Exeter City Council holds its annual meeting each May, when the Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor are appointed and the council leader for the following year is confirmed. Appointments to all the council’s committees are also made.
Notwithstanding the resignation of several Labour councillors and the party’s loss of three seats to the Greens at the local elections, this week’s annual meeting confirmed that Labour councillor Phil Bialyk continues as city council leader.
However just under 20,000 votes were cast for Labour while nearly 24,000 were cast for the other parties combined, although the First Past the Post electoral system meant Labour won twelve of seventeen seats.
Comparing proportional ballot shares for the leading candidate in each party in wards in which more than one councillor was elected (of which there were four this year) to mitigate the effects of some voters casting two votes yields very similar results: just under 46% of ballots were cast for Labour while just over 54% were cast for other parties.
The party’s largest vote share in annual city council elections for which records are available was in 2016, when the ward boundaries had just changed and all the council’s seats were elected at the same time.
It received just over 47.5% of the votes that were cast that year. It has received a minority of votes in every annual city council election since 2000.
The council leader’s intentions were apparently magnanimous, although his party’s supporters are, in fact, a minority subjugating the majority.
He said he recognised that not everybody had voted Labour and reminded the council’s annual meeting that “democracy is not always getting your own way”.
(His party’s supporter’s are also among a larger minority — of voters subjugating a majority of non-voters. Nearly two-thirds of Exeter’s 92,000 electors did not vote on 5 May.)
The council leader nevertheless appointed Labour members to all thirteen council committee chairs.
These include Emma Morse, who holds the executive portfolio for city development. She was appointed to the planning committee chair despite Local Government Association guidance which explicitly advises against the development portfolio holder holding any seat on this committee.
The council leader also continues to sit on the planning committee in defiance of the same guidance.
This practice has apparently become ingrained in Exeter: the description of Emma Morse’s portfolio on the formal appointments notice was “City Development and Chair of Planning Committee”.
Labour committee chair appointments have most significance, however, in the party’s control of council decision-making scrutiny.
This extends to Labour members chairing not only all the council’s scrutiny committees but also the private board which controls which topics are subject to scrutiny, effectively wielding a veto over the process.
According to statutory government guidance, the council’s scrutiny function is intended to act as a “check and balance on the executive”, which is one reason why executive members are not permitted to hold seats on scrutiny committees.
The guidance also says: “The executive should not try to exercise control over the work of the scrutiny committee”, and that all council “members and officers should recognise and appreciate the importance and legitimacy the scrutiny function is afforded by the law”.
It said the committee’s key characteristic is that “it is chaired by a member of the official opposition and its members, of all political parties, are required to demonstrate robust challenge”.
In order to fulfil the intended executive “check and balance” function of council scrutiny, legislation confers enhanced powers on councillors who sit on scrutiny committees.
These include additional rights to access exempt or confidential information that extend their existing information access rights as councillors as well as their common law rights under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
Scrutiny committees are entitled to look at any issue which affects “the area or the area’s inhabitants”, offering a broad remit to intervene.
They can require councillors and council officers to attend and give evidence and can also call representatives of external bodies to give evidence and supply information.
Recommendations made under scrutiny powers require substantive responses and implementation within specified timescales and cannot simply be “noted” by council executives.
Perhaps most important is the power scrutiny councillors have to “call in” executive decisions, delaying implementation to subject them to greater scrutiny, with the option to recommend that they are reconsidered and potentially overturned.
However these powers are being circumvented by Exeter City Council’s approach to decision-making.
At first sight this appears more democratic, but actually has the effect of preventing the exercise of scrutiny powers and undermining the “check and balance on the executive” that the council’s scrutiny function is supposed to provide.
This is what happened when the council apparently breached the regulations in its decision to send its chief executive and another senior director to work for Exeter City Futures for a total of five days a week while continuing to receive their council salaries.
It also apparently breached this and other accountability and transparency regulations in a sequence of decisions regarding Exeter City Living, its private property development company, as well as its decision to purchase and redevelop the Guildhall shopping centre at an expected cost of £55 million.
Decisions taken in breach of the regulations may be unlawful and ineffective, could constitute maladministration and may be subject to judicial review, putting the council’s finances at risk.
The contrast between Exeter City Council and Devon County Council in their approaches to decision-making is instructive. Both councils are governed by the same decision-making legislation but only one appears to be implementing it correctly.
The county council’s April forward plan listed 30 prospective decisions of which all but three were to be taken by the cabinet (the count council’s equivalent of the city council’s executive).
At the same time the city council’s forward plan listed 52 prospective decisions of which just nine were to be taken by the executive.
The city council’s approach entails that what we might call the overwhelming majority of the decisions it takes are not subject to scrutiny in the way the legislation and guidance requires.
This is the very same legislation and guidance which Labour councillors recently invoked at County Hall in order to challenge a Conservative county cabinet decision which they believed should be subject to greater scrutiny.
Changes proposed by council leader Phil Bialyk at his first executive meeting after being elected leader in 2019 swept away the city council’s previous approach to scrutiny, which had been praised by the Local Government Association just two years before.
It is now time for the city council to rethink its scrutiny practices and adopt new arrangements which not only comply with the letter, but also the spirit, of the law.
This would involve correctly implementing local authority decision-making legislation so scrutiny committee members are empowered to perform their intended role as a “check and balance on the executive”.
It would also involved ceding the chairs of scrutiny committees, including the private oversight board, to opposition councillors to help safeguard the council against decisions which put its finances at risk.
Labour holds a commanding majority on Exeter City Council notwithstanding its recent losses, occupying 26 of 39 seats.
Why, in such circumstances, would it remain resistant to more effective scrutiny of its decisions?