Behind closed doors and with no formal consultation with Councillors, the Royal Borough of Greenwich has made plans for the reorganisation of the administrative hub which supports elected members. With laughable irony this includes abolishing the ‘Democratic Services’ Department.
Okay so why does this matter? Well at the moment Officers of the Council (they are the equivalent of civil servants) have distinct roles. They support Backbench and Opposition Councillors, they run the committees and they ensure the Leader of the Council & Cabinet are able to act as an effective Executive (making the decisions). These distinct roles are important in the efficient running of the council and have different reporting structures distinguishing their priorities and roles.
The proposed new structure blurs these lines, giving the position of Leader much more power to intervene in the activities of any Councillor who is not part of the Cabinet and in turn removing many of the checks and balances which are currently in place on the Cabinet/Leader.
This has frightening (and potentially quite sinister) long term implications. By removing the independent voice of ‘Members’ Services’ and making the Officers report to the person running the ‘Leader’s Office’ there is a clear conflict of interest. Opposition Councillors devoted to scrutinising the operation of the Council will find our questions being read and reacted to by the same person running the Leader’s Office. Similarly, the Scrutiny Panels, which help Backbench Councillors of all parties examine what the Council is doing appear to be losing their separate support staff which has the real possibility of damaging their ability to challenge the working of the Leader of the Council, the Cabinet and for Labour backbenchers especially, the ability to have an singular identity and voice.
This is a systemic change and means the independent voice of backbenchers through members’ services (casework) and scrutiny will be removed. Backbenchers will have much less opportunity to hold the executive to account putting much more power into the hands of the Leader of the Council. Without overplaying it, this genuinely may be the beginning of a less democratic Greenwich Council.
In the current times of austerity, the normal reason given for this sort of reorganisation is that it is required by budget cuts, however, in this case, the proposals actually increase the cost of staffing, placing the Central Services department comfortably over-budget. At a time when budgets are being cut for older people, education and parks (to name but a few) this increasing overspend sends an interesting message to those areas which are trying to support Greenwich residents. For example does the Council actually need an Officer devoted to supporting the Tall Ships Regatta?
You can see where things are heading already with nothing being done in an open and transparent way. The Council claim they consulted with Councillors, but nothing was sent out before these proposals were given to staff and the Leader of the Opposition was refused sight of the detailed plan.
So beyond the processes of council why does this matter? Well this is a direct attack on any voice that may be scrutinising Leadership of the Council or holding it to account. It will heavily curtail backbenchers (especially opposition Conservatives) when they raise issues (both for individuals and for the wider community like parking concerns for example).
In my opinion I think it reflects very badly on the current leadership. Although much maligned, the former Leader Chris Roberts often showed a great sense of propriety in his dealings with the democratic functions of the Council, for example setting up the Democratic Services section in the first place. In my opinion, this plan shows up the inability of those in charge to see that democracy really matters and the only people who will suffer from the lack of it, are the residents of the borough.