At last Thursday’s full council meeting, the Lib Dem group gave support to a motion proposing a change in the council’s governance system from the present leader and cabinet system to a committee alternative.
This motion was similar to that put to Sheffield City Council in May last year, where concerns were raised about the centralised decision-making process, with a cabinet of just seven elected members, plus the leader, being responsible for all political decisions in the city. In Barnsley, cabinet decisions are made by council leader Sir Steve Houghton, deputy leader Coun Jim Andrews and portfolio holders Couns Margaret Bruff, Tim Cheetham, Alan Gardiner, Sharon Howard, Chris Lamb and Jenny Platts.
Schemes such as the creation of a one-way road system through Penny Pie Park in the Dodworth ward - which resulted in almost 3,000 objectors signing a petition - and parts of Barnsley’s green belt being allocated for development in the council’s local plan were cited as key areas in which the local authority had ‘ignored its public’.
Coun Hannah Kitching, group leader for Barnsley’s Lib Dems, said: “The strong leader and cabinet system is certainly effective as it gets decisions made quickly, but it makes those decisions at the exclusion of the vast majority of elected members, even those in the ruling Labour group.
“Out of 63 councillors, just eight make all the decisions. This disengages and disenfranchises not only those elected members, but also all the people who vote for them. There is another way of making decisions in local government, one that involves collaboration, engagement and communication, rather than a top-down dictatorial approach. That is why I support the proposal to move back to a committee system of governance.”
The motion was voted down by the ruling Labour group last week, along with the Conservatives, but the Lib Dems and independent councillors supported the motion, which went to a recorded vote.
It is now expected that, as has happened in Sheffield, the community may bring forward a petition requiring the council to hold a referendum on the matter.
Coun Kitching added: “Sheffield’s petition and likely referendum has already proved costly and divisive. It is a shame that the same situation could not have been avoided by agreeing to look into the feasibility of such a change.
“Communities do not feel like they’re being heard - the council does not listen to its public and its views are dismissed.
“We’ve seen this most recently with Penny Pie Park, which the council still wish to carve up to create a road that’s simply not needed, despite 2,600 residents signing a petition against it.”
Council leader Sir Stephen Houghton said: “The system being promoted as an alternative to the current model failed Barnsley residents in the late 1990s. Education, children and adult services all failed inspection, with the committee governance being identified as part of that failure.
“To move back 25 years means potentially increasing risk to services for our most vulnerable residents. Elected members should not be playing party politics with the governance of services to Barnsley’s most vulnerable people, or any other service for that matter.”
A Barnsley Council spokesman added: “All elected members are involved in making decisions through the business of its area councils, regulatory boards and overview and scrutiny committees. In particular, key decisions which set the policy and budget framework, are reserved for meetings of the full council, which all elected members attend. These arrangements are clearly set out in the council’s constitution.”