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Cornwall is now suffering from a constitutional crisis

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 28, 2012

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Congratulations to Cllr Bert Biscoe for his measured and honest analysis of the lack of democracy at Cornwall Council.

Cllr Biscoe rightly points out that the Cabinet have ignored the will of the majority of councillors on several occasions. The waste panel's recommendation to explore a plan B for the Energy From Waste plant in St Dennis was summarily dismissed. Last week councillors on the Environment and Economy Overview and Scrutiny Committee voted 11 to 1 for the new Records Centre to be built in St Austell. The Cabinet decided it should be built on a flood plain in Redruth. Most significantly on September 4 Cornwall Council voted 46 to 29 not to proceed with the so-called shared services "Strategic Partnership" with either BT or the American CSC. In reality this is one of the largest privatisations in English local government ever. In the worst economic conditions in decades councillors were asked to believe that this partnership would save 20% in the first two years, create 500 new jobs and make a profit for either BT or CSC's shareholders. Despite a desperate 25 minute hard-sell by the Chief Executive, Kevin Lavery, council members were not convinced and voted against it. The deal would see more than a thousand staff transferred to a private company in which BT or CSC would be a 51% shareholder. They would also have three of five directors, therefore ending any form of democratic accountability.

Within an hour the leader and cabinet member issued a press release stating that councillors had voted to delay the process. We were then informed it would go ahead anyway. Nine councillors, all of whom rely on the patronage of a Leader for their position, their status and their generous allowances have decided to ignore the will of the full council and privatise a vast array of council services. The honourable exception to this was the abstention of Deputy Leader Jim Currie.

That is why Cornwall Council needs to urgently review the way it governs. The current administration's proposals have no electoral mandate and have led to a constitutional crisis.

As Cllr Biscoe points out the Localism Act offers councils the opportunity to adopt a "committee system." This was the historical norm for large councils until 2001 when the Blair regime changed the law. It had the effect of centralising power. Contrary to popular belief properly run committees are a more efficient and more democratic. Committees of elected members make policy decisions based on their experience and expertise. The full council remains the sovereign body. Many larger councils up and down the country, including Conservative-controlled Nottinghamshire, are adopting this system, or systems like it, as a better form of government. I hope that Cornwall Council can do the same soon for the people of Cornwall who deserve better.

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  • alitheia  |  September 28 2012, 4:08PM

    There is a serious question about whether the Cabinet system at Cornwall Council is being operated properly. The summary of the Council's constitution published on its website makes it clear that the full Council of 123 councillors are responsible for setting policies and approving the budget. The cabinet has to make decisions which are in line with these policies and the budget; if it wishes to make a decision outside of that framework this must be referred back to the full Council for a decision. The full Council agreed a policy in its business plan in November 2011 to develop proposals for a strategic partnership/joint venture for support services. The Cabinet took action to implement that policy. This September the full Council changed its mind and decided it didn't want to continue down this road. It effectively changed its own policy, as it is allowed to do. The meeting was properly called and quorate. There was a clear vote. No contract has yet been let so there can be no penalties on the Council if it stops the tendering process. What then is the constitutional basis for the Cabinet acting contrary to the Council's new policy position agreed in September? Is it legal for the Cabinet to behave like this?

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