Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Let’s give our councillors the year off!

NEXT May brings town council elections. So here’s an idea to prepare the ground for Lyme’s effective governance. It’s radical, unconstitutional and - many might argue - undemocratic (though whether the present council is “democratic”, in any real sense, could be questioned).

The thought follows years of observing, and in a small way working with, the council. Individually, our councillors have plentiful virtues; collectively, rather few. Time (and thus money) is wasted by dysfunctional, inward-looking proceedings and mutual distrust. The unhealthy goings-on demoralise and damage the town. Another year of this might best be avoided.

Councillors are, let’s remember, volunteers. They started out with ambitious hopes which, with the exception of the skatepark, are largely unfulfilled. It’s partly a failure in what they do - even more, one of how they do it. (If you doubt this, look up Councillor Mark Gage’s lengthy address to his first Strategy & Policy meeting, printed in this paper on June 22nd 2011.) 

Seemingly in denial about this failure, bemused by the widespread public loss of confidence, and baffled as to the causes of both, councillors in frustration blame each other instead of examining their individual responsibilities for the decline - which may now be beyond reversal. And they seem to be tiring. 

For the first six months of their term, average attendance at full council meetings was 92 per cent; for the most recent six months it’s 78 per cent.

So my suggestion is that they vote themselves a sabbatical year off, for a deserved rest. Let the mayor and deputy mayor continue their civic and ceremonial duties, while the council officers and staff run the town for the year, guided by existing policies and working with whoever is willing to help.

The council’s employees are a pretty good bunch, with more to offer the town’s wellbeing than they’re currently allowed to give. Their potential effectiveness is weakened by councillors’ micro-management, by an excess of committees, by debate not always in command of the facts, and by confused decision-making. 

Senior officers are diverted into calming and refereeing overwrought councillors, taking legal advice and drawing up codes of conduct. Staff time is consumed preparing too many agendas and reports (often inadequately read and understood), attending evening meetings, then trying to make sense for the minutes of what’s gone on.

Why not give the staff their heads for a year, free from muddled oversight, to show what they can achieve? Give them time to concentrate on turning talk into practical action, managing day-to-day town requirements smoothly, dealing with letters, emails and phone messages, and communicating with the public.

Naturally, they would want, and the town would need, fresh democratic links for this exceptional year. We’d all benefit from a reduction in the council’s present isolation - symbolised by the fact that, in contravention of its own policy, the background papers to meetings are suppressed from its website while those in the library cover just 16 of the last year’s 51 main open council meetings.

Woeful at welcoming free help 

How about a quarterly, rather than annual, town meeting with senior officers, chaired by the mayor? How about welcoming free help and advice from citizens and voluntary groups, something at which the present council is woeful? How about sharing ideas on important issues through imaginative use of the council website and newsletters, the local press, email - even (responsibly) social media?

Come to think of it, why shouldn’t such things happen in normal years? Too difficult? Greek city states, two-and-a-half millennia ago, managed strong public engagement with larger populations than Lyme and none of our modern electronic media.

And the benefits, beyond a year of grown-up, efficient management? It would break the cycle of low expectation, cynicism and lack of interest within the town. A higher calibre council could then make a fresh start with crisp, efficient and cost-effective ways of doing business. Aware that the town had been well-run without them, the incoming councillors might be readier to foster staff initiative and responsibility.

Councillors could focus on their proper roles. They could lead, inspire, support and pull together the stimulating variety of Lyme organisations, making the community more than the sum of its parts. They could stand back to see “the big picture”, talking with and listening to residents and visitors in the course of developing policies essential for the town’s future. 

They could monitor (not manage - that’s the town clerk’s job) the work of staff and volunteers in a co-operative spirit. They could liaise energetically with neighbouring parishes and other tiers of local government - not scoring cheap political points off them but reducing confusing and costly overlaps while increasing shared action.

Such a town council, replacing morose aloofness with cheerful engagement, could reinvigorate interest in and support for its activities, restore the optimistic joie de vivre which Lyme intrinsically possesses, and prove a worthy embodiment of the town it serves.

And such a council would be better placed to face the changes in local government that will, eventually, occur; for the present three-level pattern of county, district and town/parish cannot for ever continue its expensively wasteful way.

Of course, there’s no chance of this temporary proposal being adopted. But it could be a revealing thought-experiment. And old men are allowed to dream…

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