When’s a majority NOT a majority? Suffolk Coastal!

Oh dear.  I AM a sap!

Only a month ago I wrote the following (click to open the link)

Just to remind you all that if you want to have your say on Suffolk Coastal District Council’s future leadership, you need to act fast.  SCDC  is choosing whether the district council is run in future by a Leader, appointed from amongst the district councillors, or by a  Mayor, elected by us and wants to hear from you by 3 December 2010 – eg next Friday.

I shouldn’t be allowed out on my own, should I, poor innocent that I am!

In my defence,  as a resident of Suffolk Coastal, I might hope to think the best of my local council.  I was, I admit, a little mystified (not to say disturbed)  at the extreme lack of prominence Suffolk Coastal District council were giving to this supposedly very important excercise of the democratic process.  As Geof Butterwick, a local parish councillor, put it:

The website item was not exactly highlighted. The Coastline article wasn’t headlined ( it took me several scans to spot the postage stamp sized article on page 3).  I’m not sure to what extent the EADT picked up on the press release issued on 15th October, but it certainly wasn’t enough to promote much of a public debate.

To put it mildly.

Which is why I aired the subject in my blog. It was almost as if – impossible though this may sound – Suffolk Coastal didn’t WANT people to know this consultation was taking place!

OK, the truth was, Suffolk Coastal District Council’s ‘consultation’ over an elected Mayor was pretty much like Suffolk County Council’s ‘engagement’over their New Strategic Direction: an exercise in Harry Potter-like invisibility masquerading as ‘giving the people a say.

However, putting that to one side, I DID (o why?) genuinely believe that  this was a public consultation, one where the council were interested in finding out the public’s opinion.   Like I say, I’m an innocent sap…

So what happened?

For a start, only 118 people responded (one of whom was me).  This low response rate can be attributed to two causes: invisibility and apathy. Many Suffolk residents seem to have given up actually directing the fate of their county – possibly because they are less than wholly convinced that their opinion counts for anything.  Leave it to someone else, and whinge about the outcome, is the watchword of all too many! However there are plenty who are interested…

Did they KNOW this consultation was going on?

Well – unless you’d read my blog – would YOU?

Of the 118 responses,  there were 70 votes for a Directly Elected Mayor & Cabinet,  and 47 for the current Leader & Cabinet mode. (There was also 1 ‘don’t know’.)

GREAT! So there was a clear mandate, then.  I mean, if a district council election brings out only a tiny percentage of the electorate, does that disqualify the elected councillor from his win, Mr Herring? fellow councillors? Well – does it?

On the 30 December, I got an email from SCDC saying

Thank you for taking the time to submit the questionnaire regarding the consultation on Suffolk Coastal District Council’s future leadership arrangements.  Your comments have been noted

A nice choice of words.  ‘Noted and ignored’ would be more accurate..

The vote was 60% in favour of a  change to a directly elected mayor, with  a mere 40% against it. So what did SCDC decide to do? To continue with the current system.

Or as the minutes point out:

The Monitoring Officer advised that the new-style Leader and Cabinet model was almost identical to the Council’s current arrangements; the main difference being that the Leader would be elected by the Council for a period of four years rather than each year (although he or she could be removed at any time by Council). It was also suggested that while there might be some limited support for a democratically elected Mayor as suggested by the relatively small number of responses to the consultation, there was not any compelling evidence to indicate that there was any stronger form of governance than the Leader model. Conversely, the adoption of the Mayoral model would have extra financial implications as it would require the Council to run separate elections for the appointment of the Mayor at least every four years; it could also be extremely confusing for the electorate who would already have had to deal in May 2011 with district council elections, parish elections and an anticipated alternative vote referendum. Additionally the Government had already indicated that the leadership models would undergo further changes in the near future.

So that’s all right then! You’ll all be pleased to know that the minutes also show that Leader of the Council Ray Herring, commented

that in carrying out a “light touch” consultation the Council had done at least what was required, and perhaps more. There had been a press release, the details had been advertised on the Council’s website and in Coastline; additionally the East Anglian Daily Times had published at least one article on the subject. The response had been disappointing, which seemed to indicate that there was not a groundswell of opinion within the District in favour of the Mayoral model.

Yet what must have really disappointed Mr Herring was that, despite this ‘light touch’ non-consultation ( of which very few were aware other than other SCDC councillors)  his administration had managed to elicit approval for the status quo from fewer respondents than there are actual members of his council! Quite a remarkable feat. I’m not sure theis particular Leader would recognise a ground swell of opinion unless it jumped up and hit him in the face!

So anyway, folks, that’s Suffolk  democracy, for you.   Of course, you could say its pretty much the same as if Labour had decided it would form the next administration with its 29% of the vote .  Or that the whole of Suffolk were in favour of the iniquitous New Strategic Direction instead of ten members of an inner – and undemocratic – cabinet…

I find it amazing that we send so many British soldiers to fight overseas – supposedly to establish democracy  in other people’s  countries –  when we’re not exactly ‘good at it’ back home!

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