Monday, 23 April 2018

Par for the Course in Rochdale

by Les May
AS a long time Labour voter I was not entirely surprised to see a half page article in the Rochdale Observer reporting the remarks attributed to council leader Alan Brett which can reasonably be paraphrased asno vote, no road cash’.  Naturally the Lib-Dem and Tory leaders have chipped in with their ‘two pennth’ and are making the most of this stupid remark.  But before they get too cocky they may wish to reflect upon why I was unsurprised.

For as long as I can remember the various parties have been trying to convince us that voting for them and their policies is the way to make Rochdale a better place. In fact the scope for independent action is heavily circumscribed by what the national government dictates. It is a case of ‘he who pays the piper, calls the tune’.  A household in council tax band H in Westminster pays less than a Rochdale household in band C.  Will a different party in the Leader’s office change that?

We can see from Brett’s response, that this was ‘a breach of trust and confidentiality’, not a resigning matter, what the real problem is.  At the core of Rochdale’s problems is poor governance rather than poor policies.  Far too much of what goes on in Rochdale is done secretively. Attempts are made to suppress local debate by procedural ploys. Too many decisions are taken behind closed doors.  Press and public are routinely excluded from meetings with no reason being given.  Public notices are not infrequently wrong in detail or late being posted.

But do we hear a word of complaint from the ruling party or either of the opposition parties? No!  Councillors do not bother to ask on what grounds the press and public are being excluded from meetings, nor it seems do they routinely examine notices put up in their ward to check that they are both timely and correct.  So these fundamentally undemocratic practices continue. We can be forgiven for thinking that when it comes to good governance all the parties ‘piddle in the same pot’.

Last year as a sop to those who objected to the increase in the remuneration of Rochdale’s councillors the Tories suggested that the number of councillors be cut from 60 to 40.  I’m told there has been a bit of discussion behind closed doors, which seems just a bit premature as no-one has yet taken the trouble to explain to us, the voters, just how cutting the number of councillors per ward from three to two, is going to improve democracy in our town.  (It won’t, and there’s no such thing as cut price democracy.)  This is yet another example of how decisions are taken in Rochdale in an atmosphere of secrecy.  Let’s have some debate about this. How many councillors think this is a good idea?  We need to know.

Poor governance is not a problem created by a single party. It is the responsibility of all of them, and all individual councillors, to put it right.  As the various councillor hopefuls stuff their manifestos through our doors perhaps it is time to say what WE expect of THEM. Nor is it just at council level that things need to change.  At the last election an individual was ‘parachuted’ into the Labour nomination even though there were several local candidates for it.

A Manifesto for Democracy

What we should expect from our MP?

S/he will:
Have one job, being our MP.
Maintain an accessible office in the constituency from the time they are elected.
Hold regular surgeries at various venues around the constituency.
Prominently advertise the time and place of surgeries.
Respond promptly and in full to queries and complaints.
Regularly visit all parts of the constituency to understand how it looks to voters.

What we should expect from our Local Council

Work of officers will be monitored by every councillor and officers held accountable.
All meetings transacting Council business will be open to the public and press.
All meetings transacting Council business will be properly advertised.
All public notices will be issued in a timely manner and without mistakes.
A video archive of all council meetings will be maintained and available to the public.
A properly indexed and citizen friendly website will be maintained.
If services are outsourced the Council remains accountable for their proper delivery.
Concerns about possible electoral fraud will be taken seriously.
Available resources will be utilised equitably across the Borough.

What we should expect from our Ward Councillor

S/he will:
Attend Council meetings.
Will actively monitor the work of officers.
Hold regular surgeries.
Prominently advertise the time and place of the surgeries.
Respond promptly to queries or complaints.
Walk the streets of their ward and act proactively on what they find. 

There are other things in Rochdale which need to change if we are to have confidence in our Council and our councillors.  I suggest three to start with.

A number of councillors have been in place for too long.  The Council needs ‘new blood’. Individuals should be capped at three electoral cycles

Democratic control cannot be fully maintained if Council services and assets are outsourced or placed in the hands of arms length’ companies.  There should be a halt to both these activities.

The ‘whip system’ should not be employed improperly by any political party.  It was wholly improper for a party whip to be employed to force through a rise in councillor allowances.  It is apparent that some councillors were very unhappy about this rise at a time when council employees had any wage increase capped.

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