Who is making the decisions around here? 

  Cllr Andrew Guy – West Park Ward Councillor 

 18th April 2024 

Where are the decisions made, and why the current way is not working.

South Shields Town Hall - Stormy

I’m going to take my own ward, West Park, as an example. West Park is a Green ward in South Shields. Majority of the residents in this ward have for the past three years voted by a majority for Green representation. But decisions affecting how their park is managed, how often the roads are resurfaced, and the strategic direction of how we deal with litter and dog fouling are decided not by the Cllr Bristow, Cllr Yare, and I, but instead a Labour Councillor elected to represent the Whiteleas ward.

In fact, everything from how our Adult Social Care and Schools are managed, to our policy around anti-social behaviour and even where our Christmas lights are installed, is decided by a chosen few on the council. This is where the Strong Leader and Cabinet Model comes in.

To quote the Council’s own website “cabinet is left to get on with making most of the major decisions”. Nearly all the decisions within our council are concentrated to 10 Labour Party councillors, the other 44 councillors elected across South Tyneside have significantly reduced oversight, and very little formal power within the council outside budget setting.

With this being said, the Labour Group have only found favour in 43.9% of voters across the entire Borough according to the local election result of 2023, yet this equates to the Labour Group taking up 70% of all elected seats (thank first past the post for this). As a result, 100% of the power is in Labour’s hands under the current set-up, despite them only receiving 43.9% of all votes in South Tyneside. How is this democratic and fair? The answer is “it isn’t”.

This, in effect, means the substantial amount of decision making across our whole borough effecting 150,000 people is left in the hands of those who were elected by less than 1000 votes.

Take Cllr Ernest Gibson for example, in 2023/2024, he is the cabinet member for Neighbourhoods & Climate. He was elected by 916 voters in Whiteleas, yet oversees the entire boroughs waste management, the foreshore and town centre, all our roads, cycle tracks and pavements, EV charging infrastructure, parks, fly tipping, litter, verges, graffiti, Climate and Ecological Emergency commitments, trees, shrubs… The list really goes on!

Housing and Community Safety is a cabinet position in charge of our entire housing policy and how we tackle and deal with Crime & Anti-social behaviour. Something most residents would assume is within their own councillor’s control is down to Cllr Jim Foreman, who won their seat with a total of just 668 Votes in Cleadon Park’s 2022 Election.

A pathetic mandate aside, since elected I’ve also witnessed where these cabinet members abuse their positions and attempt to fool the electorate.

Published on the 10th April 2023, a month before the 2023 Local Elections, “The Sun” newspaper went to print with an article that shamed South Shields, specifically the Green occupied Beacon & Bents ward. The article detailed severe crime, ASB and housing issues that have plagued the town centre and surrounding housing estates.

The content within the article didn’t come as a surprise, the issues have been ongoing for many years, even before Greens were on the council, and the Beacon & Bents Green Councillors had been campaigning and advocating for the Council and Northumbria Police to act.

What did come as a surprise was Cllr Ernest Gibson aggressively ranting on social media telling the public that this is what happens when you vote Green. He neglected to inform the public that he was the Cabinet member for Transport & Neighbourhoods with the entire foreshore and town centre as devolved areas, and Cllr Foreman, at the time oversaw Housing & Community Safety. Despite years of being pushed to act on the concerns raised, these two cabinet members failed within their Cabinet roles to fix the bubbling mess in and around the town centre and saw a political opportunity to take advantage of the situation right before the election, knowing full well the decision-making and responsibility within the council is a mystery to most.

I’ve witnessed where the fundamental scrutiny function of the Council has also failed at the hands of Cabinet members. Scrutiny is like a ‘final safety check’ on decisions made by council officers and cabinet members, but it’s only effective if all councillors from all political parties accept a ‘critical friend’, and don’t break the law.

For years now, I’ve been campaigning for more accessible and fairer electric vehicle charging points in the borough. It stems from my own experience, and I’m often asked to investigate it by residents. I will be writing a more comprehensive article about this, but as a quick whistle stop tour, our electric vehicle chargers in the borough are few and far between, and most are broken due to poor maintenance and mismanagement. West Park ward contains none, despite repeated campaigns from myself, numerous requests to the council, and even Green councillors sourcing funding and having many meetings, but alas we still have none.

Overall, the council have neglected to keep up with the times, and according to the senior officer responsible for the network – an EV Charging Policy ‘only exists in his head’.

Last year, the council made a step towards outsourcing our electric vehicle network to a private commercial operator. The 20-year contract has, as of the date of this article, never been seen by anyone outside of the cabinet made up entirely of Labour councillors. As a member of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee myself, I have campaigned for this to be brought in for Scrutiny. It was an agenda item for over a year on the programme, but it kept getting delayed without reason. Finally, it came to scrutiny just before being signed, but Cllr Gibson decided he didn’t want to disclose any of the contractual elements to the committee, and the Labour majority committee in their usual wisdom succumbed to the gate keeping behaviour and waved it through. The excuse offered for this was that Contracts Performance would scrutinise it instead, in full. A member of Contracts Performance Panel was there at the time, and assured that this will happen.

The contract was placed on the agenda to be scrutinised by at least one committee, Result! Unfortunately, Cllr Ernest Gibson leading up to Contracts Performance decided it was not relevant to the committee and broke council code (and potentially, the law*) by influencing an agenda item of a scrutiny committee and pulled it from Contracts Performance with no evidence of Cllr Stephen Dean protesting against the move.

* The law (Local Government Act 2000) states: In exercising, or deciding whether to exercise, any of its functions an overview and scrutiny committee of a local authority, or a sub-committee of such a committee, must have regard to any guidance for the time being issued by the Secretary of State.

The current guidance from the Secretary of State states: The executive should not try to exercise control over the work of the scrutiny committee. This could be direct, e.g. by purporting to ‘order’ scrutiny to look at, or not look at, certain issues, or indirect…

My major concern with the very little bit of public information that is out there: the cost to residents to charge their car using this infrastructure proposed by Labour will cost you four times more than the average domestic EV Charging plan, putting those without a driveway at a significant financial disadvantage. This introduces further disparity in our society, with many disadvantaged residents and families priced out from even considering an electric car compared to many of those who are ‘fortunate’ enough to have a driveway and benefit from cheaper domestic rates.

A 20-year commercial contract that dictates how our entire ‘next generation’ of transport gets its fuel in the borough, has been negotiated, signed, and only to be seen by someone who has been elected for a period of 4 years, by 916 people. With zero-scrutiny before and at the time of writing this.

Electric vehicles are most likely going to be our next form of transport to replace internal combustion engines, and likely we will charge them outside of our homes, overnight. But at this stage, would I hedge that this will be the case for the next 20 years? Absolutely not; the technology is still in its infancy, and Hydrogen is a competing technology that has made leaps and bounds over the last 24 months. I’m also against the idea of Labour ‘privatising our infrastructure’, which is something Labour nationally also states, but show very little evidence of putting into practice, particularly in South Tyneside.

I’m aware of dozens of dubious major contracts spanning from infrastructure upgrades to multi-decade ‘deals’ being solely peddled by single individuals in the Labour ran cabinet. The majority of the time, contractual commitments that will be around long after they have gone, end up with the next generation being left to pay the bill. Decisions made in closed door meetings as an ‘exempt’ item, with severe legal sanctions against anyone wishing to leak critical information to the public and press, because internally, scrutiny has failed.

In the grand scheme of things, this means that opposition budgets are also very difficult to create. Most of the funding available is often already committed, leaving very little room for movement. An opposition budget is forced to make small amendments or increase council tax to fund its priorities. What appears to be a democratic process, is shackled at the ankles. Even if a new party took complete control of the council tomorrow, it would take two decades (plus however long it would take to pay off all the debt) to break away from all these commitments.

Now, it’s not all doom and gloom. In 2012, the government identified that this structure was not great for decision making and introduced the aptly named ‘Localism Act’. Within the act is a process where 5% of the electors can sign a petition to trigger a referendum that would give everyone in the borough a decision to move away from the ‘Leader and Cabinet Model’.

Currently in South Tyneside, just 5658 people need to sign this petition.

Several groups, both political and non-political, have started raising awareness of how the current system works, and raising awareness around the benefits of shifting to a ‘committee-based’ system. This is imperative before someone kick starts the process. After all, the residents need to understand the ins and outs of ‘who is making the decisions around here’, otherwise, a referendum called could have a very low turnout, and be widely misunderstood.

Sheffield is the one area that has dared to do this, after they got sick of the council’s decision-making being down to 10 councillors (sound familiar?) and organised a campaign to switch to a committee-based model. It was national news as the council tried everything to disrupt the mechanism. The result of the referendum was 89,670 for the change, and 48,727 against.

Three years on, and even the Labour councillors on Sheffield Council have reported that although decisions take a little longer, it’s made a positive difference. Greens elected on Sheffield who supported the move from the start have said ‘The Green Party believes in working collaboratively with other parties is a good thing and we have never believed in tribal politics. Good ideas can come from all parties, and we shouldn’t dismiss proposals out of hand simply because they are not our ideas. Though the fact that no party has an overall majority forces parties to work together we would welcome a change in the culture in the council where political groups instinctively worked collaboratively across party lines.”

Under a committee system, decision making responsibilities are shared between more councillors. Rather than a single cabinet member, a committee of several elected members makes decisions for a specific portfolio. Committees are made up of councillors from all parties, with the number of seats proportionate to the political make-up of the council. Council can decide how many seats are available on each committee.

Technically, Labour wouldn’t ‘lose any power’, if they held a majority of seats on the council, they would still be ‘in control’. But the key difference is that all the councillors will be involved with the decisions, and when there is a split or lack of skill set in a decision, an entire committee can hopefully drop the tribalism, and work together to come to a solution. But most importantly, these decisions are not taken by one person, behind closed doors.

For me, this is a no brainer. The current setup doesn’t serve the people very well, it’s putting a massive amount of power in the hands of a select few, and it creates a system where voters do not have a say on who looks after the things they care about the most.

Until such change, I will, along with my colleagues, and as promised; continue to fight and draw attention to the issues that plague our borough, and challenge decisions I don’t feel are right for my community. Maybe one day, all the councillors will be able to act on what is right for their community.

For now, treat with suspicion anyone blaming the condition of your back lane or the bin strikes on anyone other than the cabinet. Cabinet members and candidates are either exploiting the lesser-known system, or do not understand the system themselves. This monster belongs to Labour, with great power, comes great responsibility. This model was adopted by them, and they need to take ownership of all the outcomes it produces.

Anyone wishing to collaborate on raising awareness on these issues I’ve raised or have any questions, please do reach out to me.

Cllr Andrew Guy – Green Councillor for West Park.

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