At last Thursday’s Council meeting (November 6th) it was confirmed that the update of the town’s Housing Strategy would be determined by the Lead Member responsible for Housing. Labour and the Liberal Democrats opposed the decision but the Tories voted through the Minute confirming that the issue would not be debated and voted on by the full Council.

I had sent in a written question for the public question time at the Council meeting. I asked

Why is the town’s Housing Strategy not being decided by discussion and vote at the full Council? Why has the commitment made in March 2013, to organise a conference on Housing Strategy as part of the consultation process, not been honoured?”

I had asked these questions previously of David Renard by email and at a Cabinet meeting. They weren’t answered then. At the Council the questions remained unanswered for the third time. The Lead Member told us that she had been delegated the power to “sign off the draft after consultation”. This we already knew. Were any “significant issues to be raised, I would recommend that the item be referred back to cabinet.” Since she has power of decision herself, she alone will decide whether or not an issue is “significant”.

Her written reply dredged up a quote from a 1998 government White Paper criticising the old Council committee structure. “At least with the current system, everyone (sic) in Swindon knows I will take the final decision and I can be held to account properly for it.” However, under the Cabinet system she is accountable to them; that is the members of her own party who have accepted the delegation of power to her. She can’t be accountable to the Council if the issue isn’t discussed there.

What about the conference? “The Council continues the commitment to holding a wider event to help develop the 5 year action plan.” In fact this is not a continuation of its commitment but an abandonment of it. We are being told that the Council will organise an event after the Lead Member has decided what the Strategy will be. First the decision and then the discussion! We will be able to discuss how her strategy will be implemented, not whether or not it is capable of tackling the town’s housing crisis. In fact at the Cabinet meeting Emma Faramarzi told us that there would be a ‘consultation day’ held. Yet she did not give any indication that this would be after the end of the consultation.

Even worse than the denial of the right of elected Councillors to debate and vote on Housing Strategy, is the fact that those people affected by the Housing crisis are unable to have an input. Hardly anybody knows about the ‘consultation’. There is no information on the Council website and Housing strategy is not even shown on the list of “current consultations”. You cannot find a notice of the consultation on the Council’s website (admittedly a user unfriendly beast).

The Lead Member Decision Note is being used to avoid a debate on housing strategy. These notes are meant to be a means of delegating power of decision to Lead Members on what the Council’s Constitution describes as ‘day-to-day’ decisions. Clearly Housing Strategy is not a ‘day-to day-decision’. This sets a precedent that whenever the ruling group wants to avoid a public debate it will use the Decision Note as a means of doing so.

Why is the ruling group so fearful of having an open, public debate on the housing crisis? For it to push through a decision to prevent a debate and vote at the full Council appears to be an indication that it is not confident that its strategy will stand up to the light of public scrutiny. It won’t. It’s housing strategy will make the housing crisis worse as we show in our response to the ‘consultation’ (see “Tackling Swindon’s Housing Crisis”).

This decision is a travesty of democracy. It is a reflection of the undemocratic nature of the one party Cabinet system, which operates like a one party state in miniature. The use of a Lead Member Decision Note, which prevents a debate at full Council, sets a precedent. These Notes are used under the powers of delegation which can be handed out by the Leader. However, the Council’s Constitution explains their rationale thus:

To speed up decision making and allow the Cabinet to concentrate on major matters, the Leader and Cabinet Members have the delegated powers to make day-to-day decisions in relation to the areas within their portfolio.”

Clearly such an important issue as Housing Strategy is not a ‘day-to-day’ issue. The use of a Members Note in this way is designed solely to avoid a debate at the full Council. It is an anti-democratic method which deserves to be challenged. And it will be.

Martin Wicks

November 8th 2014