It’s an odd, but strangely liberating, experience to have broken rank and spoken out against the council.
Last night was the first time I’ve ever ‘rebelled’ by speaking (but not voting, as I’m not a committee member) against the proposed admissions policy for Belleville School.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I, or any councillor, usually agrees 100% with what their party or group or administration says or does. It means that we are all coalitions, even when it’s just one party in the coalition. We all have different views on different things, but our views have enough in common that we can work together on the shared ground and operate a system of give and take on those issues over which we disagree. But the consequence is a constant cognitive dissonance, and while it’s usually fairly insignificant and easily overlooked, sometimes it gets so large something has to give.
And so it happened over the Forthbridge Road site and the proposed admissions policy for Belleville – something had to give and thus three ward councillors (two who are in the council’s cabinet) found themselves in committee room 123 arguing against their own council’s plans.
I won’t beat around the bush; I’m really pleased about the way last night went.
There was a packed public gallery and I think it was a great example of how democracy can work well. The Education and Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee heard first from Ian Hamilton, who was representing Forthbridge Road residents in opposing the plans. Then from the chairman of governors at Belleville who was also opposing the plans. Then from Guy Senior and myself spoke, again, opposing the plans. When the committee started formal discussions Jonathan Cook (who is a member) moved an amendment requiring the council to re-think and he too spoke in opposition to the plans.
I suppose there is an argument that if everyone is unhappy then the plans are, at least, balanced. And the chairman did remind the committee that, having heard from some of the people who oppose the policy they should also consider the people who supported it (he might also have pointed out that they need to consider the others who oppose it they didn’t hear from, like the Taybridge Road residents who were excluded from the priority zone).
But when it came to a vote Jonathan’s amendment (seconded by the Labour spokesman, Andy Gibbons) was supported 6-4. In other words, the council will have to re-think its plans. Thank-you to Cllrs Andy Gibbons and Wendy Speck, parent governors Dympna Kelly and Jon Cox and Diocesan representative John Russell. And most of all thank-you to all the parents and residents who turned up to show their opposition.
Technically the committee’s ‘decision’ is only a recommendation to the executive to act a certain way. Technically, the executive can choose to ignore that recommendation, but the practice is that the executive committee recognises that debate takes place at the committees and will follow this recommendation. I certainly hope that practice will be followed here.
It will be too late to do anything about the first lot of admissions to the Forthbridge Road site (and the objectors I spoke to recognise this; indeed, I was impressed at how practical they were when discussing how to balance the needs of Belleville parents with the desires of Forthbridge Road residents) so the first lot will be admitted based on distance from the Belleville main site. But it does mean that there will be a lot of time for discussion and drafting to get the new admission scheme right. I don’t think anyone believes everyone will be totally satisfied, but I think we all know we can do a lot better than a scheme that no-one really liked.
And I hope it goes without saying that Jonathan, Guy and I will be closely following what happens!
I’ll make no apology for reflecting on this personally, it has been a remarkably novel experience for me. I started by referring to the cognitive dissonance, that small tension caused by the difference between my belief and opinion and the broader programme to which I signed up as a Conservative candidate, then as a Conservative group councillor. It is hard to describe the feeling of freedom that comes with removing that tension, but it’s easy to see the attraction. And while I’ve no intention of becoming a serial rebel, I can see why for some people the threat of sanction (be it sacking or removal of the whip, and I’m sure there are those who think it should happen to me) is not a deterrent.
But most of all the episode has reinforced my faith in democracy.
I’d lost count of the number of times I spoke to somebody in the days leading up to the meeting for them to say, “there’s no point in objecting, the council has made up its mind.” For them it was quite clear that the council had weighed the views of Shaftesbury residents against the demands of Belleville parents (and potential parents) and decided firmly in favour of the latter. The council was obviously getting it wrong, but was an unstoppable juggernaut.
I’ve always been clear in my view that the council is not perfect, like any person or organisation it can make mistakes; what is important is that it can spot and rectify those mistakes. Last night, I was proud that the council proved it isn’t an unstoppable juggernaut, it is a mature and responsive organisation – it might not get things right first time, but it’s prepared to listen to make sure it’s gets there in the end.