Tail shouldn't wag the dog

I write further to E Sutherland-Loveday's letter regarding my request for a deep clean of Berwick town centre in which he states that it is officers, not councillors, in control of councils (Berwick Advertiser, August 16).

Monday, 27th August 2018, 9:00 am

I completely understand where he is coming from with his conclusion, but not all of his premises.

It is for councillors to make policy and officers to enact those policies.

Councillors will request (not dictate) officers to do specific work, ie tidy up somewhere, carry out an inspection, draw up a traffic calming spec, etc, and on occasions appeal to that officer’s line management or the cabinet member for that area to give a ‘nudge’ or release extra resource.

Northumberland County Council officers, almost without exception, are extremely helpful and obliging with these requests, although human and financial resource is severely stretched, as it is in local authorities across the country.

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Individual councillors can deliver results and make a difference predominantly through working hard and influencing (thinking strategically and smartly), but, ultimately, they have one vote out of 67.

As someone who campaigns for local government reform, E Sutherland-Loveday’s wider point is something which interests me, and I have said similar things myself.

The problem arises when officers start controlling policy, which can happen if councillors just ‘nod through’ carefully constructed reports – what I describe as ‘blink and you miss it’ decision-making.

Councillors, generally, need to be much more on the ball with these things.

As Tony Benn observed, it is an essential feature in a democracy that you can get rid of those in power. In elections, voters can remove councillors or their MP, but not officers or civil servants.

That is why it is essential that the distinction between councillors making policies and officers enacting them is strictly maintained.

I believe the all-too-common ‘tail wagging the dog’ syndrome is a particular problem in the town and parish council sector.

Georgina Hill

Berwick East member