Council structure defended in Barnsley as opposition call for a return to old system

Pressure is mounting for Barnsley Council to switch back to the old-fashioned ‘committee’ system for decision-making instead of the current ‘cabinet’ where much power rests with a handful of senior members.

Tuesday, 1st October 2019, 6:16 pm
Updated Friday, 4th October 2019, 10:49 am
Structure: Some councillors want a shake up in Barnsley Council's decision making process

That was introduced shortly after Sir Steve Houghton took over as leader, in response to failings in the key council departments of education and social services – partly attributed to the way the council operated at the time.

Independent group leader Coun Philip Birkinshaw proposed a motion to make the switch back at a full meeting of the council, citing a lack of decision-making powers for many councils as a primary reason and he was supported by the Lib Dems.

However, Labour and Conservative councillors spoke in favour of the current system and leader Sir Steve Houghton issued an invitation to any councillor to discuss potential changes to the existing system with him.

Despite that, there is now an expectation among some councillors that a petition will be raised which could be used to force a referendum in the town on which system should be used in future.

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The committee system relies on all councillors to be involved in making decisions, which are then ratified by the full authority.

By contrast, many – but not all – key decisions are made by a small group of councillors in the current cabinet.

Sir Steve insisted Barnsley Council operated differently to neighbouring Sheffield, where a petition has been successful in getting support from five per cent of the electorate, meaning a referendum will take place, with responsibility for decisions spread more widely among authority members.

He told councillors: “The reality is that if you want to improve and change the governance, I am more than happy to talk to you.”

Adopting the committee system would be returning to “something which has failed the people of Barnsley”.

It would also mean losing the current network of Area Councils, where councillors representing their local districts have their own budgets to spend on issues affecting their communities – something which has been copied by other councils.

Coun Birkinshaw said he believed the committee system was “far more democratic” and Lib Dem leader Coun Hannah Kitching said: “The strong leader and cabinet system is certainly effective. It gets decisions made quickly.

“But it makes those decisions at the exclusion of the vast majority of elected members, even those in the ruling Labour group. Out of 63 councillors, just eight make all the decisions. This disengages and disenfranchises not only those elected members, but also all the people who vote for them.

“There is another way of making decisions in local government. One that involves collaboration, engagement and communication, rather than a top down, dictatorial approach.

“Sheffield’s petition and likely referendum has already proved costly and divisive.

“It is a shame that the same situation could not have been avoided today by agreeing to look into the feasibility of such a change,” she said.