The county council is a remote behemoth which acts as it pleases

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County Hall, seat of Kent County Council, in Maidstone

It is worth here being fair to Canterbury City Council. Because however ineffective their attempts at consultation and public engagement might be, Kent County Council’s are simply non-existent.

It may, indeed, be testimony to the closeness of the relationship between Canterbury City Council (CCC) and its residents that many of us care so much about its shortcomings.

Certainly there is a sense that CCC is approachable and, just maybe, redeemable if it was given the right policies and priorities by its leadership.

There is no similar sense about Kent County Council (KCC), which seems like a remote behemoth which exists to hand down its services to the population of the county regardless of what they think.

Some of that is embodied in its structures. Having disposed of the tiresome bother of having a chief executive to manage the staff on a strictly non-political basis, KCC is in effect managed by the leader of the Tory group, Paul Carter.

KCC leader Paul Carter

He has been in place since 2005, and having got himself into an apparently unassailable position received more than £57,000 of council tax money each year in payment.

Mr Carter heads up a cabinet of councillors – the system which was got rid of in Canterbury in 2015 because of the unaccountable power it gave to a small coterie of members, and in particular to the group leader.

That cabinet decides policy and manages the services – or, perhaps, given the state of our schools, roads, and social services, mismanages them.

So little public engagement takes place that KCC’s website shows that the community engagement information pages have been archived.

Unlike CCC, which is at least nominally seeking public input through its Forums, KCC seems to hold absolutely no meetings for local people to attend. You can, if you are so minded, go to Maidstone to witness the deliberations of the council.

But you’d be naïve to think this would be informative, let alone interesting. The latest cabinet meeting, for example, dealt with nothing more than the minutes of the previous meeting, reports on finance and corporate performance, risk, and exceptions around care transfers.

Nothing at all, you’ll note, on some key areas which KCC is actually responsible for.

Further, KCC holds almost all its meetings during daytime working hours, which for most people makes attendance almost impossible.

The problem of effective public scrutiny and engagement is just one aspect of what is wrong with this system of governance.

Because your local county councillor is almost completely excluded from any meaningful oversight of what goes on. county council meetings take place every two months, which means just six times a year at most.

Committee meetings are more frequent, but given that most decisions are taken by the cabinet members these amount to not much more than window dressing.

In short, there is a major democratic deficiency in the way KCC is run.

Some have argued that this is inevitable in a body which delivers services across the second most populous non-urban County in the country. But even if true, does that really make this situation acceptable?

The bottom line is that KCC swallows six times as much of our council tax as CCC. It delivers services which are critical to our future, to our economy, and to our people. And it does so with the bare minimum of accountability to the voters.

There are two possible reactions to this: one would be to change the way KCC is run, scrapping the cabinet system and reverting to a committee set-up as Canterbury has done. Introducing some local forums would be helpful, and might even introduce some of the councillors to the people they are meant to serve. That would be an improvement, for sure.

The alternative, actually argued for in part by CCC last year, would be to effectively dismantle KCC and replace it with several smaller local councils which would deliver all local government services.

The attempt to do that last year broke down because the consent of each existing council, including KCC, is needed in order to make that change. Too many of them were unwilling to give up the splendours of their existing powers just to do something that would improve democracy and service delivery for their residents.

We cannot carry on as we are. People are suspicious of large organisations, and whether it is justified or not, anecdote suggests that each district thinks others are given more investment from KCC because of where the leader or cabinet member lives.

KCC is simply too big to be a council which can fairly claim to be representative of the population, especially after cutting the numbers of councillors and allowing the electoral boundaries to be arranged in such a way that a Conservative majority was embedded for the future.

Many county councillors seem remote and unresponsive. Too much power sits in too few hands, and the quality of service being delivered is a source of regular complaints.

Changing this may require a solution to be imposed centrally by government, something which is unlikely to happen in the short term and probably highly unlikely anyway under a Tory regime which would be required to dispose of some of its power. But unless district and county councillors across Kent are prepared to put people before power, then we will remain stuck with this deficient system.

1 COMMENT

  1. I had no idea things were this bad until a recent, direct personal experience with KCC closing our local railway foot crossing in Whitstable.
    The local consultation meeting was held in the day when many people simply cannot attend. The deliberations of the councillors went un-minuted and un-audited and only their final decision was published. They ignored local people present who presented rational, reasoned, evidenced testimonies in support of the safety improvements directed by HM Coroner. Instead, KCC voted with the vested interests of Networkrail to close our public right of way.
    Council tax went up again and KCC councillors voted themselves a whopping increase in allowances – including local councillor Mark Dance who also agreed that this local crossing should be closed. Self-interest is the order of the day particularly when these monolithic-party councils become established.
    This is a really shoddy state of affairs and truly a democratic deficit.

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