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“Precious little ‘democracy'” at West Dorset District Council

Portrait of Alistair Chisholm, independent councillor for Charminster and Cerne Valley on West Dorset District Council

Alistair Chisholm. Best known as Dorchester's award-winning town crier, he's also an independent member of West Dorset District Council, where he feels his voice is not quite so well heard.

IT’S ALMOST three months since I was elected to West Dorset District Council (WDDC) as an independent candidate for Charminster and Cerne Valley and time, perhaps, to make some early observations.

Unfortunately much that I’d been warned about in relation to the way in which the District Council conducts its affairs appears to be true.

There is precious little “democracy” as evidenced by the fact that there’s virtually no debate on major issues.

Decisions affecting the district are taken by an executive committee comprising seven members of the majority party (Conservative) each of whom is personally selected by the leader of that party (Cllr Robert Gould). I sense that their selection is based on the degree to which they can be relied on to go along with and enthusiastically support every decision he makes.

West Dorset has, effectively, an unelected Mayor.

I’m not suggesting that WDDC are behaving in an unlawful way but I am saying that, within a total of 48 elected representatives, there are bound to be different views and differing priorities. In my innocence and ignorance I fondly thought that there might be room, at this lowly but important level of local government, for the free exchange of ideas and opinions on issues which affect the people of the district.

No individual or party group is all-knowing and proper open debate is a fundamental safeguard of our much vaunted democracy which, if unavailable to democratically elected representatives, makes for a dangerously narrow and limited view of what is appropriate for the district.

The building of £10million new offices for WDDC (and a new £5million library for Dorset County Council) on the Charles Street site in Dorchester is a classic (and most expensive) example of a decision reached by the very few but claimed to be in the interests of the many.

There needs to be more open discussion at an early stage so that ideas are properly tested and do not become a sticking point from which the leader will not withdraw for fear of losing face. “Cabinet” style local government, brought in in 2000, has done little for democracy in West Dorset.

I should add that my comments apply to the manner in which important decisions are made by elected members and in no way reflect on the majority of council staff. The staff have their hands full facing, as they do;

1. a 25% decrease in central government funding,

2. an uncertain future in the case of some staff as WDDC and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council develop their “partnership working” arrangements,

3. an increased workload linked to the move into new offices and

4. a considerable number of additional tasks associated with next year’s Olympics.

I admire the staff of both councils who continue to perform their duties in challenging times. I most sincerely hope that the independent support measures, which I’m assured are in place, are sufficiently robust to cater for those who currently, and in future will increasingly, feel the pressure associated with these challenges.

2 Responses to ““Precious little ‘democracy'” at West Dorset District Council”

  1. Alastair Nisbet

    No surprises then. But it seems to be the same at most councils these days – not much democracy.
    And sadly – not so many local paper reporters to report it!

    After the huge public vote against the new West Dorset council offices – and the outcry from traders who have suddenly twigged that all the Charles Street car parks will be closed for three years, I had to smile when I noticed that West Dorset is putting out a call for consultation on its new district plan.

    hmm… when it’s consultation on their terms, the Council is all ears it seems.

  2. Jackie Henville

    I’m hopping mad about these new offices but despite being a WDDC Council Tax payer, I do not recall that my views were sought during the ‘consultation’ which as far as I can see was only carried out with Dorchester residents most of whom were against the plans. I believe that WDDC were offered office accommodation in Poundbury and Brewery Square and also have the option to build behind Stratton House but clearly Mr Gould feels the need to mark his tenure of office with a vast edifice which will take decades to pay for. And now the trees are sick; coincidence maybe, but all in all if Mr Gould wants to be remembered then I suspect it will be in the same way as Dr Beeching.

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