Sweeping changes to Falkirk Council decision making

The way Falkirk Council reaches its decisions is set to change.
The way Falkirk Council reaches its decisions is set to change.
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The leaders of Falkirk Council have won a ‘root and branch’ revamp of how it goes about its business.

After three hours of debate at the Muncipal Buildings on Tuesday night the Labour-Conservative coalition consigned the traditional town hall committee structure to the history books in favour of an executive cabinet set up.

Council leader Craig Martin led the move for change - but the details of the proposal attracted flack from the opposition benches who fear it will leave them and the people who elected them without an effective voice.

Amendments to the decision-making structure backed by the administration were defeated by 17 votes to 13 - leaving the SNP claiming Falkirk Council is about to become an “exclusive club”.

Councillor Martin said: “This is the biggest change to the structure that has been proposed. But this issue has been going on for a long time and been discussed in this chamber and at working groups where it has been agreed there has to be change.

“I think it’s important there is change in the way the council makes its decisions. It should be in a position to make decisions quicker and fairer. The system we have at the moment is archaic.”

Councillors considered a 12-page report from council chief executive Mary Pitcaithly.

Councillor Martin moved the recommendations, seconded by Conservative councillor Malcolm Nicol, which will mean a 12-member top tier of decision makers, made up of nine from the administration and three from the opposition.

The nine will be the leader of the council and eight ‘portfolio’ holders - in effect the current Labour conveners of the key committees: policy and resources, education, health and social care, housing, economic development, environment, public protection and culture, sport and tourism.

A scrutiny committee will also be established. It will consist of six members of the administration and four from the opposition. They have until April, when standing orders will be changed to accomodate the new-look set-up, to pick their people.

Councillor Martin will be convener of the executive and the executive will elect his deputy.

It has also been agreed policing and fire and rescue issues will be dealt with at meetings of the full council; there will be no ‘call in’ from the executive to the council; and policy development and scrutiny panels will be allowed to decide if their business is open to the public.

The new programme of meetings will start in May with the revised set of standing orders, which the changes require ready for the next meeting of the full council on April 24, when changes to the pay scales as a result of the executive being formed will also be discussed.

The SNP lined up to slam the plan.

Councillor Cecil Meiklejohn challenged the set-up and urged the executive include members of the current scrutiny committees. She said: “That would allow transparency and flexibility in the decision-making process. Without that I would see the role of the opposition being disenfranchised and officers of the council working for the administration and not the council. I would urge the administration to look again at what it is proposing and consider the council’s role should be inclusive.”

Councillor Steven Jackson said: “We are heading for a dictatorship. The opportunity was there for the Labour Party to show some common sense.

“The issues could have been taken to the scrutiny committee and outvoted by Labour and I would have had no problem with that. However, this is a sad day for democracy.

“Labour is saying ‘we don’t care’ and taking away the opportunity for councillors who have been elected to represent their people.”

Councillor Gordon Hughes said: “The day of representing the people who elected me is now becoming a nightmare. What message is this decision sending the people of Falkirk district?”

Councillor Martin Oliver claimed: “Excluding a third of the membership of this chamber will certainly make decision making a lot quicker because we are seeing the decision making structure being closed down. There’s going to be no accountability, full stop.”

Councillor John McNally said: “There will be no checks and balances. Falkirk Council will become an exclusive members only club.”

Chief executive Mary Pitcaithly was handed the responsibility of carrying out a review of the council’s decision making structures in May last year.

She reported back on December 12 outlining two broad options for consideration - a revised committee structure or an Executive/Cabinet model.

She also gave councillors the choice of taking all its decisions without the need for any committees at all.

After that meeting there was agreement the current committee arrangement needed to be replaced by a more efficent and modern structure and called for a detailed report on the Executive/Cabinet idea.

Her report on Tuesday night included the facts designed to meet Falkirk Council’s needs and circumstances including proposals for changes to Standing Orders required.

Mrs Pitcaithly reported: “The underlying principle of any Cabinet or Executive model is that the principal decision making functions of the council are centred in a Cabinet or Executive rather than in a series of service or themed committees. The other common principles to be found is such models is that the Cabinet or Executive would largely consist of members of the administration who would be lead spokespersons in particular areas and the power which transfers to such a Cabinet or Executive requires to be balanced by a properly developed scrutiny mechanism.”