COUNCILLORS have been ordered to choose between two radical plans to change the way Kirklees is governed. But there’s just one small problem – no-one on the council wants either option. In the first of a series of articles in Local Democracy Week, BARRY GIBSON asks why Westminster is forcing the council’s hand
LET’S get one thing straight. When we talk about Kirklees Council having an elected mayor, we’re not talking about the Clr Julie Stewart-Turner model – the figurehead with a chain who cuts ribbons and raises money for charity.
And neither are we talking about the Boris Johnson model – a mayor who controls the police, fire service and transport system.
The model proposed by Westminster is something in between – like Doncaster’s budget-slashing Peter Davies or Hartlepool’s monkey mascot Stuart Drummond.
Kirklees has until Christmas to choose either a mayor elected directly by the people or a “powerful leader” voted in by councillors for a four-year term. Either way, the current system – where most decisions are made by a nine-strong cabinet – will have to go.
Council leader Clr Mehboob Khan sees no reason to change. The Greenhead Labour man said: “Cabinet decision-making gives responsibility to nine people, while the Government’s options would both give all responsibility to one person. Ideally, I would prefer the status quo but, if we have to choose, I think having a leader elected by councillors is the better option.”
But Clr Khan – who has been on Kirklees since 1996 – believes the best option of all is the old committee system. “Bring back the committee system and we’d all be happy. It’s where I learnt my politics from 1996 to 2000.
“It gives every councillor the chance to sit on various committees that make decisions. Responsibility was shared by lots of councillors who had experience and in-depth knowledge.”
Lib Dem leader Clr Kath Pinnock agrees.
The Cleckheaton woman, who has been on Kirklees since 1987, said: “I think the old committee system had a lot going for it because it forced us to reach cross-party consensus. The big disadvantage of the cabinet system is that it puts huge pressure on the nine people involved.”
Clr Pinnock, who led the council from 2000 to 2006, is not a fan of either option “Neither of them would help nurture local democracy. Huddersfield is a diverse place and in turn it’s different to Dewsbury, Batley and the Spen Valley. No one person can represent Kirklees.”
Conservative leader Clr Jim Dodds is also against changing the system.
The Denby Dale man said: “If it was up to us, we’d stick with the status quo. Of the two choices on the table, we’d prefer the leader elected by councillors, as long as that person could be removed if things went wrong.
“I think it’s dangerous to put power in the hands of one person.”
Clr Dodds has been a councillor since 2004 and served in the Conservative Cabinet from 2006 until this January.
He said: “I think cabinet is an all right system. It gets the groups working together, which I think is what politics should be about at local level.”
Clr Andrew Cooper, who leads the four-strong Green group on Kirklees, pointed out that voters had rejected an elected mayor before.
The Newsome man said: “Five or six years ago we asked people if they wanted an elected mayor and they said they didn’t want this highly-paid autocrat.”
“I’m very firmly against this, it would be putting all our eggs in one basket.”
Clr Cooper, who has served on Kirklees since 1999, is angry that Whitehall keeps imposing changes.
The Examiner asked the Department for Communities and LocalGovernment why it was making Kirklees get rid of its cabinet system.
A spokeswoman said: “Communities deserve strong, visible leadership to champion their needs and make and act on tough decisions. Residents will know where the buck stops and councillors can champion local issues through clearer leadership channels.
“Local people will have their say on whether a mayor or council leader is right to take this forward.”