Up the proverbial creek, minus the paddle

Doncaster is my home town, and it’s also where I’ve lived for all of my (almost) 28 years since I popped (!) into being at Doncaster Royal Infirmary in the summer of 1982. For those unfamiliar with geography in the north of England, Doncaster’s a fairly large town (with a population just under 300,000) in South Yorkshire. It’s also the source of many a political furore at a local government level, and has been since the Donnygate scandal of the mid-to-late 1990s.

The fun never stops in Doncaster, and today is no different – the Audit Commission has published the results of their snap Corporate Governance Inspection, carried out over the first few months of this year. It’s a frank assessment of the state of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, and it’s not pretty.

Following well-publicised failings in the borough’s Children’s Services department, a complete lack of improvement in other areas and a history of poor governance – amongst other things – the Audit Commission made the decision to begin a Corporate Governance Inspection. This looks at how the Council is run, how the elected members (i.e., the mayor and the councillors) work and how the Council is providing services to the people of Doncaster. The report itself (warning: PDF) runs to around 40 pages, so I won’t go into detail, but here’s a summary:-

  • Almost nobody escapes blame
  • The Mayor – Peter Davies – is criticised, along with his cabinet, for not providing the leadership required of his office
  • The rest of the councillors are taken to task for seeking to obstruct the Mayor and his cabinet from implementing their policies
  • Some chief officers (i.e. paid, non-elected, non-political senior staff) are unable to effectively work together

There are a number of themes throughout the report, but the main one is that the Mayor and the remainder of the Council are constantly at loggerheads with each other, with some senior, long-standing elected members actively putting personal political ambitions before that of the people of Doncaster – the very people who elected them.

I’m personally no fan of Peter Davies – I don’t like him and that’s probably an understatement. Being a left-wing type, I disagree with virtually all of his policies and opinions, but in this case he doesn’t deserve most of the blame, despite even the report noting that his style and attitude do nothing to help matters. It’s the actions of a number of the councillors that are the crux of the problem, and the report suggests that although the majority of them are Labour councillors, it’s by no means limited to them.

So what next? Well, the Audit Commission has recommended that John Denham, the Communities Secretary, use the powers given to him by Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1999 – a recommendation that within minutes of the report’s publication he said he would be taking. This means that he could order the establishment of an ‘Improvement Board’ to drive improvements within the council, or put in measures to ensure the mayor and the councillors behave in a proper manner. This sounds a bit toothless, so the best bit is this: He can suspend some or all of the functions of the Executive and the Council, replacing them with commissioners appointed to carry out the suspended functions. That means (albeit temporarily) no mayor, no cabinet, and in theory no councillors.

Interestingly – although not surprising – just 22% of people in the recent Place Survey believed they could influence the decisions of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council. It’s obvious that the elected members have lost the faith of the electorate – if indeed they had it to start with. With the impending General Election, the people of Doncaster will also be voting for a candidate for their council ward, which means that 33% of the Council is up for re-election. In my opinion, to show that they understand how they’ve utterly failed the people of Doncaster, they should all step down immediately and let the people make the choices they deserve.

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