A CONTROVERSIAL vote by councillors in South Gloucestershire will see a return to a cabinet governance system.

The council, which previously ran under a cabinet style until 2012, has operated under a committee system after it was voted in by Labour and Liberal Democrats.

Following yesterday’s full council meeting, the Conservative-led council voted by a majority to return to the structure, with the leader and executive members take decisions either as a cabinet or individually as executive portfolio holders.

The change is expected to be implemented during the council’s AGM on May 17.

Among the roles that would be given out to the eight members of the cabinet are powers over planning and transportation, housing delivery and public health.

Other executive roles will include schools, skills and employment, adult care, children and young people, corporate resources and community services.

Cllr Matthew Riddle, leader of South Gloucestershire Council, said that when the committee system was introduced, he expected to see “a lot of Punch and Judy exchanges” with more politics being brought into decision making.

He said that the committee system “created slow-moving, unwieldy decision-making”, and the re-introduction of a cabinet would “address a frustrating lack of engagement”, taking the “bold decision to change the way we do things” to make sure things get done.

He added: “The new Cabinet system will make sure there is a proper focus on the issues, rather than on party political point scoring. It will be efficient and effective, but maintain transparency and accountability. Not only this, but I believe it is less complicated and less expensive.”

But the decision has not been well received by all, with Lib Dem and Labour councillors condemning the concentration of power and lack of transparency.

South Gloucestershire Lib Dem leader Cllr Ruth Davis, who in the past has served both as an executive member and a leader of council, said: “I know what the different systems are like. With executives, you have a single person taking decisions after talking to an officer.

“With committees, you have over a dozen people deciding, in public, sometimes changing the recommendations. South Gloucestershire is diverse, with many different communities that need different solutions. The extra viewpoints and experience that committee members gave us helped South Gloucestershire Council serve our residents well.”

Deputy Lib Dem leader Cllr Claire Young said how she was “heartily opposed to this concentration of power, which will mean decisions being taken by a few Tories behind closed doors, away from the public view.

“This is an even greater concentration of power than we had five years ago. Where we used to have a number of scrutiny committees looking at different areas of policy, now we will have a single scrutiny commission trying to cover everything.”

Labour councillors have also spoken out against the move as a “backwards step for democracy and transparency.”

Cllr Pat Rooney, Labour’s leader in the council, criticised the decision, demanding that “all elected councillors should have a voice, an influence and a vote on policy decisions, and these should be made in public.”

She said: “This Cabinet system will concentrate power in the hands of just eight of our 70 councillors. Some decisions will be delegated to individual councillors for approval, leading to policy being made by the stroke of a pen behind closed doors. 

“Our past experience with this system is that most councillors get side-lined and their valid challenges get treated with contempt.

“This change is unnecessary because the committee system does not prevent the Tories from running the council as they have a majority on each committee. The big difference is that committees operate in public so all decisions are made in public. Abolishing our committee structure is a backwards step for democracy and transparency.

“South Gloucestershire used to enjoy an enviable reputation for openness, so this is sad day for South Gloucestershire.”