On the surface of it a merger of the backroom functions of Wandsworth and Richmond Councils looks a ‘no brainer’ as the current phrase has it. Considerable savings by reducing the numbers of staff have been achieved elsewhere by this route, though sometimes services have suffered as well.
Yet there is something wrong when the first a Councillor hears of it is in the Wandsworth Guardian; when the Leader of the Council gives an interview in which he never mentions the word ‘Councillor’ once, let alone shows any interest in engaging the elected representatives of the Boroughs of Wandsworth and Richmond in the decision.
It sounds very much like this is going to be another example of the majority group forcing through its will without even listening to alternative views. The best recent example was when the Finance Scrutiny Committee took a decision to investigate whether Ward Budgets worked elsewhere and whether they might be an option here for engaging people more in their local communities. The Conservative leadership’s top priority at the next Council meeting was not to discuss closing the Battersea Sports Centre, or threats to libraries or the Tooting running track – it was to prevent the Finance Committee from even talking to other Council about their experience. I still don’t really know why they were so scared of letting backbenchers find out what others were up to – maybe the fear of finding out that Wandsworth is not always the best in the business (something which is unarguable) was at its heart.
Shared management arrangements inevitably affect the work of a Councillor on behalf of local residents. Senior staff only spend half the week in the building. The degree to which one council can direct officers to devote time to a particular policy is severely limited by their obligations to the other council. Scrutiny, which is supposed to be the opportunity for Councillors to monitor and challenge the performance of the Council, becomes more complicated. Either officers have to face two separate scrutiny functions from the two Councils (what happens if they disagree?) or there have to be joint scrutiny panels made up of councillors from both authorities. At the moment from what I can tell Richmond values the contribution that backbenchers make through Scrutiny, allowing or even encouraging them to carry out investigations into matters of importance to local people, while Wandsworth prevents councillors from doing this. Would Wandsworth Councillors on joint Scrutiny be allowed to join their Richmond colleagues in such work or would Wandsworth seek to prevent Richmond Councillors from doing it?
Evidence from the various councils which have gone through mergers like this suggest that if Councillors are involved from the start the outcome is a more positive one than when only the politburo has any say and other Councillors are whipped into agreeing or ignored. In most of the cases I have looked at there has been a joint group of councillors set up at the start to go and discuss with other councils their experience of such arrangements. Any attempt by a Wandsworth Committee to do that would be crushed by the Cabinet if past behaviour is anything got go by.
This is a bad enough start. The timing makes it worse. Wandsworth has lost a vast amount of experience recently as senior officers have retired, including the Director of Education and his Deputy, the Director of Technical Services, the Director of Housing, the Head of Corporate Affairs, the Director of Leisure and Amenity Services. The new structure has not had time to bed in yet. At the same time the Cabinet has chopped the amount of time the rest of us can spend looking at services and sharing our experience by slashing the times each Committee meets from six times a year to just four and cutting one Committee altogether. This is obviously good for the Cabinet because it gets an easier time but it is not so good for local residents. I wonder if the dreadful failure over the freedom pass would have happened if there had been more chance to scrutinise it?
Finally, the kind of management structure needed for the future depends on our shared vision as elected councillors of what that future should look like for our Borough. But that is a question which is of absolutely no interest to the powers that be in Wandsworth. Richmond is rather more visionary. If this continues it is inevitable that the new structure will be more tailored to the needs of Richmond than of Wandsworth – a takeover rather than a merger. And those needs are dramatically different – the richest local authority in the country alongside one with enduring pockets of inner city depravation.
Stephen Knight, opposition leader in Richmond, is calling for a referendum on this issue. I am generally not a fan of referenda – we elect governments (local or national) to take decisions on our behalf based on their judgment and if we don’t like their judgment we vote them out. The one exception is if there is a change to the rules by which we are governed. This clearly fits the bill. If the Wandsworth leadership remains true to form and exclude all other views from consideration then this might be the right way forward.