Friday, 4 December 2009

Cracks in the coalition

No, not that coalition!

Carmarthenshire County Council is looking to save money, and came up with the wheeze of closing a number of the council's residential homes. To no-one's great surprise (except, apparently, the administration at County Hall), this proposal did not exactly receive a universal welcome from the residents of the homes, or their families or carers. The local papers this week make for interesting reading on the subject, especially the Llanelli Star.

On one of the centre pages, a smiling council leader, Meryl Gravell, explains why the homes are no longer necessary, supported by a statement from the also-smiling Director. The two Executive Board members directly responsible, Labour Councillors Pat Jones and Hugh Evans (also both smiling) set out their reasons for supporting the proposals which they have signed off and put forward for public consultation. The facing page contains a picture of a rather angry looking Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli, alongside a statement making her opposition to her own party's proposals very clear.

On Wednesday this week, the proposals were put to a joint meeting of the county council's Housing and Health and Social Care Scrutiny Committees, with a recommendation that the document be approved for publication for a public consultation exercise.

One after another, the Plaid scrutiny members savaged the proposals with a series of arguments which the proponents of the scheme found difficult to rebut. When the matter was put to the vote, all four of Labour's voting members supported the Plaid proposal that the document be not accepted as a basis for consultation, realising that their party's Executive Board members had got it totally wrong. The two Labour Executive Board members, who were present but unable to vote, could only watch in anguish as their proposals were comprehensively torn apart before being rejected by a clear majority of the councillors present.

It's the first time that I'm aware of that the ruling Independent Party / Labour Party coalition have lost a vote - or been so obviously split along party lines. I wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall at the next Labour group meeting at County Hall.

Politics aside, however, it's instructional to consider how such an ill-advised policy proposal could have got so far without being challenged. It exposes one of the weaknesses of the current cabinet / scrutiny system in local government, where the Executive members alone are aware of policy discussions such as this. There is a culture of secrecy, and back-benchers, even in the ruling groups, are largely kept in the dark about potential policy changes. A more open discussion, involving all the councillors, would have alerted the council to the likely reaction to these proposals well in advance.

It remains to be seen what will happen next. The current administration at County Hall are not renowned for changing direction - I wouldn't be at all surprised to see these proposals being resurrected in some form. The 30-strong Plaid Group can be expected to continue to oppose them.


Anonymous said...

Oh, my hopes rose when I read your headline. But it was the wrong coalition.

Anonymous said...

Carmathendhire labour council the home of new labour at it's best.

I can save a few bob for then, sack those at the top for stupididty.