Thursday, 14 August 2014

Democracy vs Aristocracy in Kensington and Chelsea

The very peculiar world of Kensington and Chelsea Council barely reflects the reality of everyday life in the borough.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the pantomime of Full Council meetings. The idea that this is somehow part of a statutory decision-making process is simply depressing. When residents hand petitions to their ward Councillors, they often attend Full Council and sit in the Public Gallery to witness democracy at work; this may be the first and last time they ever attend. The petition is read out and the moment is quickly over. Then they stay to watch the debates. Several Council members, despite warnings, continue to play computer games or read the papers, with no pretence that it is work-related. Visitors find this shocking. Then when the debates start, they hear the bickering, name-calling and blatant disrespect. To top it all, despite the hours of work they have put into getting signatures, the petitioners may not get any response whatever.

Democracy at work, K&C style. 

To make it worse, while Labour and our single LibDem Councillors research and write their own speeches, it is clear that Cabinet Members often read out texts written by officers. They are not familiar with them, and cannot ad lib if challenged. So if they have misjudged the Labour Group position they are quite unable to alter their speech to fit; they just plough on anyway. At times the Tories are quite unable to hide the disdain they feel for their electorate; we record and date every incident.

The ‘Cllr Shut-Up’ [link to Evening Standard] episode was appalling, but not unusual. The only difference was that the offensive comment was directed at members of the public rather than the Labour Group; total disdain plus a hint of venom directed at a Public Gallery full of parents and carers who had been very badly let down by the Council, and their children put in danger.

This attitude comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy means:

They seem to think they are some kind of elected aristocracy, born, or elected to rule.

So they see the borough as a mini-state and treat residents as troublesome subjects, and the Council as a humungous business, and treat its staff as their own employees.

Then they justify expense on unjustifiable items and projects in terms of ‘prestige’, as if the Council were a huge corporation or brand touting for business and placating its shareholders. 

No. We are all public servants, together, in our different roles, some of us are appointed and some are elected. The borough is a geographical area under our care. The Council is a public service that should serve the public, first and foremost.

Residents of all political persuasions, and none, are increasingly frustrated and angry that their concerns are very poorly represented by their Tory representatives. They keep residents at arm’s length, and wash their hands of the more difficult issues, such as planning matters that are changing neighbourhoods forever, or basement excavations that blight their residents lives and create a living hell for our families and older people. These are the people holding our borough together by creating networks that form communities; the very people we should treasure and respect.

Policy should be formed from residents’ concerns and priorities. These are very clearly laid out in the Annual Residents’ Survey, which reflects a far kinder and more humane and fairer and more inclusive approach to Budgeting.

Instead, without mandate and increasingly without even a pretence at meaningful consultation or democratic process, the Cabinet makes ‘difficult decisions’ to cut services that residents value and need the most, while spending to excess on pet projects and frivolities.