Last week I had a bit of a rant here about a County Council decision which was simply a bad idea, yet looked like it was going to be implemented anyway. I’m referring, of course, to the proposed introduction of parking charges at the city’s Park & Ride sites. In a small victory for democracy today, the proposal was at least sent for discussion.
Nobody objects to people having ideas, it’s how society progresses. To be honest, as citizens we should all contribute more ideas, rather than leaving so much to councillors. But whoever comes up with them, ideas should be discussed, evidence weighed up, and only the sensible ones implemented. That’s not always the case. Often discussions become irrationally politicised, even if they have nothing to do with party politics. Councillors declare themselves either “for” or “against” an idea depending on what party they belong to (and who their mates are), rather than what’s best for the area they represent …or what the evidence suggests. It’s how we got a disaster like the misGuided Bus, for example.
For several years in Cambridgeshire, the situation has been made even worse by the County Council having been run using something called a “Cabinet System”. This means the largest party just elects a small group amongst themselves (the “cabinet”) which can make decisions without having to go through the irritation of having to discuss things with Councillors who might have the temerity to want to disagree. Proponents call it the “strong leader” system, and you can see where it might work (and how it might “get things done”). But it doesn’t work where you’re running a deeply divided organisation (like Cambridgeshire, where the rural areas elect politicians from one party and the city elects politicians from anything but that party). In this case, one part of the organisation is going to trample all over the other if it’s allowed to, and with the “Cabinet System”, that’s exactly what happens. The minority (in this case, city residents) don’t even have a democratic recourse: all their transport and other issues get made and implemented, without public discussion, by a group of people from out in the Fens who’d probably rather be sorting out their own issues. A small group around a small table making decisions which probably don’t even affect them …or the people who vote for them. You can see how a bad idea can be waved through so easily.
Fortunately, after last May’s election, Cambridgeshire County Council reverted to no single party having a majority, and the first move from the smaller parties was to combine forces and vote out the “Cabinet System”. Good riddance. Unfortunately, for tortuous “legal reasons”, we have to put up with the system for one more year, and there’s still a “cabinet” in place. That’s how the Park & Ride parking charges idea nearly went through to implementation, despite being such a bad one. Someone came up with the suggestion, and his mates around the table presumably said: “mmm, whatever” without even thinking it through. Or at least that’s what it seems like to those of us out here whose vote at election time has seemed irrelevant for so long.
Once the proposal went public last week, the arguments made for it by its proponent were so weak as to be laughable. If it had gone to proper debate in the council and the flaws in the plan outlined, the idea would surely have been suggested, discussed and eventually dismissed. Having ideas which don’t stand up to discussion is healthy. But it could so nearly have been implemented without sufficient consideration. Fortunately, there seems to be a procedure in the council where something like this can be “called in” for discussion, and councillors did just that. Both Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors understandably wanted to take credit, but regardless, it was a small victory for democracy. Today the idea was sent to the council’s “Enterprise, Growth and Community Infrastructure Overview and Scrutiny Committee”, which consists of 13 councillors who – crucially – come from across the political spectrum. The result was that the idea has been sent back for reconsideration (see the BBC news item at the top), and we must hope that reconsidering the idea means coming up with a better one.