WEST Dorset District Council came under heavy fire at a meeting which discussed democratic issues in the area.

Hundreds of people attended Public-First’s meeting in Dorchester on Wednesday to voice their concerns, which included one resident stating: “There’s no democracy in West Dorset.”

The majority of the audience agreed that a bigger debate was needed on the cabinet system currently used by the district council.

The district council has an executive committee made up of seven councillors, all of whom represent the Conservative party.

The committee is responsible for most day-to-day decisions made by the council.

Calls were made by audience members to switch to a committee system to allow other political parties to have a stronger voice when deciding upon policy.

An idea was also raised to look into the possibility of having a unitary system of local government in Dorset.

John Grantham, who organised the meeting, said: “It’s a terrific turnout – 270 people. The room was packed.

“The West Dorset District Council cabinet system is a very closed system.

“To see members of the public want to change the system and want to introduce quite straightforward new democratic methods is really invigorating.I think this could just be the start of the turn of the tide.”

Two-thirds of the meeting was given to local residents to discuss the issues and have their say.

The final third gave invited speakers the opportunity to share their views.

The meeting was chaired by human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, with representatives from Green, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP parties acceptinginvitations to take part (see panels below).

West Dorset MP Oliver Letwin and West Dorset District Council leader Robert Gould, who both represent the Conservative Party, were unable to attend.

Describing the empty chair left for the Conservative party, Mr Stafford Smith said: “It’s a shame but the point of this is to discuss changes that can make things better.”

This space was filled later, however, by former Conservative district councillor Fred Horsington.

Despite initially attending as an audience member, he took to the stage at Mr Stafford Smith’s request.

Before the public discussion, speaker Tom Murphy outlined his case for the adoption of a unitary authority.

He said: “Most people in this room are confused as to who does what.

“What I’m arguing for is that we have one council which does all the services and everyone understands.

“We have got 246 councillors throughout the district – 33 of them are actually what I call dual-hatted.

“They represent the county council and district council.”

A number of points were made by members of the public. Mr Stafford Smith asked people to attach potential solutions to their criticisms.

Ideas that came from the audience included having recall elections, having council meetings held in the evening, and granting borough status to certain towns.

The district council was criticised by many for the way it currently allows members of the public to ask questions.

People called for ‘democratic hours’ to be enabled at public meetings to allow further questioning and the option to ask supplementary questions.

Other ideas suggested included electing councillors using proportional representation.

After residents had their say, each party representative had four minutes to air their views on points raised throughout the evening.

Fred Horsington, Tories

Dorset Echo:

FRED Horsington, who was speaking as a former Conservative Party representative, said that unitary authorities, realistically, would still have cabinet systems.

He said: “If you want to live in the real world, that’s what it will be.

“If you have an overall majority party leading that authority, whether it’s a district council or a county council, you will have a cabinet system.

Mr Horsington added that local politics wasn’t easy, suggesting that people tended to fall out in local communities ‘like rats in a sack over very little’.

Nevertheless, he encouraged those who had a wish to change the system to stand for office, in order to generate that change for themselves.

He said: “If you want to become a councillor put your name on the piece of paper and stand for election.”

Mike Byatt, Labour

Dorset Echo:

MIKE Byatt, a councillor for Weymouth and Portland Borough Council and also a county councillor for Dorset County Council, attended to speak on behalf of the Labour Party.

He said: “I think if you want to change politics you have to engage young people. We have to engage young people through the modern mediums.

“One way of making democracy work is making it visible.

“We need to make councils outward looking rather than inward looking and one way to do that is by putting it out there.”

Cllr Byatt added that councils needed to stop thinking in the short-term and look at aspects of local government more strategically.

Ros Kayes, Lib Dems

Dorset Echo:

ROS Kayes, a councillor for Bridport Town Council, a district councillor for West Dorset District Council, and a county councillor for Dorset County Council, spoke on behalf of the Lib Dems.

She said: “Councillors aren’t such a bad thing. It is parties I think that are the problem. West Dorset District Council has to be one of the worst (for it).

“This is enabled to happen because of the cabinet system and because of the whipping system.

“Why bring the worst aspects of national government to sully the way local government works?”

Cllr Kayes said voters felt disenfranchised and ignored. She backed proposals for a unitary authority but called for more residents to stand.

She said: “Just because I’m a councillor doesn’t mean my opinion is more important than yours.”

David Glossop, UKIP

Dorset Echo:

DAVID Glossop, UKIP parliamentary candidate for West Dorset, criticised members of the Conservative Party who had declined to speak at the meeting.

He said: “The Conservatives are showing what the Prime Minister has regularly shown year after year which is complete disregard for public opinion. Their leadership should be here. It’s a very important meeting.”

On local concerns, he said: “I like the idea of area boards and I would like to see councillors in the future supporting their area boards.

“I do believe that the committee system is probably better than the cabinet system. It should be more democratic.”

Mr Glossop added he wouldn’t object to the idea of recall elections.

Peter Barton, The Greens

Dorset Echo:

PETER Barton, the Green Party parliamentary candidate for West Dorset, said that it was important for the region to possess an ‘active, energised local democracy’.

He said: “The Green Party is opposed to the cabinet system.

“We would return to a much more open committee system as fast as possible.

“There are alternatives and there have to be.

“Returning to the committing system is one of those.”

Discussing the concept of establishing a unitary authority within Dorset, he said: “The Green Party is highly open to considering that.

“Personally I have become more and more convinced of exploring the case for unitary authorities.”

Mr Barton said he would like to see local decisions made at the lowest viable level and a fairer system of voting.