County council constitution changes criticised as “the demolition of democracy”

THE leading party of Cambridgeshire County Council has been heavily criticised for forcing through “anti-democratic” constitutional changes with less than 24 hours notice.

The Conservative group suffered a barrage of complaints from Liberal Democrat, Labour, and independent councillors at a full council meeting today (May 17) for not allowing sufficient time to read through the proposed changes to the council’s constitution.

The changes, which included limits on questions allowed to be asked at full council meetings and allowing the leading group to chair all scrutiny committees, were only circulated to councillors yesterday ahead of the meeting.

Cllr Peter Reeve said the changes amounted to a “demolition of democracy”.

Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Fiona Whelan accused new leader of the council Nick Clarke of “playground bully tactics of the worst sort” and said he only wanted to “thump his fist on the table” as the new leader.

She described the changes as “ill-thought out, unfinished, and unintelligible” and said the circumstances in which they were being proposed was “ridiculous”.

The new constitution limits oral question time at council meetings to an hour and limits written questions to 13 which will be allocated according to the political make-up of the council, despite there being 69 members of the council.

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Cllr Andy Pellew pointed out in his time in council he had not seen a single written question from a Conservative councillor.

He said: “Now that you [Conservative councillors] have the lion’s share of the questions I hope you are actually going to use them.”

The new constitution also means the setting of on-street parking charges in the city will no longer be set by Traffic Area Joint Committees which include city councillors but by county councillors only, a change which Cllr Sarah Whitebread said left “a nasty taste in my mouth”.

Cllr Nick Clarke, who had a baptism of fire in his first meeting as leader, said the changes were designed to streamline council meetings and make the running of the council more efficient.

He said the new advisory groups will be “more dynamic”.

Labour leader Cllr Tariq Sadiq said: “Your [Nick Clarke’s] role as leader is to expand democracy not to shrink it.

“The chamber will simply become a rubber-stamping chamber. You need to have a proper safeguard for the constitution so it’s not simply at the whim of an individual it can be changed.”

Cllr Killian Bourke said: “The changes give the impression of being drafted on the back of several cornflakes packets, in crayon, in the dark.”

A motion to postpone the debate on the changes failed and the changes eventually passed 38 for, 22 against, with two abstentions.