Congratulations to Cornwall – how democracy should work

By Tony Collins

Two months ago an inner circle of councillors and senior officers in Cornwall was finalising – in a rush – the most momentous deal in the council’s history, to outsource a range of council and NHS services to BT or CSC.

There were no plans to put the final outsourcing decision to the full council.

The inner circle had agreed that the final approval of a deal would be decided  by the council’s chief executive and a handful of councillors.

The view of the inner circle was that most councillors had no grasp of the detail. How could they understand how good the proposition was?

But in September campaigning councillor Andrew Wallis, an independent, put a motion before the full council:

“…this Council believes that it is not in the best interests of the people of Cornwall for the Council to enter into the proposed Strategic Partnership for Support Services.”

The motion was carried – then ignored by the inner circle who carried on negotiating with BT and CSC. Wallis was amazed. The next day his blog said he needed to “calm down from my disbelief and seething anger at one of the biggest F-yous to democracy I have ever witnessed”.

The Cabinet of Cornwall Council had “undermined democracy”.

“The arrogance of totally ignoring the majority of councillors’ feelings on the strategic partnership plans is staggering.”

Wallis organised a petition. It urged the cabinet to put the outsourcing deal to a vote of the full council; and 41 councillors put their names to a vote of no confidence in the leader Alec Robertson.

Democracy was now working as it should. It was starting to hold the inner circle to account.

The vote led to the replacement of Robertson as council leader. The full council narrowly chose  Jim Currie, an outsourcing sceptic, for its new leader; and the petition attracted more than 5,000 signatures (about 6,350) which meant that the outsourcing proposals had to be debated by the full council. A date was set: 23 October.

To his credit Robertson had said before being ousted as leader that the cabinet would abide by whatever the full council decided on 23 October.

BT worked hard on marketing its joint venture proposals to individual councillors with briefings,  Powerpoint slides and a draft business plan. CSC withdrew from the bidding after Robertson was ousted.

Meanwhile Dave Orr, a former IT analyst and lay union volunteer at Somerset County Council,  contacted all Cornwall councillors to provide an informed analysis on the lessons from Somerset’s failed joint venture with IBM-led Southwest One. He did so for public interest reasons.

By the time the matter came to the full council for a debate yesterday most councillors had taken into account BT’s briefings, and the concerns of Orr and others. They also had a rebuttal of Orr’s points by Cornwall’s CEO Kevin Lavery. [A pity that Lavery, in his rebuttal, appeared to tackle the man as well as the ball.]

In a unanimous vote the full council halted the rush towards signing a deal with BT.  Councillors expressed a preference for seeking independent information on BT’s proposals and on other options such as setting up an employee-owned  mutual.

Cornwall’s inner circle has been held to account.  Its unseemly and over-enthusiastic rush towards a deal was deferring to the wishes of the bidders. Now the full council has shown that it is, at least this time, in control of the cabinet. Which is the right way round.

Some of the best decisions emerge from a state of noble tension.

Outsourcing no longer cuts the mustard

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