Let the public in: A few ideas Camden might want to borrow from Islington

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EVERY time someone dare says what potentially the majority of councillors think, that Camden’s full council meeting is no longer fit for purpose, there is a vague promise from up top of a review and future reform.

Laid bare, and this is not a new complaint, the dysfunctional all-member session has lost most of its meaning, swamped in squabbles or ego trip speeches. The public have reacted with their feet, evidenced by the dwindling numbers up in the gallery and deputations. When the public do get to talk, it could be said they are more or less rushed out of the door, or at least met with rigid opinions. 

And with a large, whipped Labour majority – the majority is of course not the fault of Labour’s leadership – it has become even more tedious. It means two thirds of the meeting, at least, will be filled up with aching back-patting and Labour backbenchers inviting cabinet colleagues to tell everyone how great they’ve been. And, while there are grumbles about how pointless this charade is, everyone just puts up with it. It means Labour seniors are saved from any risk of potential embarrassment by having to discuss and vote on awkward topics, but at the cost of any real, meaningful debate. 

Now, I’m aware that Camden are getting a little of tired of being pointed in the direction of their neighbours in Islington, who beat Camden to the punch on building new council homes and enforcing a boroughwide 20 miles per hour. Labour councillors take it personally if they are told too often about the ideas being tried out across the border.

But Camden could do a lot worse than digesting what happened in Islington last night, where councillors seem aware that Labour’s ugly majority – they hold every seat but one – risks eliminating any chance of debate and scrutiny. So they have agreed to shake things up, now. They haven’t just promised to look at things, finding the long grass in the process. Five months from election day, a vote sailed through agreeing to implement constitutional changes.

It all means that Islington Council will now, with the decent aim of ‘broadening representative democracy’, have an hour of public questions at each full council meeting.

The changes will also see:

* The council leader hosting a series of Question Time-style events to take further public questions throughout the year

* A report at each full council meeting from a Youth Council teenage

and, this one is really interesting:

* A new system for online petitions whereby 1,000 signatures score an official response from councillors, while 2,000 trigger a debate at the Town Hall

While Camden has been forever promising that never-seen review, it seems Islington are at least going to take the plunge. It will be worth evaluating their success.


6 Comments on Let the public in: A few ideas Camden might want to borrow from Islington

  1. In my view, the destruction of local democracy was accelerated when Tony Blair, aided by people like Andrew Adonis, decided that local councils should be taken down a peg or two. He was terrified of the impact of the so-called ‘loony left, (eg Margaret Hodge’s Islington Council), and with legislation that was not even trailed in the 1997 election manifesto, abolished the Committee system. This meant that all the decision-making was in the hands of an Executive and Cabinet. It squeaked through Parliament at the end of a session thanks to a last minute betrayal in the Lords by the Lib Dems.
    The change meant that back-benchers and particularly opposition councillors had no chance of influencing policy, at least not in public. With the centralisation of power they were marginalised. I knew many people then who said, “why bother to stand?” Fortunately the other gem, directly elected Mayors, never got off the ground.
    Many people now filling the councillor seats in Camden Town Hall have no idea what a contribution they could have made if they had got there 15 years before. Islington must be congratulated for even these small reforms.

  2. There are some interesting ideas here – I don’t recognise the darker competitive motives you ascribe between the boroughs at the start. Both boroughs but have a really good track record on building new council housing, the environment and we almost always work on issues in concert and will do more of this in the future. But hey – if you say we compete on building new council homes that can’t be a bad thing if we do!

    I like the report from the youth rep – Camden has a very successful Youth MP network. I especially like the petition structure for a debate: there must be a better role for technology – we are using the http://www.voxup.co.uk/camdenchallenge resource which was developed by local residents for our budget consultation: I think that has worked quite well. But at the moment to get a response from councillors on any issue here all you need to do is a deputation rather than gain signatures (am I missing something?).

    That said I fear you miss a bit of Camden history about how we got here. Until 2006, when the Tories and Lib Dems took charge, Camden had a very successful scrutiny system which engaged members of the public on issues such as youth clubs, anti-social behaviour, parking etc.The council had 6-9 month panels and produced reports which really got under the bonnet of matters, and in some cases drove policy in controversial areas. The press turned up to the meetings and reported on them – there’s much less of that these days. The powerful cross-party Overview and Scrutiny Commission oversaw council performance and met before every Executive there was a Question Time held in venues across the borough by the Leader and Executive.

    In 2006 this was all ended by a new system which proposed a partial restoration the old committees, but did not do anything of the sort. In my view backbenchers of all parties and the public lost out by the removal of many good policy-making aspects the panels had. In any case committees following old 1980/90s service departments don’t reflect how the council actually works on the big issues like support for parents, crime, poverty or jobs: the areas where councils gained new powers over the last decade.

    It’s always been my personal view that Full Council meetings are also in need of a rethink, and there is work going on around this to review things. As with any formal meeting there will always be an element of the early 20th century around some of the business done there – just as a community group or business AGM has a certain amount of procedure. But I agree that doesn’t mean things can’t change and colleagues should look at what Islington and other boroughs are doing and vice versa.

    • Richard Osley // October 18, 2014 at 7:15 pm //

      The targeted scrutiny panels – drugs, late night licensing, school run… – in my opinion were good investigations and backbenchers tended to show more freedom in criticising, where necessary, council policy. There were good cross-party collaborations, where the common good was put above a chase for votes.

      It’s a fair debate. Although regardless of what else exists for public engagement, area forums, digital inclusion etc, it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be reform for the full council. We can’t just say: ‘yeah, we know this is a bit crap, but you can go here instead…’

      On the point about getting a response from councillors, it’s true deputations do get this – but there are occasions where I think a lot of people feel the issues deserve longer time than the traffic lights system in place. There is a feeling that the public deputations can feel hurried out the door after getting a pre-written answer from a cabinet member, of which the question and answer exchange has made no difference at all.

      Some of the issues could even merit an unwhipped hour long debate, or more.

      What Islington must be careful of, though, and Camden, if it adopts the same changes, is that these new opportunities are no manipulated, cynically, for partisan politics (potentially by members of political parties) and that they are taken up in the spirit they are met.

  3. Rebuild Faith // October 18, 2014 at 8:33 pm //

    Are you guy’s discussing Democracy in Control or Controlled Democracy – in Local Politics
    Camden and Islington both have a huge Labour Majority – there is no debate even amongst equals.
    For proper representation we need balanced views and involved Party’s must all have equal input into decision making.
    It would be a good start to have un-whipped debates and decisions taken on merit instead of blindly following officer recommendations –
    everything is not ‘for the vote’.

    *Theo – pls. stop the ‘it’s them’ blame culture which has led to a total fall-out of public faith in the system.

  4. A worthy and interesting debate. My comments:

    Probably we all look back to a golden age when full council worked better. When I started in 1990 – when the political strengths in Camden were uncannily similar to today – it’s true that full council was rather livelier than now, and it spent a lot of time going through committee reports. But I don’t think it was fundamentally different actually. Majorities generally get their way, that’s democracy. When they don’t, as in the libraries vote (which I seconded), it’s big news. Personally I’d favour PR for local elections – most of the time, as in 2014, no party in Camden has gained a majority of votes. But was full council during the Partnership Administration so different from today? A bit perhaps.

    For me it would be better if more of full council was taken up with debate on, and scrutiny of, executive portfolios. The leader and cabinet have rather too much share of speaking time. But ironically, many of the items actually requiring full council consent, not just debate, often get nodded through.

    Islington’s ideas are no doubt interesting and suitable to its circumstances. But councils and should be different from each other – that’s localism.

    It may not be that exciting to the public, but at least part of the function of full council is for all councillors to become comfortable with the full range of council services, to get to know each other, and to get used to speaking in public.

    The fact is that ideological differences have, broadly, gone down compared with the 1980s. That, combined with the unprecedented austerity we now have to deal with, tends to mitigate against stirring or insightful debate, though most Camden residents are probably quite pleased that local government is rather more centrist.

    On Theo’s point about scrutiny: I don’t think that either the standing scrutiny committees or the OSC plus panels are perfect. And Theo, if you were so unhappy with the standing scrutiny bodies, you could easily have changed that back in the last council term! Both have their strengths, and these days officer time (and to be frank, councillor time) put practical limits on scrutiny, so we need to focus it effectively. I’d argue that standing scrutiny committees are better for ensuring that all new councillors start to get up to speed on broader areas of the council’s services, and thus can more easily serve in cabinet or leading opposition roles.

    We could do with the same custom as Parliament – that speeches should not be read. Listening to a speech being read out is painful, and happens too often.

    If cabinet members are responding to points in a debate, I really think they need to try and respond, at least in general terms, to all questions, rather than saying “I’ll respond in writing”. Mostly they’re not too bad, but we need to watch this, and the mayor should be a bit more activist on acting for the chamber when a cabinet member is being unresponsive (without getting Bercow like).

    The use of twitter has become a real problem, we should frankly try and regulate ourselves better on this. I’ve been an offender, not least because sometimes it’s easier to say things on twitter than in the chamber.. Councillors need to implement a self-denying ordinance to cut back on twitter during full council. I’m up for that.

    On the leaders speeches at the start – when we had four groups, it was perhaps acceptable for the leader of the council to have a right of reply. Now we have two groups, it’s a nonsense for the leader to have a chunky right of reply, that should be very short at most. And frankly we ought to do sometime to give some more rights to the LD and Green councillors, whose parties actually gained rather more votes than the distribution of seats suggests.

    • Mostly valid points here by Andrew, but I think the issue Richard poses is how well the public are engaged, not just elected councillors. Having panels which really looked at issues in depth involved a lot of direct public discussion and residents really helped shape policy in some quite contested areas.

      Why didn’t the system change in 2010? I don’t think we really discussed that then. Our first priority was dealing with a budget crisis because of large cuts/austerity. It also makes sense that new systems are allowed to bed down – just changing things when a new party gets to power doesn’t seem right. That’s said some enterprising Chairs have set up time-limited investigations into various issues.

      My personal view is that the 2006 system is in need of reform because of its association with monitoring the then government’s central performance regime (which the previous Chief Executive was quite keen cllrs focused on – certainly not a fan of the system I was talking about).

      I’ve always been in favour of a bit of both systems – ensuing traditional Town Hall accountability on performance and greater public involvement by involvement in actual deliberation.

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