Monday, 23 May 2011

Brent: Managerialism versus Democratic Accountability

Brent as seen by the Independent, 25th October 1986
A Labour councillor greeted me at the Green Fair on Saturday by asking if I was taking a "break from having a go at the Council", before reminding me that the Green Fair was funded by Ward  Working. I can see how councillors may feel under siege at the moment with their library closures under attack from local people, the national media and the government. This blog is small fry compared with all that but the remark does imply that the Council is not being given credit where it is due.  The reasons behind this negativity deserve some consideration.

Three interconnected factors serve to remove the council from true accountability. Firstly the cabinet system of government leaves the majority of councillors, both from the ruling group and from the opposition, relatively powerless. The Executive makes the real decisions and full council meetings, because of Labour's big majority, merely rubber stamp decisions. Cllr Ann John, Brent's own 'Iron Lady' keeps a firm grip on any dissent within the Labour group.  Overview and Scrutiny Committees are ineffective and used mainly for grandstanding by the opposition rather than meticulous scrutiny and informed debate. The Willesden and Brent Times this weeks highlights poor attendance at council meetings by Councillors Simon Green (Lib Dem), Hayley Matthews (Lib Dem), Chris Leaman (Lib Dem) and Bhiku Patel (Conservative). Matthews is particularly criticised for not attending three children and young people overview and scrutiny committee meetings since last December.  The WBT editorial argued that it has been residents who voted for these councillors who have ended up doing the councillor's work, airing concerns about controversial decisions at council meetings. The real decision making often occurs outside public scrutiny at pre-meetings and Labour group meetings.

Secondly since the mid-80s when a Labour led Brent Council was pilloried by the national media, led by the Daily Mail, Labour has shied away from overtly political leadership. Instead, influenced by New Labour, the approach has been managerial. The council's role is to manage services and resources efficiently. This sounds sensible but leads to the situation where Labour has implemented the government imposed cuts, arguing it is their duty to 'balance the budget' rather than mount a political campaign against the cuts  of the kind advocated by Labour Party member and former councillor, Graham Durham, in a letter to the WBT this week.

This managerialism contributes to the third factor which is the blurring of distinctions between councillors and council officers, particularly at the senior level.After the inconclusive borough elections in 2006 there was a long period when the political parties could not agree a coalition and instead the officers under the leadership of Gareth Daniel ran the council. This inevitably increased the power of the officers and they were further strengthened because subsequently they were dealing with what was at the time a very inexperienced group of Liberal Democrat councillors. At council meetings currently it often feels that councillor's are representing officer reports rather than putting forward a political case for particular policies. Activists in campaigns such as the libraries, often see the officers as targets as much as the councillors, and at area forums officers often have to come to the aid of the councillor chairs.  Recent moves by the council to delegate more decision making to officers on Regeneration and Major Projects, Planning and the Waste Strategy reinforces the trend.

All these factors serve erect a barrier between the council and residents with decision making increasingly opaque. The controversy around consultation is an example where the council sees it as merely explaining their decisions to local people and activists seeing it as a opportunity to change decisions. The managerial approach implies that managers make the decisions and impose them on those below. Unless a manager has a particularly collegiate philosophy they tend to resent opposition from below and see it as illegitimate. That appears to be behind the council's resentment at criticism from within their own ranks, from opposition parties, from local activists, and from the local media.

The ability to make these criticisms is essential to local democracy and we must all continue to hold the council to account.

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