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Folkestone and Hythe District Council’s £100k restructure dubbed ‘more talking and a lot less work’

Politicians feel “stabbed in the back” after a high-profile restructuring - set to cost taxpayers £100,000 - was delayed.

Some Folkestone and Hythe district councillors fear they will “struggle to explain” to voters the delay in adopting a committee system.

Council leader, Jim Martin
Council leader, Jim Martin

But others claim residents are indifferent to the administration’s lurch away from its current cabinet system.

Folkestone & Hythe District Council (FHDC) voted in June last year to abolish its conventional system of governance and opt for a committee one in May 2024.

At the time they made a budget of £100,000 available for the move.

However, at a meeting of FHDC’s full council on January 24, council leader Jim Martin (Green) proposed pushing the plans back by another year.

“The principles and processes of a committee system are not in question,” he told the council.

“The problem is the deadline of May 2024 and the lack of time for members to become familiar with the mechanisms and detailed operations of the committee system.”

Seconding the motion Cllr Mike Blakemore (Green) added: “it’s not a happy position to be in - to have agreed in this chamber last year that we would move to a committee system in May this year.”

He stressed they remain “completely committed” to the transition, but “there are simply too many unanswered questions about how the new system would work.”

FHDC currently has a cabinet structure - where the council’s leader appoints cabinet members with responsibility for specific areas, taken from the governing parties.

Committee structures can take many forms, but in general it means policy decisions are taken by politically-balanced committees for specific areas, rather than individual cabinet members.

Folkestone and Hythe's Liberal Democrats deputy leader Tim Prater
Folkestone and Hythe's Liberal Democrats deputy leader Tim Prater

The move was originally backed by most of the council, but some of those who supported the initial bid were miffed at the proposed delay.

Cllr Adrian Lockwood (Lab) said: “This was a key pledge in the May local elections for our group.

“I’m going to struggle to explain this to our voters when I’m out on the doors.

“The voters’ confidence in politics and politicians is already low, how are the voters of Cheriton, Sandgate, Hythe and Hawkinge going to feel when they find out we’ve delayed this?”

The Greens, Labour, and Liberal Democrats all promised to move to a committee system in their manifestos for the May 2023 local elections.

Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Nicola Keen (Lab) said: “I’m just really disappointed that we’ve gone back on this yet again.

“I feel very disappointed, I feel almost let down and knifed in the back by councillors, the leader and the green councillors, I feel stabbed in the back.

“This was one of the things that was really important to me and to the people of the ward that I represent.”

In May last year the previous Conservative administration was turfed out and reduced down to five out of 30 councillors.

The council is now run by a minority coalition of 11 Green councillors and two Liberal Democrats.

The council’s deputy leader Cllr Tim Prater (Lib Dem) criticised the delay, stating: “I think that working together, with the 26 people out of 28 on the night who voted to do this in May 2024 can still make this work for May 2024.”

Councillor Mike Blakemore, Green, Cheriton Ward, Folkestone and Hythe District Council
Councillor Mike Blakemore, Green, Cheriton Ward, Folkestone and Hythe District Council

However, the coalition-leading Green group backed the delay as well.

Cllr Stephen Scoffham (Green) said: “I don’t believe that they are terribly concerned about the internal mechanisms of the council, in fact most of the people I talk to are rather uncertain as to what council I actually belonged to, and what I actually do, and the way in which local government works.

“Do we want a rushed decision or do we want something that’s durable?”

Most councils around Kent and the country use a cabinet system.

However there are two other Kent local authorities - Swale Borough Council and Maidstone Borough Council - which have committee systems rather than cabinets.

In the May local elections, not a single ward in Folkestone & Hythe District had a majority of eligible residents vote.

The highest turnout in a ward was Hythe, with 47.76%.

Cllr Clive Goddard (Con), who opposed the abolition of the cabinet system from the start, quipped: “I fully support the leader's motion if we could possibly change the date to 2054.”

The Conservative group voted in favour of the delay.

The council voted with 16 in favour, 11 against and one abstention to extend the transition to May 2025.

David Monk was formerly Conservative leader of FHDC, and argues the cabinet system is "much better."

He went on: “a cabinet system gets things done, the committee system requires attendance of a lot more people for a lot longer.

"A lot more talking gets done but a lot less work gets done."

He also argues a committee system is "absolutely" less democratic than a cabinet, as “it gives a lot more control to council officers.”

“After all, parliament isn’t run by committee," he added.

FHDC confirmed that the budget of £100,000 - to pay for external consultants and work on the restructure - still stands and there should be no extra cost for the delay.

An in-person meeting will be held in the Folkestone Civic Centre, at 6pm on Monday February 5, where residents can ask questions about the new structure.

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