Extraordinary #EXCouncil meeting on #DemocracyDay

Today is the 750th anniversary of the De Montfort Parliament –  the first instance of  a parliament in which representatives from towns and the shires were summoned together to discuss matters of national concern. The BBC celebrated the fact with their #DemocracyDay series of programmes and Exeter City Council marked the event with an Extraordinary Meeting of the Full Council.

This was necessary to put in place some measures that the Council wishes to be part of the Local Government Boundary Commission [LGBCE] review of Exeter – this is running alongside (and definitely NOT in tandem with) a similar review of Division boundaries for Devon County Council. Just as the LGBCE review for Devon closes (19 January 2015), the one for Exeter opens.

The two reviews are NOT linked – the Divisions of Devon covering Exeter in the future may or may not reflect any future ward boundaries for the City Council.

If the Council decides to continue electing in thirds, an all out election across the city MUST be held in May 2016.

So that a workable and useable Electoral Register is in place by the normal time (December 2015) to use in these elections, ECC have asked LGBCE for an accelerated timetable. If this didn’t happen, the new register would only come into place in March 2016 – 2 months before the all out elections

So the only agenda item for this meeting was to consider the  Electoral Review of Exeter  report and the supporting documents: Minutes of the Electoral Review Steering Group held on Thursday 18 December 2014 and Election Review of Exeter City Council – Submission by ECC on Council Size.

The report had the following recommendations:
To RESOLVE that:-
2.1 Exeter City Council should comprise 39 councillors;
2.2 Exeter City Council should continue to undertake its elections by thirds.

After being proposed by the Leader of the Council, Cllr Pete Edwards, and formally seconded by his Deputy, Cllr Rachel Sutton, the Tory Group put forward an amendment:
To RESOLVE that:-
2.1 Exeter City Council should comprise 36 councillors;
2.2 Exeter City Council should switch to ALL OUT elections every 4 years.

This amendment was proposed by Cllr Andrew Leadbetter , Leader of the Tory Group, and formally seconded by his Deputy, Cllr Margaret Baldwin.

The cynic in me feels that Cllr Leadbetter is hoping for City wards co-terminous (sharing boundaries) with County Divisions because he sits on both ECC and DCC.

But will they be so in future?

I understand that DCC didn’t even think it worth making a formal response to the LGBCE.

And the LGBCE could suggest many options – what about larger, 2-member Divisions?

I spoke to this amendment:
Thank you, Lord Mayor.

Cllr Leadbetter remarks that today is a momentous day – the one that sees the lost of Page Three of The Sun.

I’d hope that we’d remember another momentous day – the day 750 years ago when representative democracy was introduced to this Country when the De Montford Parliament first sat, and celebrated today by the BBC’s #DemocracyDay.

Cllr Leadbetter suggests that a 4-year cycle encourages stability. But does it?

I’ve been thrown into that situation – in Blaby in 1995 when a landslide victory took the Labour Group there from having only 1 member to 16 overnight. We became the ruling group, and 4 years later we lost many of our gains, and fell back to 8 members.  We may have been stable for those 4 years, but sudden changes in leadership of the Council overnight could ead to a sudden switch of direction for the authority. And in the lead up to those all out elections, businesses in the city may be reluctant to make  decisions until they knew the outcome of them.

Cllr Newby, from his position in the high ranks as Deputy Lord Mayor, has mentioned the cost implications.

He mentioned £17k by losing 4 members; but the substantive motion proposed a lose of one member, so the actual additional saving to the taxpayer for the proposals contained in this amendment are £13,500. But does this putting a cost saving on the number of Cllrs actually devalue the work those Cllrs do?  We should do a lot more than just turn up to meetings.

Cllr Leadbetter suggested in his proposing remarks that with 18 Citywards within the city, they could match up the proposed 9 County Divisions being suggested in the County Council’s own review of boundaries.

He is assuming that the factors that dictate the size of our wards will match the criteria to decide the composition of the County Wards. 

If I understood the presentation of the Local Government Boundary Review last week, that isn’t necessarily so. So Cllr Leadbetter may wish for his proposed 18 wards to be co-terminous with an anticipated 9 County Divisions – but at present no-one knows if that will the recommendation of the Boundary Committee. 

Finally, he suggests that all out elections once every four years will prevent voter “burn-out”.

I will suggest the opposite – that by engaging with the electorate year in, year out we increase the possibility of voter participation. We need to get out and speak to our electorate. Cllr Leadbetter’s plans could encourage members not to  get out on the doorstep. I go out and speak to the residents of Cowick constantly – I engage with them. I would do this whether there was an election or not. I would like to hope that others do likewise – by electing in thirds we make this more likely.

I will not be voting for this amendment and I would encourage other members to do likewise.

Cllr Rosie Denham made some salient points:
– all out elections might mean ruling Goup might delay/defer unpopular decisions in an election year
– we need to decide what ward boundaries work for our city communities
– we need to value the importance of what we do for the city and our communities, and be prepared to defend the cost of that.

Cllr Greg Sheldon mentioned the demands of the Chartists who wanted sweeping changes to the political system  – 5 of their 6 points have been met. The one outstanding? Elections to Parliament to be held every year so that MP’s would have to answer to their voters if they had not  performed well. 

We might not have that for Parliament, but by electing in thirds we come close to it for Exeter City Council.

Time to vote on the amendments.

Amendment 2.1 Exeter City Council should comprise 36 councillors (needs straight majority)
FOR: 8 AGAINST: 28
Amendment 2.2 Exeter City Council should switch to ALL OUT elections every 4 years (needs 2/3 majority)
FOR: 8 AGAINST: 28

So both amendments fell, with both Labour and Lib Dems voting against

Before moving to a vote on the substantive motion, Cllr Rachel Sutton pointed out that Cllr John Winterbottom had compared the Council Chamber (the Guildhall) to Parliament. She then pointed out there was a difference – the number of women on our side of the benches. We are close to 50:50 Council, when will the House of Commons have equal representation of men and women?

Voting on the substantive motion was as follows:
FOR: 28 AGAINST: 8

Exeter City Council have now published the minutes of this meeting

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