How democratic is local government In Folkestone?
The phrase “democratic deficit” sums up the sense of distance between those appointed to govern and those affected by their decision making. This gap fundamentally damages social cohesion, the common ground gluing our communities together. Folkestone and Hythe District Council are promoting several major developments, including Princes Parade in Hythe and a major overhaul of Folkestone Town Centre, both of which many residents have strong views about.
“The Cabinet system” – an established elitism?
Although many areas of Kent are dominated by Conservative councillors, some areas in Kent are bucking the trend, one being Folkestone. In 2019, the Town Council turned Labour while Folkestone and Hythe District Council (FHDC) saw a number of new Labour, LibDem and Green Councillors take office. Despite wider party political representation among the 30 FHDC Councillors, just six people from the Conservative majority make almost all key decisions for our 100 000 residents.
They can do this through the Cabinet structure which consists of the Leader of the Council and seven other councillors. This Leader and Cabinet system was introduced by the Local Government Act in 2000 – 20 years ago. Changes to this were made possible by the Localism Act of 2011. The FHDC Cabinet has a stranglehold over key responsibilities and strategic direction. Cabinet decisions can only be “called in” by the Overview and Scrutiny committee, but this rarely results in a reversal: the concentration of power is absolute.
Cabinet decisions can and do often disregard the broader views of the full Council, despite a constitution which sets out the role of all Councillors as being:
“To act collectively as the ultimate policy-makers and carry out strategic and corporate management functions, including contributing to the formation and examination of the Council’s policies, budget, strategies and service delivery.”
FHDC has been pressed repeatedly to review governance, so that policy development can involve wider Councillor participation. Instead the leadership has offered opposition leaders seats within a “rainbow” Cabinet. Three Councillors accepted this, while national Party rules debarred the Labour group from involvement.
The Cabinet generally initiates major developments, such as the Prince’s Parade project and has been generally able to count on the Planning committee formally supporting proposals which are often at an advanced stage before reaching this group.
There are other signs of challenge to the governance of FHDC which, for some, has perceived vestiges of archaic paternalism and patronage. A recent residents’ petition in favour of a change from the Cabinet model engaged hundreds of supporters, but issues with the Council website deterred many more from securing a full debate.
How other Kent councils manage things
So what of other Councils in Kent: how have they developed democratic accountability? There are clear signs of a growing trend back towards a committee system, generally seen as offering greater elected member engagement and transparency. In 2012, for example, Maidstone Council undertook a careful review of a range of Cabinet and Committee models before choosing the Full Council/committee system.
Kent County Council at the time used a model that Maidstone Councillors described (with no apparent irony) both as a “fudge that brings the worst of both worlds” and as “the preferable option.”
This sense of “fudge” on democracy and accountability has begun to anger Folkestone residents, even some of those close to the current leadership of FHDC. There is a high level of frustration with officers, whose role is simply to act on agreed Council policy.
Recent issues with the Veolia contract for waste disposal, leaving collections in chaos, have not helped. The Council team and Council services are truly over-stretched. This runs counter to the strong sense of Folkestone community pride – with many examples of volunteer action to address decline which is clearly visible on the streets.
A sense of pointlessness?
It seems that we live in an era which is simultaneously polarised and apathetic. Major social issues have coincided with relentless growth in social media. In simple terms, you can see the combination of a communications revolution and information overload resulting in social divisions like never before. Within moments, people have knowledge of world events, immediate reactions and rapid counter-reactions; argument and anger often follow close behind. This is reflected in changing social behaviour.
There is less time for discussion, subtlety of argument or reflection. Politicians know the importance and immediacy of social reaction and often focus more on media management than clearly showing strong values, principles or leadership.
For many, characteristics of government at every level breed a sense of pointlessness in politics, as experience suggests that “nothing ever seems to change.” Evidence of cronyism, corruption and incompetence produces an indifferent shoulder shrug, on the basis that there is little difference between “any of them.”
Business versus public service
FHDC itself has a strong focus on inward investment, acquiring land and assets directly or brokering complex deals for long-term development, with a set of wealthy companies. Many residents are frustrated that the Council represents a sophisticated business model which has become increasingly remote from the purpose and principles of public service.
Some developments supported by FHDC are seem to be representing vested interest rather than current and future needs of local residents. The reality of environmental change seems barely noticed by the Council of this seaside town. Although the IPCC report (United Nations International Panel on Climate Change) last month noted the accelerating pace of global warming and flooding potential, FHDC seafront development continues apace.
Lack of consultation on development
Recently, 1 000 protestors expressed discomfort with the Prince’s Parade development proposals, which threaten natural habitats and distinguished heritage that characterise this Hythe locality.
The new development of the site of the revered Folkestone Leas Pavilion has been raising the hackles of local residents before the first brick is laid.
The Folkestone Harbour and Seafront development is a regular source of controversy, with those welcoming investment countered by those citing environmental concerns. There is a serious disconnect between lifelong residents and “DfLs” (Down from London-ers).
The place plan for Folkestone town centre
The democratic deficit and the growing disconnect between residents and the Council is evident in FHDC’s latest Place Plan for Folkestone Town Centre – adding to 20+ other strategic plans from recent years.
Consultation on ideas for shaping a Town Centre for future generations was managed externally, due to what senior officers admit is a lack of in-house expertise or capacity. The public consultation process appears to have involved both stakeholders and workshop attendees.
But the professionalism of the consultancy involved failed to mask underlying community disenchantment that resulted in poor responses and a mixed reaction to the content. Local knowledge was undervalued and just 18 people from a population of 54 000 took part in the final stage of responses to the work in progress – a mere one in 3 000 citizens. A Labour councillor for Folkestone Central recently stated:
“Among residents in our ward there is either total disengagement or frustration at the way the consultation was carried out.”
The “Digital Divide”
One factor was possibly the digital divide – disregarding those who do not have access to the internet. Even so, this was a poor outcome, setting up battles over every element within the plan, due to its lack of true ownership. The councillor claims that the Town Council (as opposed to the District Council) has not even been consulted, yet district councils are supposed to take account of the views of town or parish councillors.
These indicators of disaffection, disengagement – the democratic deficit – converting into community cynicism, anger or apathy, should ring alarm bells for all – especially our elected representatives and social activists.
Social Activism and Community Participation
Nationally there are clear signs of some key causes engaging significantly more social activists. Issues recently have included Black Lives Matter, climate change and the remodelling of Britain’s relationship with Europe. These have re-introduced a sense of urgency and legacy for many.
Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in this emerging sense of collective responsibility for what we leave to future generations, through a combination of issue-based virtual communities and old-fashioned street protest.
There are plenty of models out there to show FHDC that a very different mindset to command and control, with real community engagement, would be worth considering.
In Margate, uses for the same funding accessed in Folkestone – the High Street Regeneration Fund – are passed through a “People’s Panel” – a representative forum.
In Stockport, there is a similar scenario of regeneration and reversal of decline to that in Folkestone, including the demise of Debenhams as a symbol of a decaying town centre. Their approach – under tough economic circumstances – emphasises engagement with a strong emphasis on community heritage, local people and employment opportunities.
FHDC’s own Governance Committee reviewed the way other Councils work in 2020 and noted that change is overdue, recognising essentially that:
- FHDC local government systems should be opened up to greater participation
- FHDC leadership must engage with and respond to community experience
- FHDC Elected representatives must demonstrate real local accountability.
The Place Plan may prove to be a turning point, when FHDC itself will be put in its place – exposing the thorny issue of democratic deficit in its structure and decision making.
The views in this article are personal and should not be assumed to reflect those of any organisation he works with or for.