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Council leader accused of ‘stifling democracy’ by making it harder to challenge decisions

A North London council leader has been accused of ‘stifling democracy’ over plans that could make challenging its decisions more difficult.

The move was described as ‘deeply disturbing’ by an opposition councillor in Brent who claims the change would make it easier for the council to ‘silence residents that don’t agree’. The leader hit back calling the move ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’.

If councillors want to challenge a decision made by the leadership they can instigate a ‘call in’, meaning it will be frozen whilst given more consideration. Currently, it takes signatures from five councillors to initiate a call in, however, the Labour leader of the council, Cllr Muhammed Butt, has proposed to increase it to ten – two more than the total number of opposition councillors.

Leader of the Brent Liberal Democrats, Cllr Anton Georgiou, fears the change would set a ‘very dangerous precedent’ and claims it would mean call-ins no longer happen because Labour councillors ‘fear retribution’ from the whips if they challenge decisions.

Cllr Georgiou told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “Decisions made by Brent Council have a direct impact on the lives of local people. Whether it is the choice to cut street cleaning across the borough or introducing the ridiculous blue bags for recycling. When bad decisions like these are made, residents expect their elected Councillors to speak up on their behalf.”

He added: “Cllr Butt’s latest attempt to silence us and limit our ability to do the important work of scrutiny is deeply disturbing and anti-democratic. If Cllr Butt had confidence that decisions made by his administration were good for residents, he would welcome the chance to defend them in public meetings. The fact he seems unwilling to do so, speaks volumes.”

In a letter to Brent’s corporate director of governance, Cllr Georgiou said he will ‘robustly oppose’ the changes and urged them to reject Cllr Butt’s suggestion. He accused the leader of attempting to ‘limit the voices of those who do not blindly agree with him’.

If the changes went ahead, it would mean that some Labour councillors would have to join the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in opposing their own party’s decisions. In 2021, a call-in opposing the implementation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) was signed by five Labour councillors, however, none of those that did are still elected which Cllr Georgiou claims is evidence of a ‘petty dictatorship’.

Cllr Butt accused the parties of engaging in ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’ and said any changes to the current arrangements will ‘always be democratically decided’.

He told the LDRS: “It has been evident for some time that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Groups are using the “call-in” system to mount opposition for opposition’s sake, even when decisions have been taken following resident engagement and a real recognition of need.”

He added: “The latest example of this is the Conservative Group’s decision to call in and delay the purchase of a property to be used for a children’s care home, despite the funds being match-funded by their own Government.”

A report on increasing the number of signatures required for a call-in will be drawn up and a decision on whether it will be adopted will be made at a future scrutiny meeting.