By Alistair Chisholm As a result of local government re-organisation in May of this year, Dorchester is about to become once again what it was in Thomas Hardy’s day – the smallish county town of the rural county that is Dorset.

Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch (the last reluctantly) will be amalgamated to form one predominantly urban ‘unitary’ authority.

The former Dorset County Council, together with the district and borough councils of East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset, and Weymouth & Portland will be amalgamated to form a primarily rural unitary authority.

There will be elections to these two new authorities on Thursday 2 May this year, as well as elections to a number of town and parish councils, including Dorchester.

If we vote the way we did before, there’s a good chance that not much will change. One political party will get more votes than the others, and that party – and that party alone – will call all the shots for the next four years.

There is no guarantee whatsoever that the executive of either of the new authorities will reflect the mix of views across the whole of the council as expressed by the voters. Councillors chosen for roles on the all-powerful executive committee could all be drawn from that same majority party.

I believe this dangerous, but very real possibility, of one party having complete control of the new unitary council constitutes a significant democratic deficit.

The same deficit existed on West Dorset District Council until it was rectified four years ago, when a clear majority of the electorate voted in favour of the more democratic and open ‘committee’ system of governance rather than the one-party ‘cabinet’ system.

In many cases at local level we are aping this national government model. However, many people believe local government deserves to be different. It could and should reflect more accurately the different views of the many rather than the more limited, politically directed views of the few.

Given the current tendency of candidates for local government to accept party political affiliation, and to respond accordingly when ‘whipped’ to do so, it might appear there is little chance to change things.

However might not we, the electorate, do something now to ensure better representation of the different views held in both smaller Dorset towns and parishes and across the two new, larger unitary authorities?

Independent candidates

There are things we can do to improve the system, to make it reflect more accurately the needs and aspirations of the electorate.

We can stand and vote for independent candidates, who are not members of any political party, but who have all signed up to a way of working that is open, transparent, accountable and that better reflects the views of those they represent.

Independent candidates will have no utopian manifesto but will make decisions based on careful analysis of the facts and, most importantly, taking into account the views of the people they represent, who will have been genuinely consulted and involved.

We have strong communities across the county but their interests, concerns, hopes and aspirations are rarely acted on by those who claim to represent them.

Far too often this is precisely because councillors are persuaded to vote along party political lines rather than in the best interests of those they represent.

Such party political restraint has no part in the decisions made by independent councillors. Working with the community and tapping into the knowledge and expertise available therein, independent councillors have already demonstrated that a great deal more can be done to address issues of local concern by adopting inclusive ways of working.

No political dogma

The Alliance for Local Living, ALL, is being formed across Dorset as an umbrella organisation for all those who believe local government should not be driven by political dogma, but should be about engaging with local communities to implement strategies that address local concerns.

Candidates for ALL will be independent, will have no political party affiliation, and will adopt an agreed way of working that accepts independence of thought, integrity, transparency and openness, respect for the environment, and that champions fairness, inclusivity and sustainable ways of working with others in the voluntary and private sectors.

If you’re interested in supporting this sincere effort to change local politics then may I suggest you read Peter Macfadyen’s booklet Flat-Pack Democracy or come and hear him speak at the Colliton Club in Dorchester at 7pm on Thursday 24 January. Further information is also available at flatpackdemocracy.org.

 

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