Opinion: Shropshire is slipping into black hole democracy

Shropshire Logo in Black Hole

I am lucky enough to live in Shropshire, in Ludlow – one of the most treasured places in my known universe.

I am so unlucky to live in Shropshire, in Ludlow – one of the most trashed places in my known universe.

Yesterday, we lost our dream hospital. This was not for any real reason; it just fell through the widening cracks in the national health system.

We have also lost our local tip and recycling centre in Ludlow. It’s not official. It’s just that the staff have been told they have no jobs any more.

Everyone, everywhere is experiencing such slashing cuts. I object ferociously to the loss of our tip – and more so to loss of funding to improve local healthcare – but what concerns me most is the loss of local open democracy.

The decision to scrap Ludlow’s hospital was made in full public. It was an exemplar. Hundreds of people sat through both meetings. Dozens spoke to the two committees involved.

But Shropshire Council is making more and more of its important decisions behind closed doors. And these decisions are not even being made by a committee, not even by its Cabinet. They are made by lone councillors in meetings I am not allowed to attend as a member of public. Elected councillors are allowed to turn up but not necessarily allowed to speak. No councillor is allowed to make any alternative proposal.

On 4 November, the relevant Cabinet member will decide whether or not to close our local recycling centre. He will propose the motion and second it. The vote is guaranteed to be unanimous as the Cabinet member will be the only voter.

Not a single member of the public or the press is allowed to attend. We can’t watch them. We can’t talk to them. We can’t film them. There will there be no notes taken of that meeting. Nothing to say who said what. No public record of any discussion, comments or pleas by councillors is made. There is no appeal of the decision.

This is black hole democracy, in which the decision-making processes have become all but invisible and the only information that escapes is the decision.

Democracy needs to be open and transparent to survive. If we undermine open democracy in our rich poor county like ours, the wealthy elite will dominate and the vulnerable will suffer. That’s exactly what we are seeing.

We are losing a lot of important facilities and services that support the disadvantaged in the county. Vulnerable people are struggling to get their voices heard.

The most vital thing we are losing is the right for democracy to be enacted in public. Decisions about buses, day centres, recycling and so many more vital services are made behind closed doors. By one person. Doing little more than talking to themselves.

Having lost the essentials of open democracy, how will we ever rebuild the services that so many of the people of Shropshire need?

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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21 Comments

  • “… the real problem is that the nation is bankrupt …”

    The real problem is that politicians – politicians of all parties – try to fool people into thinking they can have good public services without paying for them.

  • Sorry but the country is not bankrupt – it is under banker occupation. That is where the money is going, a great river of money which is being sucked out of the country by the banks and a swarm of corporate parasites, and almost none of it is being reinvested here. Banker greed caused the crash of 2008, and we are suffering at the hands of an establishment elite who would rather strip ordinary people of a decent standard of living than treat the responsible financial institutions as the criminals that they are.

  • “I don’t think people mind paying for public services if they have a secure well paid job.”

    No, I don’t, either. But at present they are not being offered anything like an informed choice by the political establishment.

  • Andy Boddington 20th Sep '13 - 11:50am

    Democracy in Shropshire is not being undermined because of the financial crisis. It is being eroded because the Conservative majority wish to rule rather govern.

  • Andy Boddington 20th Sep '13 - 1:59pm

    @John Roffey If Shropshire’s budget was doubled we would still be seeing this erosion of democracy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 20th Sep '13 - 5:04pm


    But Shropshire Council is making more and more of its important decisions behind closed doors. And these decisions are not even being made by a committee, not even by its Cabinet.

    Er, yes. This is what the Blair government called “democracy”. They went on and on about how bad it was that power should be shared by these shadowy political types called councillors, and how inefficient it was that they had all these committee meetings and so on, and proposed instead to centralise power in cabinet systems, and ideally in the hands of one person because that was “more accountable” and so more democratic. This is a position you will find to this day is held by the great and good of this country, left and right (the Guardian newspaper is forever going on about what a wonderful thing it would be if all local government were run this way) to be the way forward – get rid of councillors, or render them powerless, and have everything run by an Executive Mayor.

    The fundamental changes to local democracy under Blair’s enforcement of the Cabinet system was considered so unimportant by this country’s media that it received hardly any coverage at all. When I tried to make a fuss about it and get people to see how serious an issue it was, I was written off as some sort of eccentric. Even our own party didn’t seem bothered by it. Clegg, then a back-bench MP, wrote a paper in favour of Executive Mayors, quoting the propaganda issued by the Labour Party in the London Borough of Lewisham as if it were the truth and not bothering even to seek my contrasting viewpoint on the issue as Leader of the Opposition.

  • Didn’t the coalition government do something about the Cabinet system? Didn’t it say that Councils could abolish it and go back to the Committee system? If the answers are yes then all we need to do is take control of the council to restore the old better system.

    Of course capturing councils is very hard at the moment and if we get STV for Local Government it is likely we will not capture as many Councils as we could under FPTP.

  • David Rogers 21st Sep '13 - 10:42am

    I recently retired after 36 years as an East Sussex county councillor, and therefore have considerable knowledge of both the previous committee system and the more recent cabinet and scrutiny methods. What is described above by Andy Boddington is apparently Shropshire’s secretive interpretation of how to operate. It is not a requirement that the system should work this way. In East Sussex, as well as the cabinet as a whole making appropriate decisions as defined by the council’s constitution, cabinet councillors have individual decision-making powers (again in accordance with the constitution). But these meetings are scheduled, have published agenda and minutes, are open to the press and public, and relevant local members can make representations – as can parish councils or other appropriate representatives of groups, such as those who have submitted a petition. So the issue here is clearly Shropshire’s secrecy, not individual decision-making per se!

  • John Edwarde 21st Sep '13 - 12:09pm

    I am sure I am not alone in feeling that my local authority should be added to a list of councils as woeful and undemocratic as Ludlow. My council is Carmarthenshire. Day centres? You must be joking. Puff journal delivered to all addresses? Of course we have! Track record of trying to keep the public out of council meetings? You bet.

  • Peter Chivall 21st Sep '13 - 6:47pm

    You can add Peterborough UA to the list of secretive Cabinet councils. It’s not quite as bad as Andy Boddington’s Shropshire but nearly. There are some pre-notices of Council decisions being allowed out to Council members but seemingly not many. Councillors can ‘call in’ Cabinet decisions but only if they sit on the relevant Scrutiny Committees with Tory chairs and Tory majorities. Our LibDem leader, Nick Sandford, was unable to ‘call in’ a decision to scrap all non-commercial bus services because he wasn’t on the relevant Scrutiny Committee, although he is allowed to attend and speak as a Group leader.
    Like in Shropshire, the situation in Peterborough has become de-facto ‘rule by officials’ in an effective one-party state. Thus the City has now saddled itself with a contract for an £86millions waste incinerator which will need all the waste from 50miles around to feed its fires, yet will only produce as much electricity as 4 wind turbines. It is likely they will end up having to burn some of the currently recyclable waste to keep it going.
    Even Tory group members had their doubts, but the officers were in effective control of the project, and of the information placed before the Cabinet member. New Labour’s desire to make local democracy a shadow of the Westminster shambles has effectively led to Soviet ‘Rule by Officials’. I am ashamed that there are still some LibDem Councils that support the Cabinet system.

  • It could only happen in Shropshire.

    The local paper has just reported that the Leader of the Council is looking to repudiate and renegotiate a 25+ year contract for wste disposal, including the building of an incinerator.

    And the person resposnible for the original decision? The dear Leaders wife!

    I’m not sure whether this tells us more about the calibre of Tory councillors in Shropshire or more about the ruling pair.

    Given the total absence of democracy in Shropshire , perhaps the North Korean “Dear Leader” is the most appropriate title!

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