Cardiff Civic Society calls for a free vote for powerful chair of planning

Letter to Cardiff’s political leaders asks them to hold a free democratic vote for a post which is key to quality of life in the city

Dear Councillor,
I am writing to you as the leader of your political group or as an independent representative on Cardiff Council in order to ask you to bring your influence to bear in order to reform the way the chair of the planning committee is appointed.  
Ahead of the council’s AGM on 27 May I would like you to take the following steps:

  • Agree to hold a recorded vote on the appointment of chair of planning at the AGM, rather than being agreed behind the scenes by party managers without a vote.
  • Each group to nominate a member to become chair of planning.  The member could be drawn from your own group – or from another party’s group if you wish to seek cross party consensus on the matter
  • To hold a vote at the full council’s AGM which is not whipped and does not allow members of the executive to vote.

On 10 November 2020, Davina Fiore, the council’s monitoring officer wrote to Cardiff Civic Society to confirm that councillors would be allowed to hold a recorded vote on the election of the chair of planning.  She said:
“A recorded vote is not a requirement, and where the appointment of members has already been agreed between the political parties will be treated as opposed business and passed by one resolution. However this does not have to be the case, and if any member wishes for an item of unopposed business to be dealt with separately by a vote, they may request the Chair to take a vote on that item and the chair will do so.”

 
As well as committing to a recorded vote on the chair of planning, each group should commit to hold a free vote on the matter.  This vote should not be controlled by the whips, that is the party’s business managers.   
The whips are appointed by the leader of each group in order to maintain the party discipline of each group.  The whipping system is particularly important to the governing party in order to ensure that they can gain the council’s approval for important measures in their programme, especially the annual budget.  
If a party has a majority, their whips can ensure their programme is approved.  
The whip system is an established part of democracy in parliamentary systems.  Despite its flaws – and the way it takes power away from individual elected members without executive positions – it is an accepted part of the system of modern Western democracy.  
However, its use in order to select chair of committee is less uniform.  For example the UK Parliament and the Senedd do not use the whipping system in order to select chairs of scrutiny committees.  This stems from relatively recent reforms which sought a better balance between the executive (Ministers in the case of a parliament) and the ‘backbench’ members – whose role it is to scrutinise the executive. 
The problem with using the system of whipping to select the chair of a scrutiny or regulatory committee like planning is that it places what should be a role independent of the executive within a system which exists to serve the executive’s needs.  
I believe that there is a strong perception that the system used in Cardiff favours the executive.  This is damaging to the overall perception of the planning system.  The executive themselves often put forward major projects which require planning approval.  Therefore, they have a vested interest in such projects being passed.  Therefore, to avoid the appearance of any undue influence being placed on the chair of planning the vote to appoint them should not be whipped and nor should members of the executive be allowed to vote.

Nerys Lloyd-Pierce, Chair, Cardiff Civic Society 

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