I attended the Cambridge City Council meeting at the Guildhall last night. Nick Hillman, Conservative PPC for Cambridge, was making a public statement to support a Lib Dem motion on higher education and the local economy.
The bulk of the evening (and the Council was in session from 6pm until midnight) was taken up the Liberal Democrat budget and a proposed Labour amendment, ultimately approving the original budget proposal with no modifications.
If the overall city council budget with its evidence of epic financial mismanagement should be of concern to every resident (local blogger Richard Taylor has interesting articles on the subject on his blog), then they should doubly concerned about the structure of the city council and the mockery it makes of the democratic process.
Cambridge City Council has 42 seats, made up of 3 councillors per ward elected on a rolling basis with one councillor from each ward retiring or standing for re-election each year. At present the Liberal Democrats hold 28 seats, with Labour having just 11 (the council was Labour controlled for many years). The Greens and Conservatives have just 1 councillor each and there is one independent (ex-Lib Dem).
As the discussion last night demonstrated, this basically rules out any constructive debate on matters of concern such as budgets, planning policy or public services strategy. For example, despite detailed and cogent arguments on matters such as the proposal to cut the number of housing offices by more than 60% (opposed by Labour with the support of the Conservative councillor), a Lib Dem block vote basically put the matter beyond debate.
We therefore go into the 2010/11 fiscal year with a proposal for a continuing General Fund budget deficit, a 3.5% council tax increase this year (4.5% next year) and no effective plan to address structural inefficiencies and waste in the council bureaucracy, none of this open to meaningful discussion or challenge.
But isn’t this just a natural result of a “first past the post” election system and no different from the situation in parliament? The answer is a resounding “No”.
Taking votes cast in local elections over the last 2 years (taken from the Cambridge City Council website) , Lib Dems achieved only 35% of votes cast, which would equate to around 15 councillors out of 42, roughly half the number of seats they currently control. Labour achieved 23% of the vote, which means their 11 seats reflect their share of the vote quite well.
The biggest losers, of course, are the Conservatives who drew 26% of the votes cast in the last two years, more than Labour. Projecting this data forwards this would net us at least 11 seats, whereas in fact we only have one councillor in the chamber. This is hardly democracy in action!
Furthermore the rolling election process means it could take years before the balance can be redressed. At the local elections on May 6th, the Liberal Democrats could lose every single one of their 14 wards yet they would still have 14 councillors in the chamber, which is the same as all the opposition parties combined currently have in the chamber. Is this reasonable?
Cambridge City Conservatives have a superb candidate for the General Election and recent polls of voting intention in the city suggest that Nick Hillman is likely to be our next MP. This should be good news even for Liberal Democrats: A Conservative MP in parliament is the best possible way for Cambridge to challenge the threats posed to its economy and universities by current plans to cut university funding.
However a change in the make up of our city council could be even more important in ensuring that we stem the tide of waste and fiscal incompetence that Cambridge has endured for the last 10 years.