Tory opposition leader, Karen Garrido, was given an award at yesterday's full meeting of Salford Council to recognise twenty years service as a councillor. In her acceptance speech she took the opportunity to berate the Labour Council on its record of accountability…
"When I first got on [the Council] we knew what was going on in our name" she said "Then it changed to a Cabinet structure…I hope during my next twenty years we will start to see things change for the better."
It was a damning indictment of Salford Council's record on scrutiny, which has seen toothless, useless `Scrutiny Committees' achieve absolutely nothing. Or, as the Council report to councillors noted more politely…
"What has become very clear in the course of the review is that there has been limited improvement recommendations flowing from the Scrutiny process back to the policy making Executive, with the majority of issues considered by the Scrutiny function being noted rather than leading to specific direct actions."
The new model will see, what it calls, a "rebranding" of scrutiny into Select Committees, with seven of the things covering specific Council `directorates' - Regeneration, Children in Need, Community Safety, Supporting People, Customer Services, Health and Finance – with another Select Committee overseeing its work.
Each would meet up to nine times a year and would have the "power to request the attendance of the City Mayor, Strategic Assistant Mayors, Assistant Mayors and any officer of the Council but specifically directors and heads of service". They would be open to the public "except when it is necessary to hold proceedings under Part 2" (ie the juicy financial stuff).
The Council report notes "It is envisaged that the model would develop over time to create a strong working relationship between the Executive and the Scrutiny function which will enhance the effective governance of the organisation and lead potentially in the future to Scrutiny adopting a more proactive role in future governance matters."
In supporting the new model, Councillor Robin Garrido, for the Tory opposition, noted that it was a "recognition that scrutiny has not worked".
But will the Select Committees lead to more accountability or is it a mere "rebranding", as the report suggests?
Many of the `powers' of the Committees are already available under the present system; while the question has to be asked how much `scrutiny' can be done with the current opposition of only eight Conservative councillors. And will Labour councillors really `scrutinise' their own party's antics in power?
With the new Mayoral system there is even less democracy and accountability within Salford Council. Very few of the 13 new Assistant Mayors have to report back to any committees, or anyone for that matter. It is impossible for the public to know what they are doing all day for their huge payouts. The last time the `Mayoral Team' met for an accountable meeting was back in July.
Meanwhile, Mayor Ian Stewart himself has hardly thrown himself open to transparency, holding just four official meetings since he was elected in May - with only two agenda items open to the public, while seven items were discussed in secret.
At the Council meeting the Mayor announced his Big Idea – going on a bus tour of Salford, with his Assistant Mayors and officers, visiting each ward "for a morning or afternoon" with "local councillors directing what we should see and listen to in their area". Stewart said that his `Connecting Salford' project would "take decision makers to the people" to produce "a shared vision for the future".
Connecting Salford would be "a scoping exercise", asking the question "How should the life of this city be in the future?", followed by a "three year city plan" as part of an "engagement strategy".
Salford people might well look in the bin and ask what happened to all the other `engagement strategies', `community plans', `visions' and `scoping exercises' over the last twenty years.
They might conclude that this is just another gimmick, as cuts to Day Care Centres, Mental Health drop-in groups and support for Council Tax benefits continue to be implemented, while £millions are fed to the BBC orchestra, Peel Holdings and prestige projects, like the £13million Greengate fountain.
Will `rebranding' scrutiny and a bus tour of Salford really bring democracy and accountability to Salford?
The Council could certainly start by answering some of the Salford Star's questions which have been outstanding for weeks…including the one about whether the City Mayor has his own personal budget to spend as he wishes…