constitution of the London Borough of Sutton wherein there is a whole section about “The Purpose of the Constitution” – in section 1:3, it states:
- Ensure that no on will review or scrutinise a decision in which they were directly involved.
I suggested that the handling of public petitions by the Committees who had originally agreed a policy that the petitioner(s) were appealing against should be reviewed as well as the make-up of the Scrutiny and Planning Committees.
Nobody who believes in democracy can dispute the right of a winner in an election, to establish the agenda and, through cabinet or committee, seeking to implement that agenda.
However, there needs to be a system of public scrutiny / accountability to ensure that the public we are here to serve have a transparent perspective of decision making.
For example, the Housing Economy and Business Committee (HEB), chaired by Cllr McCoy the Deputy Leader of the ruling group establishes housing strategies. Some of these are implemented by the London Borough of Sutton’s wholly owned property development company, Sutton Living. All LBS owned companies come under the oversight of the Shareholding Committee lead by Cllr McCoy, who, although not on the Planning Committee is the ruling group’s “Lead Member on Planning”
Planning applications deriving from all sources including HEB strategies as well as development plans from Sutton Living are considered by the Planning Committee. As is emphasised at every opportunity, this is a quasi-judicial committee – so why does it need a majority of ruling group members and a chair from the same party? How can we know that all decisions are dispassionately arrived at?
I believe in democracy and I believe in fairness – to bludgeon policy through to legislation by use of a majority without effective oversight and scrutiny is not democracy, it is a bullying dictatorship.
This is not a fight against the current ruling group – I am sure there are Councils run by parties of all persuasions who will seek to drive their own agendas through.
No, this is all about fairness to the people we seek to serve.
Let’s call it an Independent view.