Bingo night

ON the one hand, councillors say the full council meeting is just a bit of ‘punch and judy’ knockabout. On the other, they say it is a great forum for the backbenchers to have their say.

Last night, those arguments seemed pretty indulgent after perhaps the most uninspiring meeting of recent years. There was a lasting feeling that this session, the only time when all members gather in the council chamber together, is not fit for purpose in its current form. Labour’s deputy whip Phil Jones admitted later that all of the real decisions are taken elsewhere, in private meetings.

For three hours, the council indulged in a hypnotic blame game. Your government is forcing us to cut everything. Well, your government got booted out for mucking up the economy. The debate was rooted in history lessons, rather than new ideas to help people like the poor souls in their tenth decade outside the Town Hall last week, campaigning for centres for the elderly, lifelines, to be saved. You could play bingo by this meeting: ‘Tough decisions’, ‘hard choices’, ‘need for imagination’, ‘no choice but to’, and for the full house: ‘your friends in government’.

Nobody said: ‘This is a terrible time. Let’s work together. Why don’t we do this…’

High salary council officials are paid to sit there and listen to the sparring. They must wonder if three hours of their high salary time could be put to better use. The councillors could then take their punch and judy show elsewhere. The pub, where they could argue it out on their own time. Alternatively, the private debates that Phil refers to could more often (not always, but more often) be public. More people would then feel they had a more realistic chance of affecting council policy. Some new ideas to keep the services loved by people who have no clue about what goes on behind the council chamber’s doors might even tumble into the open.

The Fairness Commission in neighbouring Islington might be a good model to review.

18 Comments on Bingo night

  1. Sounds about right for Greenwich too – either “Tory cuts that they haven’t got a mandate for” or “Labour’s legacy”. Change the record, children.

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  2. Whilst I absolutely sympathise with Richard O’s sentiment and admired his tenacity in sticking it out to the end last night, there were just a few positives too – despite a predictable lacklustre performance by the Leader and louche philibustering shown by the under-dressed Theo Blackwell.

    Jonathan Simpson is fair and makes a better fist of chairing than any Mayor that I’ve witnessed since Jill Fraser. Chris Knight was laudably magnanimous. Jonny Bucknall brought arguably warranted self-mockery to proceedings. Angela Mason’s portfolio report was welcomed. Sue Vincent was positive. Plenty of backbenchers did get their oars in on local matters. Though I did note that all lead officers had, like Elvis, left the building well before that agenda slot.

    It could be transformed by bringing forward the politically rotating lead motion in the agenda and having a real debate and sticking at just the one. I don’t recall us getting to the second motion in years.

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    • Richard Osley // January 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm // Reply

      I like the idea of the motion coming up the agenda, as long as the parties use it responsibly. Some of the motions are just party political blame game wastes.

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  3. Just to clarify the point about ‘private’ meetings, all party groups have regular such meetings where they decide their approach to important issues – it’s not a new development and it is the same in all councils, not to mention nationally. I also pointed out that a lot of important discussion takes place in the multitude of committee meetings at the Town Hall, but these are not always that exciting if we take the press/public attendance figures as an indicator. Planning and licensing are also very different as you do get lots of interested parties making their points and decisions are made there and then – I believe Camden is the only council where deliberation on licensing takes place in public?

    I do think that we need a forum where there can be robust debate, ward councillors can raise issues and the public can bring deputations, i.e. full council. Obviously, it would also become much more unpredictable for formal decision-making if there were unresolved differences of view – like the great library debates in Camden of the early 1990s!

    All of this debate is very Town Hall focused. Councillors need to be out and about in their wards, talking to people about their concerns, not just sitting in wood-pannelled rooms working through formal agendas. My impression is that most Camden councillors of all parties are doing this on a regular basis. The most useful meeting I attended recently was last week in my ward where 70 people came to talk about the financial crisis and resulting cuts (Paul Braithwaite was also there). A lot of people came up afterwards to say to us they valued it. There were some good ideas and suggestions put forward that I have taken back to Cabinet members and even raised in last night’s full council, so it’s not really as bad as Richard is suggesting.

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    • Richard Osley // January 25, 2011 at 2:10 pm // Reply

      Sorry Phil, I’m afraid last night was as bad I am suggesting and that’s why six or seven councillors described being bored and uninspired by full council. It might have been a particularly bad one. It is not the fault of an individual, or one party, and Paul is right that Jonathan is good with the gavel. I’m not disputing that councillors do not work hard away from the full council meeting either. I’m saying that either the format is wrong or the speakers simply didn’t have anything new to say, so resorted to the same old tiring national blame game. If anybody went home last night thinking anything had been achieved, then they are living in a different world to the people they represent.

      PS: the great library debates sounded great to me. Not so much for a party whip.

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  4. Theo Blackwell // January 26, 2011 at 1:11 am // Reply

    Meow Paul.

    Btw – I wasn’t philibustering but, I admit in an overwordy way, trying to answer the question put to us by Keith Moffitt and Andfrew Marshall – namely, what is Labour’s plan?

    What’s interesting is that after posing the question, neither Coalition party wanted to hear the answer. I’m afraid you guys can’t have it both ways.

    I was also a bit disturbed by your Lib Dem colleague Nancy Jerira accusing me of, er, “implementing Tory cuts” – which even for a Lib Dem totally takes the biscuit!

    (and I was in jeans as I’d come straight from the airport)

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  5. Keith Sedgwick // January 26, 2011 at 1:49 am // Reply

    Really Richard, those in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones! Your paper’s ineffectiveness in exposing Labour councillors’ betrayal of its voters is as much to blame for producing a sterile debate, as is anyone else you have mentioned.

    It is incredible that the CNJ has allowed Labour councillors to raise Council rents unchallenged, above the government guideline. It equally has had nothing to say about elderly council tenants having their free decoration service cut. It wrote nothing about the council failing to refund their tenants five weeks worth of overpaid heading charges, at this time of hardship. To boot, it has barely commented on the wickedness of estates being deprived of communal repairs, with Saurav Ghai’s death fresh in our memories. All of this so that rent money can be diverted by Labour Councillors to plug the gap caused by their pledge not to sell off Council homes.

    Is it any wonder when your paper dedicated so many column inches to the subject of housing-sell offs during the election, to the detriment of the Conservatives and Lib-Dems, and then failed to hold the local Labour party to account for reneging on the spirit of their pre-election promises, that our elected representatives resort to formulaic exchanges? What ever they said, it would never have been heard above the deafening silence of the CNJ.

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    • Richard Osley // January 26, 2011 at 12:17 pm // Reply

      Thanks for stopping by again Keith. It’s nice to get contributions from people who are not councillors as well. The full council meeting certainly misses your energetic interventions.

      Rest assured, every political party at some stage accuses the papers of being ‘too hard on us, too soft on them’ – so you are following with a long tradition. Ask Camden’s Labour cabinet, they will tell you that for the last three or four editorials in a row and in news reports about their response to the recession they have felt unfairly criticised. These claims go with the territory of reporting on the Town Hall. Remember, a fair number of Labour councillors curiously blamed CNJ reporting for election losses in 2006.

      But what you seem to be most concerned about is the standard of opposition to the current administration. Where do you think the challenge should come from? Primarily, a local newspaper? Or the politicians on the opposite benches? None of the points you make about council rents and heating charges have been vigorously chased in public by the current team of Conservative councillors. Apart from a good contribution from Claire-Louise Leyland about the time it takes council flats to be repaired in Belsize, they were hardly mentioned at Monday’s meeting… which perhaps proves the point of the original post about the use of the full council meeting.

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  6. a pedant writes // January 26, 2011 at 11:02 am // Reply

    @ Paul and Theo: surely filibustering? And I thought both of you were great Americanists. Although for faux-etymological reasons philibustering isn’t bad, philiblustering even better.

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  7. Full council in Camden has always been pointless. When I die, and if I go to Hell, I am sure a grinning Jean Paul Sartre will be holded open a wood panelled door for me, through which Jane Roberts’ voice will be heard saying “A lot done. But we are not complacent. Oh no.” for all eternity. With Barbara Hughes as mayor of course.

    Tedious council meetings are inevitable when one party has a significant majority, at least while party discipline holds. Especially if you don’t want punch and judy, but surely a punch up is about the best you can hope for.

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  8. Adam Harrison // January 26, 2011 at 10:57 pm // Reply

    ‘Bingo night’. If only. The smoking ban did away with many bingo halls, but we didn’t even need the ban to kill off attendance in the public gallery of the council chamber, sadly. People would still rather spend their time listening out for two fat ladies than sitting in on full council.

    Methinks Richard both has a point, and is too harsh. In my inexpert way in the motion I was trying to make a broader point which was not just ‘aren’t these cuts awful’ that Richard’s bored of, but that the chance for really passing power down to local government appears to have been missed. It’s something the CNJ should be interested in, as a more powerful council would boost CNJ readership, then revenues, then even salaries maybe…

    Camden, as all councils, is heavily dependent on central government funding, hence the pain of the cuts (though I stand by the point that we are hit harder than Whitehall). A thorough rethink of the relationship between Westminster and the town hall could have been done, and would have chimed with the Tories’ stated localist agenda. The option to allow councils to keep business rates, rather than simply collect them, is one far-reaching step in this direction that the government is considering taking. On the other hand, soon after taking office the government set about making both borrowing and raising council tax more difficult. Not that I would be necessarily arguing to do either, but the point is that the tools at a council’s disposal are actually more restricted than they were a year ago. A government of whichever colour that gave councils extensive fiscal autonomy would have been doing a great service to local democracy. And hence increased interest locally, in council meetings, in bothering to vote in local elections, in reading the local paper.

    Similarly, handing down power in a less rushed way would also have made a big difference. We heard one of the deputations point out that what may appear to be discretionary spend on services for the elderly, in the world of public health are integral to a strong public health system. We know councils are to be given a stronger public health role – again, a good example of this government passing a power to councils. But the time has not been allocated (nor the money yet) for a smooth and intelligent transfer of preventative ASC services to the new public health function.

    All this and more was in the council meeting, though I hopefully explain it better here in writing than I did on Monday. Matters like EU fines being dumped onto the local taxpayer, the 142 regulations being clawed to Whitehall with which to ‘direct localism’ – which Andrew Marshall agreed with me is a concern – and the loss of money to repair roads which will hit motorists’ pockets and road users’ safety. All these are real, concrete concerns. But couldn’t these be taken up and run with in the paper too? I disagree with Keith above on most of the matters he singles out, but there is a hell of a lot taking place at the moment, and, even if it was too blame-gamey on Monday, a spectator can pick out many radical changes. If potholes lead to accidents, won’t it seem relevant then?

    Richard’s right that motions could and should be brought forward and given more time, allowing councillors to make interventions, and that we could stick to just one motion. And perhaps members of the public could be allowed to comment on the debate they are watching, using a mic in the gallery?

    Could the CNJ play its part too – perhaps publish the council agenda the Thursday before full council? Run articles trailing debates or the two-minute speeches? There is a lot that can be done which could benefit all sides, instead of just complaining…

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    • Richard Osley // January 26, 2011 at 11:31 pm // Reply

      Thanks Adam. Interesting piece – and I can imagine full council is an exciting fixture for all new councillors at the Town Hall. Let’s hope enthusiasm only grows more with experience.

      I was speaking to somebody with a few more full councils under his belt today and he said that it would be good if ‘public questions’ was restored. This was where, as you suggest, members of the public could have their say for a section of the meeting. Not a bad idea. And while we’re at it: is there any interest in a return to the old committee system to empower more councillors: Caroline Spelmann promised councils that this would be an option before the general election.

      I would be defensive of the CNJ here: Councillors cannot moan about the attention council matters get in the local press. It’s virtually on every page! There can hardly be a place in the country where the word ‘councillor’ appears so much in the local paper.

      The shame for you – and me – is that more people are interested in the Arsenal/Spurs silliness on the back than reports of what you said at full council. Imagine a world where the reverse was true. Until then, the full council will remain a training ground for ambitious future MPs – Chris Philp’s speeches were always something to watch – and a bit of an indulgent ‘punch and judy show’ for the others.

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      • Adam Harrison // January 27, 2011 at 10:42 am // Reply

        Hi Richard

        No need to feel defensive, I wasn’t criticising the CNJ, but rather taking up your general point in the blogpost that there was nothing of substance at the meeting. And I was just making a couple of positive suggestions to the CNJ! Similarly, the council itself could publicise its full own council meetings better, perhaps by mailing out to resident groups reminding them and asking them to come along, notices on lampposts, on estate noticeboards etc. Am just trying to think of ways we can bring more people in to the local democratic process – if we just tell people the meeting is on then that is a start.

        Committee system: think it’s something worth exploring. On the face of it it seems attractive in terms of involving more councillors in decision making, but we’d have to go back to the reasons it was abolished in the first place and see whether those concerns still stand.

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  9. Full council is the only opportunity for 54 cllrs to size each other up, and for officers to get to know them. It’s not perfect, there have been better formats for it in the past, but you can’t stop politicians being politicians.

    Monday’s meeting wasn’t great and didn’t have a central theme really. Let’s not forget that Labour has a just small majority – it doesn’t take much for the numbers to get very tight on a vote, and next time the Council meets it’s got a very controversial budget to put through.

    Local Tory has a couple of lovely lines, as always judiciously chosen, but he’s quite wrong here – full council is great fun and I look forward to it. It needs to be strongly chaired – standards did slip a bit in recent years and Jonathan has done a great job on pulling things back. I know it’s said that women councillors don’t like full council, and there are no excuses for heckling that means we can’t hear the speaker. But lively debate is surely part of what (to quote a very senior council officer) makes the difference between “local adminstration and local government”. (though the officer is question is rather sceptical about full council). Local government means local politicians, with all of the drawbacks of the political caste. Otherwise if you don’t have full council, debate seeps entirely to residents and voluntary sector meetings of different kinds.

    Re Adam Harrison’s point, I totally share Baroness Eaton’s concerns about the hectoring approach of DCLG ministers.

    The current financial situation probably doesn’t make full councils better. The sheer level of cuts makes it harder for parties to differentiate themselves. And it brings a level of salience to the blame game which is totally unhelpful. I’m up for defending government cuts and the fact is any Camden adminstration would in the current situation having to be making broadly similar cuts.

    It is undoubtedly true that the

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  10. Richard Osley // January 27, 2011 at 1:29 pm // Reply

    To Adam: Not sure trailling a two minute speech – two minutes! – makes editorial sense at our end.

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    • Adam Harrison // January 30, 2011 at 9:56 pm // Reply

      I didn’t suggest you trail individual speeches, now, did I? My point was that most ppl won’t know that cllrs have this slot to speak up for local issues. It might well be of interest to learn that for residents, who may then want to hear what’s being said, or lobby for their local issue to be heard in full council.

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