England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Viewpoint: Powers of recall – a necessary step to building trust

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames is planning to give local people the power to get rid of bad councillors. Cllr Kevin Davis, Leader of the Council, explains why.

Local government is at a crossroads. Our populations are growing, demand for our services is growing but our income is reducing. We face a stark choice. We can continue doing things as we always have and end up managing decline or we can embrace change.

Embracing change and doing things differently will involve difficult decisions that will not be universally popular among residents. But if we are to take our communities with us through these difficult changes we need to have a different relationship with them; one that will be built on better understanding and more realistic expectations of what we can do with public services. Most of all if we are to work together more effectively we need to build greater trust among citizens. Councillors may be more trusted than MPs but that level of trust is nowhere near where it needs to be.

At the end of May in Kingston upon Thames we announced our intention to bring in new powers to get rid of bad councillors. In central government these powers have now been passed into law. I however want us to go further in local government. The current system for MP’s relies on bad members being judged by a committee of their peers. I want to place this power in the hands of the local people who elect councillors in the first place.

Along with a raft of other initiatives such as changes to how committees operate which we have also recently announced our aim is to make the business of the council both more accountable and more understandable to local people.

I don’t pretend any of this will be easy. It is becoming fashionable in local government circles to talk about the need to build greater trust but to build trust you must also give trust. These changes we are bringing forward in our area involve giving more trust and power to local people.

All of us have massive challenges in the coming years. In Kingston upon Thames we are embracing an ambitious growth agenda that is going to be difficult for many of our local people. We cannot simply impose it, but we are clear it is the only realistic business model that provides a sustainable future for our borough. We must therefore find a way to take our communities with us.

To do this we must learn to communicate more effectively. That involves listening and responding as well as simply broadcasting. We must be very honest with people by saying that we will not be able to do everything that everyone wants but when we do say we will do something then we must be absolutely certain that we do it.

Councillor recall will be introduced in our borough on a voluntary basis and members will be asked to sign up to a code of practice. But I hope other councils will consider adopting this system and together we can lobby ministers to consider new legislation to introduce it on a statutory basis.