Chairman of South Kesteven District Council, Cllr. Mike Cook, this week tried to dismiss genuine questions over the openness and accountability of the council as saying the machinery is already there.
Since the district elections the Labour Group on the council has been doing stirring work not only for their wards but also for the council as a whole, by laying down motions and asking questions of the people who lead the council.
However, what they have consistently faced is an overwhelming apathy on behalf of the Conservative Party towards providing true accountability to the people of the district.
In early 2011, Cllr. Ian Selby (Harrowby), Labour Group Leader put down a motion for the council to invest in webcast technology. This was to ensure that everyone in the district would have visibility of the proceedings in full council. The debate was largely positive, citing concerns about cost more than anything else, however Cllr. Mike Taylor (Greyfriars Ward and Current Mayor of Grantham) stated that “if the public wanted to see what was going on in the council, they would be here”. This showed a blatant misunderstanding of the public at large. Just because they were not sat in the council chamber does not mean they were disinterested. They may have transport issues, as many would have to come from outlying villages and towns. The majority of the public may also be at work, considering the council meetings are held at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon.
In September 2011, Cllr. Alan Davidson (Earlesfield) laid down a motion that would have set aside 30 minutes in each full council session for elected representatives (your councillors) to ask questions of the cabinet. This works at other levels of government, be it in Lincolnshire County Council and the House of Commons, and is generally recognised as a good way to ensure the portfolio holders are on top of their brief and provides a level of accountability to the public.
Again, the Conservative group and conservative minded independents felt that this level of accountability was unacceptable, feeling that by allowing questions to the cabinet members, political point scoring would become the norm and it would not lead to debate. I feel this is a very narrow-minded view and one that is typical of an administration that seems to consider any question of their ability to make the right choices as a direct threat.
It seems that I need to remind the Conservative group that the choices they make on how to fund council services and how to develop the district’s economy should be open to debate. The Conservative cabinet members should be confident enough in the decisions they make to be able to defend them during robust questioning.
Politics is defined as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or area”. So to question the activities of the leadership of the Council is to do one of the things that the councillors were elected to do. The reason why they stood for public office is to influence the decisions that are made by local government to improve the lives of their constituents. Asking questions of the people who lead the decision-making process should be a natural part of that. If certain elected representatives are uncomfortable with this, then I would suggest that public office may not be for them.
So when Cllr. Mike Cook and his Conservative comrades again try to point out that the machinery of scrutiny is already in place at SKDC, please remember that the Conservative definition of scrutiny is not what the rest of the world would consider as scrutiny.
Scrutiny is defined as “critical observation or examination”. It’s all very well that there is a “Scrutiny” committee set up, but for public confidence to be created in our local government, all of our elected representatives should be able to publicly question the decision makers.