MID Devon has voted to begin the process of scrapping its cabinet system, amid a claim the district council is in “disarray”.
Cabinets are the most common form by which local councils are run. A leader appoints a number of cabinet members – usually from the same party – to take charge of different departments.
However, the system favours parties that have a majority of council seats. Mid Devon has been under no overall control since the last full elections in 2019.
As a result, it has been run by Independent-Lib Dem and Independent-Conservative coalitions but was recently plunged into chaos when several cabinet members left their roles. Leader Bob Deed (Independent, Cadbury) then resigned.
Full council elections are due to be held in less than three months, with independent councillor Barry Warren (Lower Culm) appointed to succeed Cllr Deed until then in a “caretaker” capacity.
The upheaval prompted independent councillor Nikki Woollatt (Cullompton North), who has since been appointed to Cllr Warren’s cabinet, to call for a “modernised committee system to be implemented from the annual meeting of 2024”.
Presenting her motion at a full council meeting last week, she said: “I’ve brought this motion forward at this particular time because this council is in disarray.
“It is again suffering the instability of hirings and firings and a cabinet which made decisions which were not in accordance with recommendations and advice from its committees and even full council – from disproportionate parking fee increases to ignoring member concerns over particular investments.”
She described the cabinet system as “undemocratic” despite now sitting on it, adding: “I truly believe this council would not be suffering its current turmoil and instability if we were working within a modern committee system.”
Asking members to back the motion, she concluded: “The staff of the council and the people of Mid Devon need a stable council. We cannot go on like this.”
Backing the proposal, Liberal Democrat councillor Luke Taylor (Bradninch) said: “In the last four years the cabinet system has been a mockery with 10 sackings, or six depending on which version of events you listen to,” a reference to four Tory councillors recently claiming they resigned rather than were pushed.
He added: “There are alternative opportunities and hybrid councils which have proved successful in other districts.
“We need to move away from the current failing system to implement something better for the residents of Mid Devon.”
However, some members were uneasy about voting to change the system weeks before full elections. Councillor Colin Slade (Conservative, Lowman) said: “I don’t think that those of us here should impose upon an incoming council their method of governance.”
Councillor Bob Evans (Independent, Lower Culm) agreed: “There are members sat round this table tonight that know they are going to stand for election, and there are members that will stand for election that may not get elected.
“It is not for us in the last 10 weeks to dictate to the next administration what they should or should not be doing.”
They were later told any final decision would need to come back to a future full council meeting for another vote, leading supporter Graeme Barnell (Independent, Newbrooke) to say: “I don’t think this resolution binds anybody to anything.”
He admitted old-style committee systems were “chaotic” but said: “That doesn’t mean we have to go back to the polarity of the old-style committee systems.
“What’s being proposed is we move away from the cabinet system to a new system that many councils have devised, which is a hybrid system.”
The motion was narrowly approved. Any new system will require a confirmatory vote of councillors and will not come into place until 2024.