Renewing Kingston's Democracy
Putting the People in Power
Local Government is changing. It is changing not just because we are driven by austerity to make changes but because there is a new mood within the minds of residents about the types and means of interactions they have with the Council and its Councillors.
The Council can no longer be immune to that change, but has to recognise that disillusionment with public institutions will continue for as long as we do not allow the ‘public voice’ to better permeate the ‘Council ear’.
Last Autumn’s ‘All in One Survey’ demonstrated further how people want more of a say in the manner in which their services are run and decisions taken. This is not just about methods of consultation but about how we as a Council see the communities in which we live and how we seek to engage with them or let them have that voice in what we do.
Councils clearly have legal obligations and some of the bodies we currently have need to be there by law - decision making committees and statutory and regulatory committees. Beyond that we have ultimate flexibility to set up whatever structure we believe best suits the needs of local people.
A recent Civica report (from which some of this thinking is drawn) recently determined that there were four main themes that a Council in 2025 needs to adapt to:
The changing citizen - the changing demography, but also changing expectations about what and how services are delivered.
The role of the Council - Not just a commissioner of services but a diagnoser of need, using data to derive citizen insight and conversation to understand actions. Acting as the Guardian of the community.
Staff, skills, partnerships and resources - the changing landscape will require new skills from staff as we move into a more commercially driven and complex environment that is fractured across many newly formed partners.
Pervasive technology - Digital public services are not just the future they are here now. Much of the frustration with public services is because of the lack of digitisation and engagement as evidenced by public concerns over the Council website. The 2025 Council needs to be at the front of development in this field and not in the rear.
In Kingston we have applied similar thinking to defining our ideas about how our Sovereign Council should work and the role of Members as;
Champions of Place,
Setters of Vision,
Holders of Democratic Accountability,
Too much of our attention and energy is drawn into the apparatus of decision making and its panoply of meetings. For the future our focus will be more outside the Guildhall and its formal meetings and on how we interact with our Partners, Businesses and Residents to achieve our shared vision for Kingston.
The role of this document is to look at how best our Council can adapt to these needs and structure itself in a way that is best able to deliver the future of Kingston.
Where are we now?
Full Council (when all Councillors meet together) has lost its purpose. In part this is due to the original shift to an Executive model of Governance, but since returning to the Committee system it still has yet to attain some authority and relevance.
It has also become adrift through an agenda that bears little relevance to the priorities of the Borough, but more to the political machination of the various party groups. When people look to a sovereign body for answers they expect the Full Council to be scrutinising the administration and holding to account decision makers. When there is overall control, and the committee system is looking at detailed scrutiny of decisions as they are made, the Full Council should be looking at the strategic direction of the Borough.
Annual Council - This has a legal duty and purpose to appoint the Mayor and to look at the allocation of responsibilities for the coming year.
Budget Council - Has a duty to set the budget and whilst by the time of this meeting 99.9% of the budget is agreed this meeting occupies itself with trying to reallocate those small remaining sums on which there is more political than Council objective setting.
Beyond these meetings Full Council has little role in the governance of the Council or in allowing the residents of Kingston an opportunity for engagement. This needs to change.
The committee system has many advantages in the management of the Council but little role in the public holding the Council to account. Whilst residents rarely attend committee meetings that in itself should not be a measure of their success.
The real issues around committee's is that they rarely do the in depth analysis of decisions or discuss options. They tend to fall into partisan decision taking and we need to review their terms of operation.
The question to answer is how we ensure there is swift decision making but also the ability to hold the administration to account. We equally need to understand how we shape the future committees to embrace a new culture where we work with and alongside partner organisations in decision making. Councils should rarely be taking decisions alone.
A recent Health and Wellbeing Board (HWB) Peer Review has also raised some issues around where HWB and Health Overview Panel (HOP) sits within this new environment and how we can best help them take holistic decisions.
The present neighbourhood system was introduced by the Lib Dem administration of 1994 when they were first composed of seven neighbourhoods. They were designed as a first step towards a federal form of Local Government. Similar experiments had been tried in Tower Hamlets.
Inherent in the system is a conflicting unilateral federalism within a single legal Borough. Councillors are elected to the Council and not to a neighbourhood, they represent their ward residents in decisions affecting the whole Borough. It is also the case that they have never secured the greater interaction with residents that was always expected by this artificial devolving of power from the Guildhall to the neighbourhoods. Unless a neighbourhood agenda item directly affects a resident there is no reason for them to attend a meeting and apart from the regular attendance of a very small number of residents (usually attached to political parties or Residents Associations) they are no greater advocates of Place and Engagement than the committees they sought to replace.
The Neighbourhood system as it currently operates misses the point claimed for it by its proponents, bringing ‘Decision making closer to the people’. Other than being physically closer it has not. The formal structure of committee meetings, however adapted, is not the means to achieve engagement. We need to look elsewhere for answers. We need to listen, interact and engage with people where they are, on their terms, in the ways that are now open to us all. Change is needed and this Administration will bring it about.
The Leader of the Council in July 2014 threw down the gauntlet to Neighbourhoods to use their existing powers, and the additional powers given to them, to engage better with the whole community, particularly with Schools and the Health sectors. In November 2014 The Leader again challenged Neighbourhood Committees to take a proactive Community Leadership role in their local community. There has been little improvement in this area.
Surprisingly, the previous Lib Dem administration withdrew some powers from Neighbourhoods in areas where they were actually being quite effective e.g. Parks. Since 1994 financial responsibility has been reduced, as has some direct decision/influencing opportunities over key front line services; Green Spaces (Parks and Trees), Waste, Street Cleansing and Youth Centres. This has led to a focus on Neighbourhood Planning and Highway Schemes which now dominate meetings. The localism agenda is a key part of our philosophy and we need to find a way to reinvigorate the neighbourhoods not destroy them.
Highways - Neighbourhood highway budgets are too small to be really effective in delivering the needs of the highways. It also means that strategic needs are not always addressed in the most sensible manner. But it is also the case that there can be a tendency for neighbourhood wide decisions being taken that in essence are strategic in that they affect a wider area than just the single neighbourhood. We need to review the boundaries between what is and what is not a neighbourhood decision.
Lack of Vision and imagination - Due to their size the neighbourhoods tend to lack a vision for the whole area and the fact that they are often one party states means there is little effective challenge or scrutiny to what is done.
Local Planning Issues - In recent times the Neighbourhoods seem to have lost their way in this area. Whilst acting as a sounding board for large strategic applications is a useful purpose, spending significant officer time taking to committee small applications, with little objection, is not a sensible or rational use of money in a time of austerity. There is not even a democratic argument to justify this use of money. There is nothing to stop them taking planning decisions here, but new rules need to be established.
Strategic assets - All neighbourhoods have been given 'control' of some of the assets within their local area. This is somewhat of a phantom responsibility because whilst they apparently have responsibility for the budget they cannot make changes to the strategic approach of the wider Council. A classic example of this is Kingston Town Centre where despite it being a key Borough wide asset it currently only reports to the Kingston Town Neighbourhood. The strategic importance of the town centre to the wider Council is fundamental.
This also leads to complications with regard to working with partners as they are unclear with whom to deal when wanting to bring investment or change to areas within neighbourhoods.
Acting on local issues - Where neighbourhoods were successful in the past was in identifying and acting on local issues not always in the remit of the Council. There has been little evidence of this being the case today.
Grants - Whilst there is a useful element for neighbourhoods in engaging with voluntary organisations in their area the only way they currently do this is through the distribution of small grants. These grants are rarely spent in full and there is a debate to be had about how we might better create a link between Councillors and voluntary organisations through this small grants scheme.
Neighbourhoods have made the mistake of believing that ‘the committee’ and its decision making is their role when in fact it is community engagement and capacity building that should be the role. Engaging the public was the whole point of the neighbourhoods and yet they fail to do that on a level that is consistent and understandable. Residents do not want to attend meetings that are impossible to understand or participate in. They want a voice in the discussion and having given that voice they may well be prepared to better accept decisions with which they do not agree. Neighbourhoods need to be about the resident and no longer about the Council and to do that they need to move out of the formal and legal straitjacket in which we have entwined them. Residents are very confused as to why sometimes they can engage with the meeting and at other times they cannot.
Putting the People into Power
Over the coming weeks I will be revealing a number of changes we will be making to the Council's constitution that seek to address the issue of how we use the Council to give resident's a voice in our decision making. This site will update those proposals and by July we will have a full suite of democratic changes we will implement. But decision making is only one part of the story. Central will also be democratic accountability of politicians and there will also be proposals to cover this aspect of what could be a new politics for Kingston.