Social care reform – comprehensive is good, but comprehensible vital

Chris Game

Cllr Ketan Sheth’s recent blog on ‘Local Government and the NHS Integrated Care System’ was, as he explained, timely for him personally – as an elected London borough councillor about to take on a novel scrutiny role in a new ICS.

For us Midlands readers it was timely too, for reasons most easily conveyed by the King’s Fund’s recent highly colourful Map 1 of ICSs so far established – highly colourful, that is, for some parts of England, including Cllr Sheth’s London, but bleak grey for others, like the whole of the Midlands, with merely our at least slightly more localised Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs).

This blog is not directly about either STPs or ICSs, which have only a late walk-on role. It is, though, about the future of social care and local government’s involvement in, or marginalisation from, that future, and it opens with one of Boris Johnson’s first Prime Ministerial broken pledges, in his very first speech as PM, to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”.

The ‘clear prepared plan’ bit was obvious fiction, and confirmed as such in the Conservatives’ December election manifesto.  60 pages, nearly 1,000 days working on a promised but still undelivered Green Paper, and no sniff of a plan.  One un-costed pre-condition (p.23) – that nobody should have to sell their home to pay for care – and a slightly desperate hope to build cross-party consensus on reform.

But last week, just eight months on, jostling with daily lockdown bulletins and courtesy mainly of The Guardian newspaper, saw a sudden small flurry of tantalising leaks. First came Ministers’ “radical plans for everyone over 40 to contribute towards the cost of social care in later life” – paying more in tax or national insurance, or insuring themselves against “hefty care bills when they are older”.

Broadly resembling the German and Japanese funding systems, it is variously labelled a ‘comprehensive’ and ‘compulsory’ insurance model, both of which, to be effective, it surely has to be.

But an even bigger question, I suggest in the blog’s title, is surely whether it can become a comprehensible and comprehended model, and pretty quickly – because the evidence is that our collective understanding of even the existing system is worryingly low.

With coincidental but near-perfect timing, the New Statesman magazine recently commissioned a poll by Redfield & Wilton Strategies asking a sample of 2,000 GB adults about their awareness of how social care is currently funded and organised. Its findings, for a topic dominating news headlines for several months now, were concerning.

Fewer than one in eight felt they were “significantly aware”, under half even “moderately aware”, and nearly a quarter “not aware at all”. They were then asked which of (1) the NHS, (2) private operators, and (3) my local council, they thought were currently providing community care in their locality.  Being a GB-wide sample, there are no precisely right or wrong answers, and ‘providing’ makes it almost a trick question – which personally I’d have opposed phrasing in this way. Still, there are better and worse guesses.

“My local council”, chosen by 55%, is a decent pick – if, by providing, you mean paying for.  But not, for decades now, if you mean actual care home beds.  As Covid has tragically demonstrated, funding is nowadays effectively separated from extremely fragmented provision, with only some 3% of beds directly provided by councils and at least 80% in over 11,000 homes by for-profit private companies, local organisations and charities.

As for payment – roughly £600 per week here in the West Midlands – just over one-third of residents have their fees met by their local authority; one in eight pay top-up fees, but the biggest fraction must find the full fees themselves.  Which, given our apparently limited understanding of the present-day system, must frequently come as a serious shock.

Exactly half the poll respondents ticked the “private operators” option. However, virtually as many (48%) nominated the NHS, which, note the authors, is nowadays “a very small player” indeed in providing social care.  It’s not totally wrong, but close – and that, in the proverbial nutshell, is Ministers’ social care problem.

The public generally have low understanding of how even the present care home system works, of how literally dis-integrated it has become, with home care provision twice as fragmented and considerably more expensive. But they love, clap for, and think they know ‘their’ NHS.

It was even more starkly highlighted in the crunch question: “Which of three options for the future of social care comes closest to your own view?”  Exactly half the respondents selected the ‘NHS model’ that many had just demonstrated they seriously misperceived: “Social care should be free at the point of use, regardless of whether individuals contributed taxation into the system during their working lives”.

Just over one-third preferred the ‘pension’ or ‘compulsory insurance’ model referenced in the Guardian story – or, rather, first story.  For, the following day, it reported Government plans to in effect merge health and social care services, taking the latter away from local councils altogether and handing them and their £22.5 billion annual funding over to the NHS.

The Department of Health and Social Care issued a routine denial, but the PM’s long awaited ‘plan’ appears, currently, to be that care services would be commissioned by, and funded through, the new NHS regional Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) gradually unrolling across England – although not, as yet, the Midlands, where we’re still in the Sustainability and Transformation Partnership phase.

I conclude with what seems a bit of a personal dilemma. Having worked for over half my life for an ‘Institute of Local Government Studies’, I instinctively deprecate both the fact and implications of elected and accountable local authorities losing a major function for so long integral to their existence.

On the other hand, if that’s what most people reckon they want, and the Government fundamentally misunderstands, distrusts, and already wants to diminish and/or abolish local councils ….   The question is: would the public be prepared to pay the cost of NHS-style “social care, free at the point of use”, largely unaddressed in the New Statesman questionnaire?  But that’s for another blog.

 

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Can democratic renewal help us ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis? Key recommendations from the Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission

Elke Loeffler and Nick Pearce

Newham has seen one of the highest rates of COVID 19 mortality in England and Wales. Being one of the 10% most deprived areas in the UK (according to 2019 deprivation indices) the crisis has exposed wider social and economic inequalities – in health, housing, access to services and income – particularly for the Black and Minority Ethnic population.

At the same time, Newham has also seen a flowering of community support and creativity in response to the crisis. The local council has pioneered new ways of working with the voluntary and community sector. A new COVID-19 Health Champions network has been launched to empower thousands of Newham residents to remain up to date on the latest advice about COVID-19, and a new digital initiative  ‘Newham Unlocked Community Broadcasts’ showcases the creativity of local artists.

Newham is also one of a relatively small number local councils in the UK which have a directly elected Mayor. In 2018 Rohksana Fiaz took over from Sir Robin Wales, after his 23 years in the post, as London’s first directly-elected female mayor. In her election manifesto Fiaz promised to hold a referendum on the direct elected mayoral system before the end of her third year as Mayor (i.e. 2021), although the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect this timeline.

The Democracy and Civic Participation Commission

In this context the Mayor and the Council of Newham set up an independent Commission in autumn 2019 to examine both the Council’s current directly elected Mayor system of governance and the alternative approaches that exist in English local government, and to make recommendations on the best system of governance for Newham’s future, and to explore ways in which local residents can become more engaged and more fully involved in local decision-making and the Council’s work.

The Commission was led by Professor Nick Pearce. Extensive evidence gathering took place between November 2019 and February 2020.

A key concern of the six Commissioners was to make bold recommendations to reduce inequalities in public participation and bring citizen power into the Council to improve public services and the quality of life of local people. The COVID-19 crisis, which occurred during the latter stages of the Commission’s work, gave a dramatic glimpse of the huge potential resources in the community and the willingness of local people to make a contribution to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhood.

The “Newham Model” for more inclusive public participation

The resulting “Newham Model” aims to provide checks-and-balances to the way in which Newham is governed. It provides new participatory governance mechanisms. In particular, the Commission Report proposes the creation of a permanent Citizens’ Assembly, selected like a jury – the first of its kind in England. It suggests strengthening the accountability of the executive Mayor to local people and the main stakeholders of the Council, while also limiting the mandate of the executive Mayor to two terms, so that there is a frequent impulse for innovation and creative thinking at the centre of the Council.

Other key recommendations for strengthening public participation and co-production of public services and outcomes with local people are:

  • Extension of participatory budgeting – an increase in the resources allocated to areas or neighbourhoods for expenditure which is determined by local people from the current level of £25,000. The aim should be to spend a minimum of 20% of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) resources through neighbourhood or area-based participation.
  • A new framework for area-based decision-making – allowing powers to be drawn down to the most local level – along with the piloting of an ‘urban parish council’ in one of Newham’s communities.
  • A new “Mayor’s Office for Data, Discovery and Democracy” to provide expertise and leadership on the democratic use of data, digital tools for resident engagement, and learning from digital champions such as the government of Taiwan.
  • Wider use of co-production with residents and people accessing services, including area regeneration, which means that the local council needs to become much better at mapping what local people are doing, and want to do in the future.
  • Enabling local councillors to play the increasingly important role of ‘community connectors’, mobilising local people and their enthusiasms.
  • Support for an independent, community-owned local media organisation.

The Report of the Commission was launched on 6 July 2020 in a virtual public meeting, with presentations from the Commissioners, followed by responses by the Mayor and Vice-Mayor on behalf of the Council. Newham Council’s cabinet members will formally consider the commission’s report and recommendations at a later meeting.

Clearly, councils need to adapt the ‘Newham Model’ to fit their local circumstances, while simultaneously learning from democratic innovators in the UK and internationally.  Moreover, research institutions such as INLOGOV have an important role in sharing learning on new local governance models to help local government to ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis.

 

Nick Pearce is Director of The Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath. He was formerly director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), as well as Head of the No 10 Downing St. Policy Unit between 2008 and 2010.

Elke Loeffler is a Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde University, and INLOGOV Associate. She is author of ‘Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes’ and co-editor of ‘Palgrave Handbook of Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes’, both of which will be published in autumn 2020.

Local Government and the NHS Integrated Care System

Cllr Ketan Sheth

For those councillors in local government who scrutinise the NHS, it seems to have become an expectation that as one great change ends in our local health services, another begins.

A good few years ago in north-west London we saw the start of the Sustainability and Transformation Plans (later rebranded as Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships) or STPs as they were widely called. Now it seems another change is on the way. By April 2021 an Integrated Care System (ICS) will have been introduced, taking forward much of what was developed by the STPs. And, they are coming at a time of incredible change for the NHS and local government as a result of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with an ICS. If I had to summarise, I would say they are in essence bringing together health providers and commissioners, along with local government, to plan healthcare based on local population health needs in a defined geographical area. I’ve noticed the term ‘place’ features frequently in the NHS documentation and published reports. I should say as well, that the underpinning and thinking for them is all set out in the NHS Long Term Plan. In a few areas such as Greater Manchester, they started in 2018, and more have been set up to the point where around half of England’s population is now covered by an ICS.

As for my local proposed ICS, this will be cover around 2.3million residents across eight London boroughs in north-west London stretching from Westminster out to Hillingdon, with multiple providers, and community healthcare Trusts as well, and not to forget, the local authorities. At the moment, each borough has its own clinical commissioning group (CCG), but the plan is for one CCG to cover the whole area as well (but that development is best discussed at another time) across the eight boroughs.

So, what I want to address here is this – how does an elected member sitting on an overview and scrutiny start to grips with effectively reviewing and holding to account the development of a ‘system’ of such complexity, and in the constraints of the time and resources we all know elected members face? What should our starting principles be? It’s not easy to answer, but I have a few suggestions.

As an elected member, I don’t necessarily need to worry about being a ‘systems thinker’ but I do like to test the local ICS thinking constructively. I would perhaps ask this – thinking about the ordinary residents in my ward what will it deliver for them? What will an ICS do to make them and their families and children healthier, and be able to live longer and with a better quality of life? Ultimately, for me that’s what organisational systems in our public services should be about. Simply, a means to an end of delivering something better for ordinary people and our communities.

Also, while we talk about ‘systems’ in health services, let’s not forget that when we refer to hospitals in particular we are talking often about important local institutions which command a lot of local pride and attachment; not just because of the services they provide, but because of the outstanding research they do. Also, in my home borough of Brent, they are important local employers. I think this way of looking at the world from the grassroots should not be lost in these changes.

So that’s a few ways we can start to get to grips with such a big change, and complexity. Then it might be time to prepare for the next one, whatever that may be.

 

ketan

Cllr Ketan Sheth

Chair, Brent Council Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee

Community pubs – past, present … and future?

Chris Game

‘Eat Out to Help Out’ – not ‘Dine Out’ or even ‘Sup Out’, which might at least have left room for doubt. Having already omitted pubs from his £4 billion+ VAT cut, Chancellor Rishi Sunak excluded them again by explicitly restricting his meal discount stunt to non-alcoholic drinks only. And this from the party once so closely identified with the brewing industry that the Conservative benches in the House of Lords were known collectively as the ‘Beerage’.

Times do indeed change.  But this, the statistics and the sufferers suggest, could be serious.  UK pub numbers have fallen by well over a fifth since 2000 – from 60,800 to under 48,000 (https://beerandpub.com/statistics/pub-numbers/) – and, of those remaining, nearly 70% are reckoned to be ‘wet-led’, relying mainly on alcohol sales.

“A slap in the face”, one Whitby landlord described ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jul/11/pub-landlords-livid-lack-of-support-rishi-sunak).  “We don’t do food, we’re an award-winning cask ale pub. It just helps all the big chains. It’s the good old community pubs where you go in for a drink and a natter that will suffer.”

That’s what this blog is about: community pubs – a rather late and very patchy centenary celebration of their past and present, in the hope that they may still have what, until Covid and Sunak, was starting to look quite a promising future.

A bit like Hull having its own municipal telephone system and cream-painted phone boxes, and Birmingham for some 60 years its own municipal bank, Carlisle is nowadays a kind of nerdy footnote in social history and public administration.

Only a bit, though, because Carlisle’s pubs, though dating back to precisely the same year, 1916, as the Birmingham Corporation Savings Bank, were not municipal enterprises but experiments in nationalisation.

As the wartime coalition government massively increased armaments production, thousands of munitions workers, builders, and military personnel were drafted into the National Munitions Factory just north of Carlisle – and it proved thirsty work.

Local pubs were swamped and licensing laws duly tightened – albeit from the previous 5.00 a.m. to 12.30 at night – but this was not enough for Lloyd George, teetotal Munitions Minister, who would cheerfully have introduced prohibition. Instead, however, the Government launched a large-scale social engineering experiment.

In the English-Scottish border area five breweries were nationalised, and in Carlisle itself the 65 pubs not closed down were also taken over by a new Central Control Board – managed theoretically by civil servants, in practice mainly by the former licensees.

The State Management Scheme was a kind of enlightened authoritarianism, aimed at transforming these city pubs’ macho drinking culture – in a way that, decades later, the rest of the country would gradually follow. It became known as the ‘Carlisle Experiment’ (https://historicengland.org.uk/research/current/discover-and-understand/military/the-first-world-war/first-world-war-home-front/what-we-already-know/land/state-control-of-pubs/).

Smarter décor, comfortable seating, food and entertainment – darts, dominoes, snooker, bowls – reduced ABV (alcohol by volume) measures, in the cause of countering so-called ‘perpendicular drinking’ and, absolutely key, attracting the custom of ‘respectable’ women.

Food sales in some of these ‘new model’ community pubs-cum-food-houses reached levels that would impress even today’s gastro pubs.  What’s more, the State Management Scheme continued post-war to record a profit every single year – helping no doubt to seal its eventual demise at the hands of the 1970s’ Conservative Government.

You might suppose that, sometime over a 13-year period of government from 1997 to 2010, a party officially titled the Labour and Co-operative Party would see something in this remarkable long-term experiment worth trying to replicate.

But evidently not. However, the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government did. Its 2011 Localism Act failed to deliver its promised ground-breaking devolution of powers from central to local government, but it did introduce some significant ‘Community rights’ – including the right to bid for ‘Assets of Community Value’ (ACVs) (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/14880/Community_Right_to_Bid_-_Non-statutory_advice_note_for_local_authorities.pdf).

Councils were required to maintain lists of such assets – libraries, swimming pools, village shops, post offices, markets, and obviously pubs. Then, if an ACV came on the open market, community groups could ‘stop the clock’ for six months, giving them not a ‘right to buy’, but at least the chance to generate useful local publicity while gathering resources to bid to buy or take it over.

Yes, it was and is limited, potentially both circumventable and costly. But even its critics would surely acknowledge its genuine record of achievement.

Pubs are just one example, given an early boost – long before the Localism Act – by that most earnest consciousness-raiser, the Prince of Wales.  Among others, he is credited back in 2001 with having inspired the formation of ‘Pub is the Hub’, the fairly self-explanatory not-for-profit organisation dedicated to improving community services generally and to collective ownership pub partnerships in particular (https://www.pubisthehub.org.uk/).

The Prince’s interests, however, especially since the 2010 establishment of his Countryside Fund, are much wider-ranging, so the arrival of the new Right to Bid gave the community pub cause and its advocates a very timely boost.

Advocates like the Plunkett Foundation, backer particularly of rural communal enterprises since the days of the ‘Carlisle Experiment’. And CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), thanks to whom we have (seriously!) a designated Community Pubs Minister, albeit one of the gimmicky sub-titles assumed where relevant by usually the Local Government Minister.

Back in 2013 it was Brandon Lewis, who was able to announce at least a modest £150,000 for ‘Pub is the Hub’ to support community pubs, and a bit later that the 100th community pub had been listed as an ACV (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/brandon-lewis-announces-100-community-pubs-are-saved).

Today, as already noted, the whole pub world is in turmoil, but last year that ACV-listed figure had topped 1,250, with the number of actually community-owned pubs over 130 – most as co-operatives, but, as the saying goes, other models are available.

Then there were last Christmas’s glad tidings – a new £1.15 million Government fund enabling some 100 communities to own their own pub or benefit from new pub-based community services. And announced not by the pubs bloke but the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary himself, Robert Jenrick – though whether because of the initiative’s importance or ministerial self-importance was unclear (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/funding-boost-for-the-great-british-pub).

 

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Black Students Matter

Shailen Popat

Black Lives Matter.  This statement rings true in the context of violence and murder but also in terms of quality of life.  One crucial factor in quality of life is attainment at school. Over the last 40 years, black students have been attaining persistently lower outcomes at age 18 than their white peers even though both groups commence their schooling demonstrating high ability and capability (Archer et al 2007). The Department of Education School Census (2019) suggested that the gap in performance is widening and many Black students in England’s schools are not sharing the higher educational standards achieved by other ethnic groups over the last decade with less than 50% of black pupils achieving 5 or more GCSEs at grade A* to C including English and Maths. This is particularly concerning given that The Tomlinson Enquiry (2008:2) concluded that ‘… the education system over the past 50 years has developed within a socio-political context in which there has been a lack of political will to ensure that all groups were fairly and equitably treated’.  This half century of unfairness has impacted upon choices available to Black students after they leave the schools system.

For example, Oxford University’s Annual Admissions Statistics Report shows that just 3.2% of all students admitted to undergraduate degrees in 2019 were ethnic British Black. An ethnic Black student applying to Oxford is half as likely to get in as a white student. Not only are not enough ethnic Black students applying, but those who do, are far less likely to get in.   There are concerted attempts by Oxford at both a college and university level to improve access and opportunities for all ethnic and social groups and reflect the national consensus to promote equality of opportunity to elite institutions. However,  Oxford University could legitimately point-out that the foundation of admission to elite universities is performance at A Levels, and therefore, if only 5.1% of ethnic Black students attained three A*-A grades at A Level in 2017 compared with 22.5% of ethnic Chinese, 15.3% of ethnic Indians, 14.3% of ethnic Irish, and 10.9% of White British pupils (Figure 1), then a larger percentage of ethnic Black students will never be able to apply.

Untitled

(Figure 1: Department for Education, 11 July 2019)

 

 

In a 2015 report by Lambeth Council in which they had looked at the problem in terms of why some pupils in their borough from African backgrounds were achieving higher attainment than other Black groups, 8 main factors were listed as perpetuating low attainment and disengagement from learning by ethnic black pupils:

 

  1. Stereotyping
  2. Teachers’ low expectations
  3. Exclusions
  4. Poor school leadership on equality issues
  5. Inadequate school support to Black parents
  6. Institutional racism
  7. Lack of diversity in the national curriculum
  8. A lack of knowledge about the diverse nature of the ethnic minorities

 

The Lambeth (2015) study identified a number of good practices that contribute to the success of some Black students, including the high educational aspiration of African parents and pupils; inspirational leadership in school and teachers with high expectations for all students. Ethnic Black pupils, particularly ethnic Caribbean boys, are often assumed to be less academic and often associated with disruptive behaviour.   In America, a 2017 Brown Center Report found that Black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students, nearly twice as likely to be expelled and even Ethnic Black pre-schoolers are 3.6 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions (Loveless 2017).  Much of this can be explained by teacher expectations as to what Black students can achieve.  The Yale Child Study Center looked at implicit biases and subconscious stereotypes held by teachers which may result in them having lower expectations for Black students (Gilliam et al 2016). Yale’s study revealed these biases are directed at much younger children than previously thought, and are present in both black and white teachers.  Researchers showed 135 educators videos of children in a classroom setting. Each video had a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl and teachers were asked to detect challenging behaviour.  No such behaviour existed in any of the videos yet 42% of the teachers identified the black boy as displaying it.  Such subconscious factors are likely to be a significant contributor to the lack of progress in raising Black students attainment at the same rate as other BAME groups here in the UK too, and we need to commence a national reflective conversation as part of our commitment to ensuring that Black Lives Matter.

 

Shailen-Popat-webprofile

Shailen Popat

Shailen works as a Teaching Fellow in Public Policy and Management based in the Institute of Local Government (INLOGOV). He is also a PhD student in Education at the University of Oxford where he is a Senior Hulme Scholar at Brasenose College.   Shailen has worked for many years in children and young people services for local authorities, charities and also his own social enterprise.

 

References

Archer, L., Halsall, A. and Hollingworth, S., 2007. Class, gender,(hetero) sexuality and schooling: Paradoxes within working‐class girls’ engagement with education and post‐16 aspirations. British Journal of Sociology of Education28(2), pp.165-180.

Department for Education (2019) Statistics: school and pupil numbers.  Accessed at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/statistics-school-and-pupil-numbers

 

Gilliam, W., Maupin, A., Reyes, C., Accavitti, M. & Shic, F. (2016). Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? Retrieved from http://ziglercenter.yale.edu/publications/Preschool%20Implicit%20Bias%20Policy%20Brief_final_9_26_276766_5379.pdf.

 

Lambeth Borough Council (2015), The underachievement of Black Carribbean Heritage Pupils in Schools – Research Project Brief.  Accessed at https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/rsu/sites/www.lambeth.gov.uk.rsu/files/The_Underachievement_of_Black_Caribbean_Heritage_Pupils_in_Schools-_Research_Brief.pdf

 

Loveless, T. (2017).  2017 Brown Center Report on American Education: Race and school suspensions.  Accessed at https://www.brookings.edu/research/2017-brown-center-report-part-iii-race-and-school-suspensions/

 

University of Oxford (2020), University of Oxford Annual Admissions Statistical Report 2020.  Accessed at https://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxford/Annual%20Admissions%20Statistical%20Report%202020.pdf

 

 

 

 

A year in the life of the newly-elected Independent Council

Councillor Paul Millar

Analysis by local government academic Chris Game shows that there were a total of 45 District Councils where no one political party/grouping could command a majority after the 2019 local elections. In the majority of these cases where the result was ‘No Overall Control’, rainbow coalitions were formed. East Devon provided a rare exception to this rule, and this article explores the struggles of running a minority administrations under a Leader-Cabinet system.

In May 2019, the political composition of East Devon District Council changed. The Conservatives had controlled the Council with a comfortable majority for over four decades.   When the Council was created in 1972, the Council was independent-run. Back then, there was a utopian vision of being a non-political Council. Though this convention remains at some town and parish Councils in the area, such as Sidmouth, it didn’t last for long at East Devon District. At the 1976 election, the majority of the Independents successfully ran as Conservatives and, the Council remained Conservative for the following 43 years.

Local elections in 2019 saw gains for independents across the country. East Devon was however a particular success story, with Independent candidates elected in all 31 seats they ran in – a 100% success rate. Most independents in East Devon campaigned on local issues, championing attention for their Wards. When I knocked on doors, while there were a few residents who wanted to rebel against the Conservatives because of the Brexit limbo in Parliament, many more expressed the sentiment that it was time for a change locally, with a general feeling that the East Devon Conservative Group had become complacent in office.

Despite these gains, it quickly became clear that some independent Councillors were too independent and unwilling to work together. A common vision of the strategic running of the Council could not be united around. Broadly, the 31 Independent Councillors were split into three distinct camps. The first comprised of broadly anti-development, anti-austerity Independents who believed the Council’s sole job was to deliver universal and high-quality public services. Many of these indepedents united around the ‘East Devon Alliance’ brand. This camp felt the Council had been let down by the Conservatives, and that inappropriate development schemes had been forced through at the expense of local living standards. This camp also believed that a stronger case made for the Council receiving greater financial support from government to deliver decent public services.

The second camp was mainly made up of broadly pro-development, neo-liberal minded independents who fully embraced the idea of the Council being run as a self-sufficient business, embracing high-risk borrowing for commercial investment, while happy to reduce and narrow the provision of public services which lose the Council money. This camp unsurprisingly contained independents who had previously represented the Conservatives. In my view, often they seemed to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. In the third camp sat independents who were yet to find their political identities and had not been heavily involved in previous local debates. I was somewhere between the first and third camps.

Before 1998, Members were able to run as Independent Conservative, but the Registration of Political Parties Act specifies that political candidates who are not members of the Conservative Party but are otherwise identify with their policies and are wedded to their values, can no run under such a label. In East Devon, a few Conservatives had become Independents due to being unable to fulfil their ambitions within the local party, or personal or policy clashes within their local party associations, sometimes over local matters.

Councillor Ben Ingham was elected Leader of the Council last May and decided to run the Council as a minority of 20 Independents, cutting off 11 whose views he considered were “too left-wing” out of the administration. I, having only recently resigned my membership of the Labour Party as the party had become unmanageable under Jeremy Corbyn, accepted a position in Cllr Ingham’s Cabinet. A Conservative Chairman was elected, and generous offers of positions were made, which made me feel a tad uncomfortable. I recall being reassured at the time that the Chairman of the Council was not a political role. Later, his office became political as the Chair voted against an Annual meeting to have his position elected.

Slowly, it became clear that an overly cosy relationship with the Conservative Group which the electorate had just voted out, had been forged. My election leaflet promised change. After raising concerns with the business-as-usual approach, I was sacked from the Cabinet and I decided to quit the ruling Independent Group and sit as an unaffiliated independent.

Cllr Ingham has a long experience as a Councillor dating back to 1995, the first ten years as a Councillor as a Conservative.  He left the party after launching a leadership bid and ‘No Confidence’ vote against the Leader of the East Devon District Council Conservative Group at the time, Sara Randall-Johnson.

Running a minority Council under a Cabinet system is as unideal as it gets. Constitutional amendments and two Scrutiny Call-Ins on two key issues prevented the Cabinet from administering key policies to significantly increase car parking charges and complete a deeply unpopular and long-running regeneration project in one of its seaside towns. Under a Committee system, some consensus might have been found. By January of this year, the Independent Group lost another Member due to a Cabinet decision not to invest in saving a community hospital despite officer recommendations, East Devon District Council had the smallest number of Councillors in a ruling administration of any Council in the country, well under a third of the membership.

By March, the ruling group could not get any major policy approved by the membership and had started to fight among themselves. One Cabinet meeting descended into a row as the Leader appeared to lose trust in even his closest colleagues. Some independents, the Liberal Democrats and Greens came together in a rainbow alliance and formed a majority new administration last month, while the former Leader has returned to his spiritual home of theConservative Group.

With true colours having finally been shown, the new administration has the immediate task of crisis response. When the crisis ends, the new administration will plan to implement ambitious policies to increase democracy, transparency as well as prioritising climate change, poverty and the economic recovery from COVID-19, which is reflected in a new Cabinet and three new positions.

Councillor Paul Millar is an Independent Councillor at East Devon District Council, Portfolio Holder for Democracy & Transparency, who now sits in the Democratic Alliance coalition.