What is happening to democracy at Harrogate Borough Council?
Somehow, the Conservative Leader of the Council managed to spend most of his speech at the Harrogate Borough Council (HBC) Budget Meeting last Thursday, on the differences the two main groups have on the Council Office accommodation issue.
This effectively took away the opportunity for elected members to properly debate the issue of taking the council tax freeze grant for another year, despite 61% of HBC taxpayers who responded to the Budget consultation saying that they would prefer a council tax increase to having another year of frozen council tax. The fact is that we have already lost approximately £1.3 million from the council tax base over the years of taking the Central Government freeze grant, and at some point it is likely that this will impact on service provision. It is interesting/perplexing that many of these same Conservative district councillors who advocated the freeze at HBC will be putting forward a 1.99% tax increase at North Yorks County Council this week, in their dual capacity as County Councillors. That is one to watch!
But this lack of debate at council is becoming a worrying trend. At HBC, committees are being reduced in size and “briefings”, where councillors are told what is going on, rather than being given the chance to debate and discuss, are becoming the order of the day. For example, the Lib Dem Group was informed by the leading Conservative Group on Thursday that we would be given a “briefing” in due course so that we would understand why the proposed new-build at Knapping Mount was the only viable option. It seems we are to be treated like a group of naughty school children for raising a different solution to the issue of office accommodation and must be brought into line. (They seem to forget that we have already attended similar “briefings” but come up with different solutions.)
Does all this matter? Yes it does, as it signals an erosion of democracy and therefore choice for the electorate that I find distinctly worrying. The electorate is entitled to choice, so that they can align their priorities with those of any group who is going to push for those priorities when they are in office. The advantages and disadvantages of any scheme are virtually always going to be relative. And it is right that these issues should be debated in the public sphere so that the electorate knows what options they have.
We will continue to fight for an office modernisation and consolidation scheme that would see Crescent Gardens updated and offices sold as the workforce decreases over time and adopts flexible ways of working, and the building of much needed homes on Knapping Mount. We think it is the best course of action and we are entitled to let the electorate know where we clearly stand. Then, it’s down to the people.
It’s called democracy, and it’s the best system we have got if we truly care about giving people power in political decisions.