Is South Devon democracy under threat?

 24th April 2020

Local councillors are furious with new measures with claims that democracy is being undermined and usual rights that we take for granted are being removed under the cover of the current corona crisis. An extraordinary vote at the ‘full council meeting’ of South Hams District Council yesterday afternoon (the 23rd April), has potentially put the normal process of collective decision making control into the hands of just two individuals.  The Head of Paid Service (or his deputy) and the Leader of the council. The controversial motions that were put forward and successfully voted through were:

  • Para. 3.1 ‘Meetings only to be held when required’ and the proposal to allow ‘the Head of Paid Service (or Deputy) in consultation with the Leader’ to decide which meetings are required to take place.

  • Para. 3.1(b) ‘Meetings of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee/Panel shall only be held where they are required by law or in the opinion of the Head of Paid Service in consultation with the Chairman of that Committee decides are required due to the nature and a meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee/Panel would not overstretch the Council’s resources.’

  • ‘3.3.(a) In keeping with the rationale for holding meetings only where they are required,agendas for any such meetings required to be held shall not include any items for questions or motions on notice from Councillors.

    3.4 (b) Where the Council Procedure Rules provide for questions from members of the public, deputations and petitions to be asked, heard or received at a meeting of the Council, the Head of Paid Service may, having regard to the nature of the question, deputation or petition, deal with any such questions, deputations and petitions without referring them to a meeting of the Council.’

Ward Councillor for Totnes John Birch is Chair of Overview & Scrutiny and has stated: “They’ve effectively stopped me having meetings and stopped me being able to do my job.”

This is a storm in a teacup…

Council Leader Judy Pearce

Chair of a local charity, The South Hams Society, Didi Alayli said prior to yesterdays’ vote: “These are perhaps the most worrying proposals as we can see no legitimate rationale for the proposed curtailment of rights. Why would the District Council wish to limit public and Councillor participation in decision making in this way?

John Birch speaking on “The Full Totnes Breakfast Show” radio programme this morning stated: “Other regions, Exeter, for example haven’t closed down the democratic process. This crisis [covid19] is being used as an excuse for doing away with members in the decision making process”.

Jacqi Hodgson is the Ward Councillor for Dartington and has stated: I am extremely concerned about this shut down of democracy, and the prevention of our inputs to District Council meetings and decisions during this crisis, and consider it an imposition on and the undermining of our elected representative duties.

Councillor Jacqi Hodgson

The new ruling could be imposed for up to thirteen months. Ms Hodgson continues: “To attempt to put these new rules in place during such a critical time, when we all need to be able to pool our resources, propose and discuss good ideas and work as a team, this is an outrageous abuse of power during an unprecedented and challenging time; to attempt to implement this shut down for over a year is quite frankly a blatant attempt at a take-over of the Council.

Councillor Judy Pearce is Leader of South Hams District Council and pointed out that the Meeting held on Thursday afternoon consited of 29 councillors of which only 7 voted against the proposals and so the items were voted through with a substantial majority. Ms Pearce said “These measures are entirely in line with government regulations for local council business” she continues, “…half those who voted for this were in fact, Lib Dem councillors.”

Government changes to local authorities

Councillor and SHDC Leader Judy Pearce

The UK Government have indeed allowed for procedural changes which are outlined here on the UK Gov website. On being asked about undermining the ‘Overview and Scrutiny Committee’, Judy Pearce told the Totnes Pulse: “This group scutinise the executive committee and we are not having these meetings at the moment. There are being done as and when, so effectively there is nothing for them to scrutinise. This is not life threatening” she continued, “We need to focus on our response to the community.

The guidelines on the Government do not appear to openly sanction restrictions on normal scrutiny procedures however does state:

Local authorities can decide not to hold the legally prescribed annual meeting. Where meetings are held, local authorities have the flexibility to hold them at any time of day and on any day, to alter how frequently they are held and to move or cancel them without further notice. “

Tweet from the Deputy Leader of SHDC

A statement from The South Hams Society included: “We understand that there may need to be some limits on face to face representation due to the need for social distancinig but it is the duty of the District Council to adapt its ways of working to ensure that the voices of those it serves and its elected members can still be heard. This is critical if the Council is to continue fulfilling its democratic role.”  

Cllr Pearce said any member can email the officers and continued by saying: “This is a storm in a teacup” and explained that these new measures were needed to ease the load on managing the difficult situation created as a result of Corona Virus. “Remote meetings are not easy. These Zoom meetings are very resource hungry and reports have to be approved and so on.

South Hams District Council have responded to a request for a statement from Totnes Post in full as below

:

Cllr Judy Pearce, Leader of South Hams District Council, said: “On Thursday, the agenda item to adopt the Remote Meetings Procedure Rules, was passed with a substantial majority. 21 Members voted in favour, including three members of the Liberal Democrat Party, one Independent Member, one Green Party Member and the Conservative group, with seven votes against and one abstention.

“These Procedurals were written to comply with the regulations attached to the Coronavirus Act 2020.

“This decision has been made because the Government recognises that we are having to work differently and because of this change in focus we do not have the capacity to follow the normal schedule of meetings. For example, many of those officers who would normally have resourced the council meetings are now working on the emergency response. Therefore, they have said that we can change how we hold council meetings, to make local democracy as efficient and effective as it can be at this difficult time.

“Secondly, I think that it is entirely sensible that we should only hold council meetings where strategic decisions have to be made, such as for the appointment of the new Head of Paid Service. With many of our core functions suspended, we will not be making important strategic decisions and therefore we do not need to hold our usual cycle of council meetings. Tactical decisions which have to be made to enable officers to respond to the coronavirus crisis can be done under delegated emergency powers.

“Once the crisis is passed and we can switch our attention back to our normal day to day functions, normal council meetings can and will resume as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Link supplied for the CoronaVirus ACT 2020

Is this a ‘storm in a teacup’ or is democracy being undermined?

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