Cheshire East Council has taken a big step towards establishing a Committee System to replace its’ current Cabinet System of Governance – but there are concerns that coronavirus COVID-19 could delay the process.
Last week at the council’s constitution committee (the last public meeting before the Covid-19 separation protocols came fully in force), It was agreed to approve a series of recommendations outlining how CEC will dissolve the cabinet in May 2021 and replace it with a number of decision-making committees instead.
It will be the biggest constitutional change in the council’s 11-year history and the recommendations mean there is now a clear plan ahead, subject to its ratification from full council which is expected to take place in July.
CEC’s Independent Group launched a petition calling for the cabinet to be replaced in September 2018. Whilst they never reached the required numbers to trigger a referendum on the subject, the council unanimously committed to the idea following last May’s 2019 election. Despite cross-party support, the process was slow to start and has been beset with delays and cancellations of the sub-group meetings responsible for advising the Constitution Committee.
CEC’s political group leaders agreed to delay the change from this May 2020 to 2021 in January, before the plans were refined to the point at which they were presented on Thursday.
However the subject on everybody’s minds, Covid-19, was raised by Cllr Liz Wardlaw, Conservative. She said: “I don’t want to delay the process but I feel the democracy of the process is going to be challenged over this next 12 months. “How are we going to achieve what we need to achieve if we are in lockdown at some point over these future months? “There will be illness, there will be distraction, and God forbid anyone in this room, but there will be a very serious disruption to democracy over the next few weeks – if not months.”
Jan Bakewell, CEC’s monitoring officer, explained that the council’s decision would need to include a date for the new system to come into effect by law – but the target date could be reviewed before that decision is taken to take coronavirus disruption into account.
Cllr Janet Clowes, leader of CEC’s Conservative group, said: “However well we try to prepare, we will not have a perfect committee system. “We will have to tweak it, model it, go back to it and be prepared to make it better as we go along.” The latest plans would see the cabinet replaced by six ‘service committees’, while other committees such as planning would continue.
A number of tweaks were proposed at Thursday’s meeting, with a key sticking point being the way decisions are reviewed, as the current ‘call in’ system would be scrapped. The issue of referrals is to be considered by a group of councillors and Ms Bakewell before a proposal goes to full council.