What is a council referendum?
It is a chance for Lambeth voters to force the Council to change the way it makes decisions to be more democratic, so that all 63 councillors can do the job voters believe they are electing them to do.
At the moment, only 11 of the 63 councillors hold nearly all the power.
Could Lambeth Council have chosen to hold a referendum?
Absolutely! Lambeth Council could decide at any time to give their residents a voice on whether to the council moves to a Modern Committee system.
In fact, OneLambeth did write to Andrew Travers (Chief Executive at London Borough of Lambeth) and Jack Hopkins (Leader of the Council) at the very beginning of this process asking them to consider holding a referendum which was met with silence.
What are the 2 real choices in the referendum?
The 2 choices are:
If more than 50% Vote for Change with option 2, then the Council will be legally forced to change to a Modern Committee system.
What is the fundamental difference between the current system and a Modern Committee system?
In the ‘strong leader’ system currently used in Lambeth Council, the power to make almost all decisions is in the hands of the Council leader (or the 10 other councillors handpicked by the leader, to be in the Council Cabinet).
The other 52 councillors, from all parties, have virtually no power to make decisions or represent you, and don’t even have the right to speak in meetings where most decisions are made.
In a Modern Committee system there is no cabinet – the formal power and authority lies with full council. Decisions about each policy area (e.g. Transport & Development) are made by a small group of 12-14 councillors from all parties (in proportion to the number of councillors in each party).
These committees also get input from citizens and communities and the other councillors. Decisions are made with input from a wider range of people, better representing the borough, and hopefully leading to better decisions that have more legitimacy.
Why does the council use the current system?
All large councils were forced to use the ‘strong leader’ system by the Blair government in the early 2000s. Since 2011, councils have been able to change to the more democratic Modern Committee system.
How many other Councils have changed and why?
Over 30 councils have already changed or are in the process, and interest in change is increasing over recent years. They tend to be councils where the voting pattern is fairly equal between 2 or 3 parties, and where no 1 party has a big majority of votes (exactly like Lambeth).
All councils that have changed have done it to improve democracy, so that they better represent voters, to give individual councillors the power to represent their areas, and to increase citizen’s confidence in their council.
A referendum in Newham Borough in London, supported by its Labour-led Council, is also happening on the same day as Sheffield’s.
What is the problem with the current ‘strong leader’ system?
The current system is undemocratic, leads to bad decisions, and causes a focus on divisive party politics instead of doing the best for the borough.
The 11 councillors who have power to make most decisions are unrepresentative of the borough and are indebted to the Council leader for their positions and the extra money they get. Power in the Council is based on the feudal patronage of the leader, rather than ability or merit and it relies on secrecy and the exercise of power by the few.
Full Council meetings in Lambeth are dominated by tribal, party-political slanging matches where the small group in power acts as “if you aren’t with us, you are the enemy”. The breadth and depth of experience and knowledge available from all 63 councillors is being wasted.
How can a Modern Committee system make things better?
A Modern Committee system is:
How many committees will there be?
There is no set number of committees – each Council decides what’s best for its borough. The committees are based on major functional areas, such as housing, finance, education etc.
Will the speed of decision making be different in a new system?
Decisions can be faster in a Modern Committee system, as confirmed in a study by Maidstone council.
In Lambeth, a major problem with the current system is that the few who have power often make poor decisions. Then a lot of time & energy is wasted because the communities affected have to protest against these bad decisions before it then backtracks.
Lambeth needs GOOD decisions not FAST decisions.
Experience in other councils shows that decision-making in a Modern Committee system is not slow. In the current system, many decisions in Sheffield – like the Local Plan – have been delayed for years! All Modern Committee systems have an ’emergency’ decision process, but it is rarely needed.
Will councillors have to go to more meetings in a new system?
The number of meetings for each councillor is about the same in both systems. However, in the current system many hours are wasted each month shouting in the ‘political theatre’ of the full-council meeting, which has very little power and rarely votes on important things but often on symbolic or national policies that the Council has no power over!
In the new system, councillors will have to work together more constructively, so their time will be used more positively and efficiently.
Which system relies on more decisions being delegated to unelected officers?
In the current system, each of the 11 councillors in the Council Cabinet are individually in charge of very big policy areas that are too big for them to manage alone, so inevitably decisions are made by unelected officers.
In a Modern Committee system, each policy area will be run by a committee of about 14 councillors instead of 1 person. The 14 councillors can collectively bring much more knowledge and time than 1 person, so decisions don’t need to be made by unelected officers. The Council’s own report on changing to a Modern Committee system confirms this.
Aren’t Lambeth’s problems caused by Austerity, not the Council?
Austerity has made the Council’s job much more difficult, by significantly reducing the money they can spend. This means that it is even more important that the Council makes good decisions, and that all councillors concentrate on doing the best for the borough, and that help from communities and citizens is encouraged.
The current system has created a bunker mentality in the small ruling group, where they see ‘enemies’ everywhere and reject help. Lambeth Council is famous for being difficult to work with, nationally and locally. Much of Council time is wasted on tribal, party-political fighting. We desperately need help from local voluntary organisations to combat the terrible effects of austerity, but their confidence in the Council is very low and decreasing every year.
Changing to a Modern Committee system can make a real difference here, because it is a more cooperative system, where councillors from all the parties have to work together, and include outside organisations, to do the best for the borough instead of the constant party-political fighting in the current system, that Lambeth residents told us repeatedly they dislike so much.