6 May 2020
The co-leader of the official opposition on Lambeth Council has today written to the council’s chief executive warning that local people are suffering from poor decision-making and asking for urgent changes to the council’s scrutiny rules labelling them a “farce” and “not fit for purpose”.
It comes after an “astonishing” virtual meeting of the council’s scrutiny committee on Monday night to examine council plans to demolish six estates.
Green councillors had called the plans in to the committee for further scrutiny. At the end of the Overview and Scrutiny meeting just four of the committee’s nine members voted to take no action. Three councillors voted to make recommendations. And two further councillors thought the issues raised at the meeting were so serious the whole decision should be referred back to full council for changes.
But the chair ruled instead that because four out of nine members voted to take no action that constituted the “majority” opinion (1) under committee rules and no action should be taken. The leader of the council - who is not on the committee - also intervened apparently seeking to influence and support the decision to take no action.
Green councillors want residents on estates to be balloted over the council’s plans, something which the council has repeatedly refused to do because residents have demonstrated clearly that they are opposed to demolition of their homes.
The Green Party also wants more truly affordable housing to be built in other ways, without the demolition of the estates which they say expose the council to huge financial risk, break up communities, release tonnes of embodied carbon breaching climate commitments and won’t provide enough homes for Lambeth’s residents. The council’s existing plans are set to cost in excess of £250 million, funded by borrowing.
Last week, Green Party Councillor Jonathan Bartley, who is co-leader of the Opposition on the council and sits on the council’s scrutiny committee wrote a article for The Times newspaper (2) highlighting how Lambeth council had used the Coronavirus crisis to change its constitution, unnecessarily centralising power and taking it away from democratically elected councillors.
Cllr Bartley said: “I simply couldn’t believe what I was witnessing on Monday night but the meeting showed clearly that Lambeth Council’s scrutiny is a farce and is clearly not fit for purpose. Not only is the council still refusing to give residents a ballot on the future of their homes, it is now ignoring the wishes of democratically elected councillors on its scrutiny committee.
“You couldn’t make it up. How is it possible for five out of nine councillors to vote for action but the council rule that this doesn’t constitute a majority, while insisting that four out of nine councillors does? As if that were not enough, the leader of the council who doesn’t even sit on the committee and was only there to give evidence, also tried to influence the committee’s decision.
“There is a deeply concerning trend in Lambeth to sideline democratic decision-making and scrutiny. The council has used the pretext of the Coronavirus crisis to rush through changes to its constitution to give even more powers to the chief executive which should belong to elected councillors. These powers are unnecessary as the council already had emergency powers to be used in a crisis, and extend far beyond a crisis to any situation in which the chief executive considers it is appropriate to do so.
“The result of this democratic deficit is a catalogue of poor decisions from closing Brockwell Park, beginning major demolition work during lockdown and borrowing hundreds of millions of pounds to speculate on property development – exposing local people to completely unnecessary and unacceptable risk. The Council should reverse the course it is on and follow the lead of other councils who are increasing democracy not constraining it by moving from a centralised cabinet system to a committee system and allowing opposition councillors to chair its scrutiny committees. At the very least it should change its absurd rules on voting so a minority view cannot be ruled a ‘majority’.”
(1) The footage of the scrutiny committee which took place on Monday 4th May can be seen here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpHdJ_L0yq8&t=2386s At 2 hours 1 minute the voting is summarised by the chair, and the chair rules that because 4 out of 9 members have voted for no action this constitutes a “majority”.
(2) The article for the Times newspaper can be seen here:https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/councils-are-using-this-emergency-to-shut-out-democracy-vdr07rwxz