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Babergh District Council resolves to keep its leader and cabinet decision making system but pledges to involve more backbenchers





Babergh District Council has voted to keep its leader and cabinet members system of decision making in a debate over involvement of councillors - but pledges have been made to allow more backbenchers to be involved through advisory groups.

The authority voted by 18 to eight in favour of retaining its leader and cabinet model at the full council meeting on Tuesday night, where the issue of representation of all councillors was discussed.

Some had called for the cabinet member decision making model to be scrapped and replaced with a system of committees which would be politically proportionate.

Endeavour House in Russell Road, Ipswich. Headquarters of Suffolk County Council and Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils
Endeavour House in Russell Road, Ipswich. Headquarters of Suffolk County Council and Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils

The key advantage of the committee system is that all parties can be represented, according to the council's report.

The council previously had a committee system up until May 2017, when it moved to the current arrangement of leader and cabinet.

Had a committee system been approved, it would have tied the council into a five-year period under the model, meaning the next council to be voted in in 2023 would be under the new arrangements.

John Ward, Conservative leader at Babergh District Council. Picture: Babergh District Council
John Ward, Conservative leader at Babergh District Council. Picture: Babergh District Council

But Conservative council leader John Ward, who proposed keeping the current system but with some tweaks, said the advantages of a cabinet system such as efficiency of decision making and increased accountability could be kept.

However, Cllr Ward has pledged to an 'enhanced' leader and cabinet model which will see a review take place to ensure policies of the most strategic importance were reserved for full council.

In addition, the cabinet could appoint advisory panels made up of backbenchers to allow them to be consulted on decisions. It will not carry decision-making powers however.

The council's cross-party constitution working group has assessed all three options - the existing leader and cabinet, the 'enhanced' leader and cabinet and committee systems, presented in a report ahead of the meeting.

Cllr Ward said: "It will allow us to implement some of the recommended changes and then for the next council in 2023 to make a final decision based on how these changes have worked in practice.

"I am mindful and sensitive of some of the issues as reported by the working group regarding engagement with backbenchers, and to that effect we have already implemented some changes to how council operates, but also there are proposed changes to the cabinet model.

"I firmly believe that given a chance they will prove to be very effective and improve that engagement significantly."

It is not yet clear how the advisory panels will be formed, their membership and whether they will be for each separate cabinet member portfolio.

Green councillor Robert Lindsay said the Greens had not been represented on the cabinet despite being the third largest party after the Conservatives and Independents and second in vote share behind the Tories, dubbing it a 'disaster for democracy'.

Babergh Green councillor, Robert Lindsay. Picture: Babergh District Council
Babergh Green councillor, Robert Lindsay. Picture: Babergh District Council

He added that advisory panels were 'neither one thing or another' and were 'not proper decision making bodies'.

Some councillors said they recognised the concerns from backbenchers but did not wish the next council to be tied to a new system of governance decided by the current cohort of councillors.

Conservative backbencher Peter Beer said the cabinet was 'removed from us and the general public', citing controversial decisions around free parking he described as a 'fiasco'. He said that a cabinet system only worked when a party had an overall majority.

Alastair McCraw, Independent, who serves on the cabinet and has previously been both a scrutiny committee chairman and on the committee system used prior to May 2017, said that scrutinising of decisions worked more effectively under the current scheme. He added that 'committing people [the next council] that won't have a say in it, I don't think that's appropriate'.

The council does not currently have an overall party majority, and has only done so once since 1974. Its cabinet currently comprises five Conservatives, four Independents and one Liberal Democrat.

The overall council currently features 14 Conservatives, 10 Independents, four Greens, three Liberal Democrats and one Labour member.