Monday, 12 October 2015

Thanet Council: Time For A Shake Up?

THANET COUNCIL NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE. I’ve been arguing for a long time that Thanet Council is not fit purpose. It’s got a shameful record of mismanagement and incompetence. It wastes tens of £millions of taxpayers money.  It’s secretive and unaccountable. It’s out of touch with the people its supposed to serve and many of its elected councillors are a total waste of space. And it not just me saying that. Virtually everyone I speak to doesn’t have a good word to say about TDC. Even the Local Government Association described the council as being dysfunctional and toxic. But that’s hardly surprising when you look at TDCs record

  • £3.4 million wasted on TransEuropa Ferries secret fee deferral deal
  • £2.6 million in compensation and legal fees paid  to live animal exporters for unlawfully banning their trade – with more expensive claims in the pipeline
  • £2.2 million spend on massive overspend to the Dreamland – with even more to pay out on the Dreamland Compulsory Purchase Order
  • £millions likely be  spent on paying out fines, legal bills and compensation to its own staff for serious breaches of health and safety laws
If what wasn’t bad enough promises appear to be being broken about Manston Airport, the council seems determined to over develop Thanet and turn our greenfields into building sites. Kent County Council seems free to bully TDC into doing its bidding.  And instead of becoming a successful and thriving place to live, Thanet is now one of the most deprived, poverty stricken local authority areas in the country. So how do we put end to decades of misrule by a council and councillors who are clearly not fit purpose?

IT’S THE SYSTEM. Much of the blame for Thanet council’s appalling track record rests with the way it is managed. Thanet Council has what is called a Leader and Cabinet   system of decision making. Councillors elect a Leader, who then chooses 4 or 5 Cabinet members, from the same political party, to help the Leader run the Council. This small team of Councillors  make 95% of all the decisions about how your Council Tax will be spent.  Often it’s a single councillor from this small group who makes decisions.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE SYSTEM? Having decisions made by a small group of people, or even by one person, is supposed to mean that the Council can act quickly and decisively.  But in practice it produces the opposite effect. Decisions made without sufficient thought by people from the same political party, without proper consultation and without a proper and balanced debate, is bad decision making. Bad decisions then arouse resentment and anger from local people. We've seen how this works in practice in Thanet with –
  • The local plan and the threat of massive overdevelopment
  • The selling off of Thanet’s historic heritage  
  • The demolition of the Little Oasis Skatepark in Margate
  • The mismanagement of the Manston Airport issue and many, many more  
Many political experts have warned about the dangers of concentrating too much power into the hands of a small group of people from the same party.  Some of the pitfalls include the  Leader  using   the power of patronage to surround him/herself  with yes men and women. Officers being fearful of disagreeing with powerful politicians because they might lose their jobs.  Lack of challenge means that a culture of fear can quickly be established leading to bad decision making, poor behaviour and even corruption. We have seen how this works in practice in Thanet with –

  • The jailing of ex-Council Leader Sandy Ezekiel for misconduct in public office
  • The  reports of the Local Government Association Peer Review and the Independent Standards Committee Members about the poisonous and toxic culture at Thanet Council
  • Ex-Cabinet members allegedly  nobbling  investigations into serious  misconduct
  • The development of a culture of secrecy where decisions are made behind closed s
WHAT'S THE ALTERNATIVE? The Localism Act 2011, gives Councils the option to change their decision making system from a Leader/ Cabinet system to a Committee system or a Directly Elected Leader system.  

A COMMITTEE SYSTEM would replace the Cabinet with several committees each dealing with a particular area of council work such as housing, refuse collection, environment health, street sweeping etc. All councillors serve on one or more of these committees, and the committees make recommendations about spending and polices to the full Council for its approval. Under this system

·        Decisions would be more thoroughly debated. More councillors from all the political parties would be involved in these debates leading to a more balanced decision.
·        Members of the public with specialist knowledge and experience can be invited to serve on Council committees to advise councillors.
·        There would be greater transparency - key information and the real reasons for decisions could no longer hidden by a small group of powerful politicians or a single person.
A DIRECTLEY ELECTED LEADER unlike current council leaders who are elected by councillors from their party, would be elected by the whole of Thanet. This makes the leader directly accountable to local people and not to any political party. The leader

·        Can appoint a cabinet to help him/ her run the council
·        Can appoint committees to advise him/ her on decision making and make recommendations for action
·        Can appoint members of the public, or representatives from  community groups to advisory roles
·        Can ensure that his/ her cabinet and any committees cross party and provide balanced advice and recommendations
·        Is held to account for his/ her actions by  elected councillors through scrutiny committees

WOULD IT BE BETTER? No system is perfect but the committee system or the directly elected leader have many advantages of the way Thanet is currently been managed such as -

·        Decisions would be more thoroughly debated. More councillors from all the political parties would be involved in these debates leading to a more balanced decision.
·        Decisions would be informed by a greater range of knowledge and experience
·        Members of the public with specialist knowledge and experience can be invited to serve on Council committees to advise councillors.
·       There would be greater transparency and more accountability  

HOW CAN WE MAKE THE CHANGE?  If we got enough signatures on a petition, the Council would be forced by law to hold a referendum in which local people could vote on replacing with current system with a Directly Elected Leader or a Cabinet System. The number of signatures needed would be 5% of the electorate - at present that's 4,997.

ARE OTHER COUNCILS CHANGING?  About 40 Council’s in England have already changed from a Cabinet to a Committee system including Nottinghamshire County Council, Brighton and Hove City Council, Newark and Sherwood District Council, Kingston and Sutton Council. A campaign to change Canterbury City Council from a Cabinet to a Committee system is already underway and they are close to getting the required number of signatures to force a referendum.


  1. Well said Ian although and you point out with corrupt and incompetent people as at tdc no system is perfect. And we have had every political party and leader try and fail badly. More civil servants sacked more often?

  2. The trouble is that people have been saying this for the last 20 years and, in that time, there have been several shake-ups, none of which has made things better. Personally, I think the problem is, and has always been, the poor quality of the individuals who have occupied positions in the cabinet and the almost inexplicable choice of council leaders. We can moan about the officers, but the cabinet and leadership has always had a say in who was appointed to those positions. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that nobody leading the council in the last 20 years had ever previously been involved in making appointments to £100,000 per year positions.