Elections in Cheltenham could change to a four-year cycle to cut costs and increase political stability.
The proposal to scrap the borough’s current system of elections every two years was first pitched by finance bosses as a way of contributing to the £3.4 million of savings the council needs to make over the next five years.
Additional support for the plan has now come from an unexpected source, with the auditors brought in to assess the Christine Laird affair saying a bigger gap between elections would give ruling politicians a better chance to get to grips with governing the town.
KPMG’s report states: “The prospect of another election due within two years of a change means that it will be difficult for any party or coalition to expect a period of stability in which to manage a coherent programme.
“There is a risk that this becomes an obstacle to improvement.”
Under the current system, half the 40 members are voted in every two years.
Each ward has two borough councillors, meaning both serve a four-year term but are elected at different times.
Scrapping the system would lead to a four-year cycle, with the entire council being elected in a single poll.
Mark Sheldon, the council’s chief finance officer, said cutting the expense of sending out voting cards, fielding questions from the public and setting up poll stations would save £32,000 every year.
But Councillor John Webster, cabinet member for finance, said a four-year system would result in fewer chances for voters to make their feelings known. He said: “We have agreed to look at a different election cycle as part of the budget process but it is a careful balance between cost and political accountability.
“Elections every two years guarantee a much more accountable council, even though it is more work for politicians.”
Voter Peter Griffin, from Up Hatherley, said he would like to see councillors given longer to push through policies.
“I do think at the moment that there is far too much chopping and changing. You’ve only just got used to who is representing us when they change again,” he said.
“But I’m not sure I’d do it to cut costs. I know the council needs to make savings but you can’t put a price on good politics. That needs to be preserved.”
KPMG was brought in nine months ago, after the council’s attempt to recover almost £1 million in pension and sick pay from Mrs Laird collapsed.
The affair is estimated to have cost taxpayers more than £2.1 million.
One of the auditor’s key criticisms was the frequent changes in the political landscape during the six -year dispute with its former managing director.
Its report said: There were changes to the membership of the Staff and Support Services Committee during the period of the case, although there is no evidence that this situation had a significant influence on the outcome of the decision-making process.“In light of this, we have not made a specific recommendation on this matter but we believe there is merit in the council reviewing the current election arrangements and assessing whether the people of Cheltenham would be better served by a different arrangement.”
In his leader in today's Echo newspaper, Editor Kevan Blackadder said he believed it could lead to more clarity for voters:
Initial concern over proposals to shake up Cheltenham Borough Council’s voting system seems to centre on whether it is also an attack on democracy.
But if the new system comes to pass, there is also every reason to think it will be more democratic – and that voters will have a far clearer idea of what they are voting for.
At present, every two years half of the borough’s council seats come up for election. Two years later, it is the turn of the other half. And the two seats in each ward are elected in different years. Confused? No surprise there.
What is now being proposed is for all 40 councillors to be elected at the same time every four years. Confused? Not at all.
And that would be one of the best things about the change. It would be clear to voters that they were having a real say in who would form the administration for the next four years.
It would also give the majority party a significant length of time to make the proposals on which they were elected work. If they don’t, the electorate will have every chance to let them know when the next elections come round.
Councillor John Webster believes that elections every two years guarantee a more accountable council. But as Up Hatherley resident Peter Griffin says, it also means councillors continually “chopping and changing”.
Mr Griffin’s concern is that it shouldn’t be done purely to save money. And he’s absolutely right that you can’t put a price on good politics. But it is not the cost that would be the real benefit here. It is that there would be straightforward elections that everybody would be able to understand. And if £32,000 a year is also saved in the process, all well and good