The escapee

FULL COUNCIL 16/11
Town Hall, Judd Street

IMG_4153THE head of democratic services at Camden Council, of all people, is spinning a quite outrageous lie in the corridors of the Town Hall. Asha Paul is going around telling people that she is 60, and therefore can retire.

Last night, we were told, was to be Asha’s final full council meeting before she heads off to spend more time with her grandchild. As this tall tale was circulated to councillors by the Mayor, Asha flooded herself in tears as the politicians stood and applauded her contribution of more than 36 years of service… and presumably the audacity of developing such a shaggy dog story about her age. I could not help but steal a selfie with a woman so brazenly sticking to her story.

Sixty – come now. Nobody gets to 60, and looks that good. Correction: Nobody gets to 60, and looks that good if they have spent years and years at the front table of Camden’s full council meetings, this dreary festival of half-hearted point-scoring and sucky cue-ups. People age in front of your eyes at these meetings, not escape the room dazzling; looking 40 while claiming to be 60.

Appropriately, Asha’s last meeting was an almost perfect illustration of why Camden’s full council meetings remain in dire need of revival if they are to ever be more than an inconvenient obligation. Like kids at a family dinner that has gone on too long, the front bench of Labour cabinet councillors look particularly fatigued. The opposition look across the carpet and see the tops of their heads almost permanently buried in iPads and smartphones. Occasionally, one of the executive members gets up to urge the Tories to join them in a crusade against one central government policy or another, and then sits back down to the glow of their tablets.

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In return, the Conservative benches sometimes look as if they may have benefited from a dress rehearsal. On one vote, their finance spokesman, Don Williams, wasn’t quite sure if he was voting against or abstaining. Dynamite laughed off his indecision amid predictable heckles from Theo Blackwell. Later, Siobhan Baillie misread a prompt from a colleague to ask about child obesity and asked about child abuse instead.

No surprises then that at a presentation given by some of the teenagers which Camden looks after as corporate parents – a genuinely worthwhile section of the evening – the youngsters had said they had found the councillors not to be ‘serious’ or ‘intimidating’. We can only hope it was not considered a treat for them to be taken to the public gallery after they had spoken to watch some of the meeting unfold. Even a 16-year-old could surely see through this haze of clock-watching.

As the numbers watching upstairs quickly decreased (no doubt, the masses now watch live on the webcast), it was not until Flick Rea had a mid-meeting nip of ginger ale that the wax came to life. With customary theatrics, she launched into a tirade about Camden’s plan to close public conveniences, particularly in West Hampstead where she said that a mystery ‘somebody’ had been trying to close down the loos since 2002.

‘There are some bodily functions you can’t do on the internet’ was a good line, a sort of one-two jab on Camden’s rush to get everybody to do their business online and the fact some residents are not happy that public toilets are now on the never-ending cuts list. Ahead of publication, this week’s New Journal letters page postbag suggests a significant level of discontent. Flick said there would be a fight if anybody tried to turn the West End Lane lavs into a ‘nail bar’ or a ‘cocktail bar’. She’s mistaken. It’s West Hampstead. It’ll be converted into an estate agents.

Oliver Cooper, the Tory, was also lively, having been provoked into one of his dramatic set pieces in which he explains Conservative policy on housing and the Labour members, as if shocked by where their opponents stand on the issue, groan with fresh animation. He had been brought to his feet by a Labour motion attacking the government’s controversial housing bill. Yes, folks, a meeting which normally fillibusters its way to ten o’clock so that motions attacking Camden Labour are never heard, suddenly had found time for TWO of them.

IMG_2359Only a cynic would suggest that the pace had quickened so that Labour could get here, the second motion, ten minutes directly attacking the government dressed up as a debate. It’s fake to suggest such an issue can be dealt with in less than ten minutes. Yet, as if equally deadened by the two hours and 50 minutes that had gone before and the number of times they had heard ‘thank you for your excellent report’, even the proposers seemed ready for their cocoa. ‘This is the fight of our lives’, whispered Labour’s Danny Beales.

Now, you could say this assessment of the meeting comes from journalists who are only attracted to the shouty-ranty speeches; the headline noise rather than the substance. You might fairly say that some of us have been honking out the press box for too long for our own good. But it’s not a question about whether the reporters are sat in the corner of the chamber wondering where it all went wrong, whether its too late to retrain as a Buzzfeed list-maker, the councillors themselves look visibly tired of it all themselves.

I can almost hear Conservative Andrew Marshall typing out a comment which disagrees, but they could re-energise themselves by changing the format to one which either leads to either greater interaction with the public or one that holds a genuine debate. At the moment, the public continue to stay away. This isn’t to say residents should be crowding the gallery hanging on every word; more that they don’t come to talk to the councillors. In all of Camden, and with all of the problems and issues that are out there, nobody, other than the teaching union, thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to raise their worries and concerns in front of the all-member meeting.

The lack of genuine discussion is also a killer. Instead of talking about almost everything for a little bit, they could talk about one or two things for longer, and more seriously. There could be 40 minutes or one hour set aside for an actual debate on a single subject. At the moment, a wide topic is pegged for the agenda, the cabinet councillor involved delivers their excellent report and then the rest ask them questions. On virtually every single occasion, there are so many questions that the department chief has no time to answer them all and ends up pledging to email a response to the unanswered. There are no opportunities for follow up questions.

Both of these suggested changes, however, would require the ruling Labour group to give a little, take a risk. Public interaction and longer debates comes with the prospect of being more thoroughly challenged. It can be awkward dealing with an angry member of the public. Similarly, longer, more searching debates on single issues are harder to sidestep and circumnavigate. An element of control would be lost, but, you know, if they have confidence in what they are offering us, this shouldn’t even be the slightest concern.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for Asha to see anything better.

Her service surely deserved a better soundtrack, but they’ve been talking about changing the structure of the meeting for as long as anybody knows without actually doing it. After a lifetime of listening to this hum, she’s off to spend her 40s in retirement; a blessed escaped. Like prisoners left in the clink, watching enviously as a long-serving inmate finally sees the front doors open and their first look at the beautiful outside again, there must have been one or two she leaves behind in the chamber – officers and councillors – jealously wondering when their own release date will come.

7 Comments on The escapee

  1. Asha has certainly weathered well. As someone who has also 1) reached 60 this year and 2) escaped the 3-hour Council bore-fest courtesy of those compassionate voters of West Hampstead, I can only say that life does change for the better at this age. Having also moved from Camden I now have time to discover the joys of gardening, and to find that the arts and culture also flourish in the suburbs. Last night I saw my first ever ballet performed by a Russian company at Harrow Arts Centre at a fraction of the cost of a performance in Central London. While Flick will carry on for ever, quite a few of the Liberal Democrat group that led Camden in 2006 have already discovered life does get better after withdrawing from Camden politics.

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  2. Keith Sedgwick // November 17, 2015 at 10:15 am // Reply

    Richard, you are joy-monger! Goodness me!

    Look, in all seriousness, within, this doom-laden observation, there is an element of truth; but only a slight one at that. The point that you’ve not addressed, is that the Council Chamber is a reflection of the body politic, outside.

    A despondent Labour group reflects the despair felt by its elected members towards the party’s current leader. The lack of preparation by Camden’s opposition, reflects the complacency felt by the party of government’s elected members, in the face of such a despondent opposition. As for the Lib-Dems, well, Bryant’s banishment to the periphery of the metropolis stands as a wonderful metaphor for the party’s current position!

    I’ll always contest that we get the politicians we deserve. Sure, the Camden Councillors should be held to account for their conduct, but ultimately it was the electorate who who put them in the Town Hall. That makes you, who wields a vote of equal worth to that wielded by any other resident of the borough, jointly culpable for the state we are in.

    By the way, as ever, a great heckle from the cheap seats!

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    • Richard Osley // November 17, 2015 at 10:36 am // Reply

      Thanks Keith,

      I think you have misinterpreted what I say just a little. I don’t bunch all of Camden’s councillors and suggest incompetence. Rather, I admire the dedication many of them put in, often when juggling work and personal life. You can’t judge individual councillors on the poor state of the full council meeting, it’s just one duty in the brief of being an elected representative. Who cares if one of them doesn’t speak at all but motors effectively through their casework, helping real life people.

      I simply question, however, why they happily put up with the way the full council is structured when they all look painfully bored, or seem more interested in what’s going on on their iPads. At the end, everyone agrees nithung has really been achieved, that it’s been dull…, and then the date of the next meeting is agreed.

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  3. Very best wishes to Asha on her retirement, having made an outstanding contribution to the wheels of local democracy here.

    Since Richard mentioned me, I’ll try not to disagree with him. In truth I don’t think there are easy answers. Yes, full council agendas could and should be reformed to focus on fewer bigger issues. But where a party has a healthy majority on the council – and where that party is in opposition nationally – it naturally sets up a more hackneyed, ya-boo style. When the numbers on the council are tighter, or where the same party is in power locally and nationally, you get more interesting dynamics (the library vote that Lab lost was when it was in power nationally, and at the same time you had differences within Labour locally on the shift to cabinet system). Some would argue that an elected mayor gives clearer point of decision-making for the public. Others (and I have much sympathy for this) think PR would make all parties competitive across the borough and thus increase interest in full council. (though I am not sure the evidence from Scotland on this is very strong). Compared to most parts of the UK, civic engagement in Camden isn’t at all bad, though challenged by ongoing demographic trends with perhaps less stable communities in many places in Camden.

    Anyway well done to Richard as well on his incredible commitment to coverage of Camden affairs. Things could be worse. I pass on here a comment from the leading American columnist David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who I was privileged to hear last week on the future of local journalist:

    “For years the purpose of the Newark Star-Ledger was to investigate the Mayor of Newark and to make sure that ultimately he went to jail, as every mayor of Newark in fact did for 30 years. Now the Star-Ledger doesn’t have the resources for that role – and the question is whether a citizen-run blog can achieve the same role of holding power to account”. On that note, long live the New Journal, and long live English Local Government!

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    • Richard Osley // November 17, 2015 at 4:42 pm // Reply

      Ok, you are all constantly and diligently checking the council papers on your ipads (… just to double check facts that you had already when read when you read the papers before the meeting I guess).

      But let’s just imagine, just for argument sake, how it would feel if you got up to speak in the full council meeting – for one of your big set plays – and every councillor was staring at their tablets in this way. My guess is that you’d not feel great. It’d be natural for you to feel that way, if you found yourself addressing a room of only bowed heads.

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