Meeting makeover: Will reboot of broken council meetings work?

CAMDEN Council trialled a new format for its all member meetings last night and whether you liked the new agenda or not, leader Georgia Gould’s push to try a new approach has to be welcome. You can see a zillion past posts as to why something needed to be done on these pages, but unlike the leaders who have gone before, Cllr Gould has taken the plunge.

It’s a risk, maybe one past administrations did not want to take, to field unscripted questions aimed directly at the leader and encouraging greater involvement from the public, which can lead to more unpredictable results than the Commons-lite banter between entrenched political rivals we’ve got used to. The full council meetings after all, ineffective as they have been over all these years, suit whichever party is in power by providing a veneer of scrutiny while wiling away three hours of the majority group congratulating itself.

In regard to the leader’s face-the-public gamble, one backbencher told me that it was all very well comparing Cllr Gould’s saintly resolve to change things with the past, but recent leaders have not enjoyed the same position of strength, with Labour’s large majority at hand and the prospect of expanding the party’s lead in Camden at May’s council elections ahead. She, they put simply, can take carefree risks without any worries that Labour will lose power. A blow-up every now and then at an all member meeting is unlikely to cause lasting damage.

The new set-up – on trial for one night only, and to be reviewed later today – saw eight members of the public add their views to the discussion on how to tackle Camden’s polluted air, a themed debate and then a quiz the leader session. The meeting reached the last section, the motion debates, completing all three, which is a real rarity. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there were no obits or deputations at the start of the meeting, but it seemed there was an opportunity here for this approach to be more productive in the future, or at least lead to more meaningful debates – and votes.

There was a couple of vociferous dissenters: the Conservatives Oliver Cooper (pictured on his feet, above) and Andrew Mennear, the longest-serving Tory left on the council. In fact, Cllr Mennear found himself interrupting the session, clearly irritated by the changes, maybe more than you might expect given he is standing down at the next election. He won’t have to sit through too many more. He accused Cllr Gould of acting like an executive mayor as her cabinet watched on as she answered the questions. The traditional chance for opposition councillors to scrutinise council policy, they both said, was being eroded.

It’s understandable that some councillors will be concerned that some of these changes will eat into their speaking time and the limited opportunities they have to publicly challenge the ruling party’s most senior councillors. They fairly feel that this is one of the duties they have been elected to perform. The reality, however, is that the system was abused for so long that these apparently cherished moments for scrutiny were never actually of any use, drowned out by filibustering.

A good example would be the trend of one Labour councillor asking another how well the council does a good thing they already know about. The cabinet member then luxuriously takes their time explaining how good the good thing has been, often droning on from a couple of sides of A4 paper. Then the first councillor comes back with a supplementary question, essentially asking the same thing, to which the cabinet member, often with an Oscar winning straight face, recites even more evidence of the good thing being a good thing. You know, it’s embarrassing that so many councillors sponsored this charade for such a long time and why Cllr Gould, whether she gets it right or not, is right to discuss reform with other parties and her own.

If these kind of sections to the meeting had been more effective, then maybe Cllr Mennear and other dissenters would have a more persuasive point. When I suggested this to him last night, he suggested that the format was fine, but had been undermined by the chairing mayors who had indulged speakers rather than regulated them over the years.

The new look does have its own dangers which will need to be addressed. It’s true that there is a risk we may hear less from backbenchers, whose airtime is already on a timer. What’s more, who decides which members of the public get to join the debate? Councillors qualify by getting elected, but who will be in charge of the approval/veto process for the civilians. Should they also be asked to clarify if they are members of a political party, so we can assess how stoogey they may be? The decision of which subjects are chosen for the themed debate is also key, so who gets to decide the topic? Cllr Gould is believable when she says she is willing to face tighter scrutiny, but will future leaders allow the opposition to have to such a stake in how this all works?

And here lies the problem for Camden and its meetings, and its democratic processes as a whole: for what do any of these changes mean if Labour has no opposition and there is nobody to have the above discussions with. If Labour capture target seats in Swiss Cottage, Fortune Green, Highgate, Swiss Cottage and Belsize at the local elections in the May, and the opposition is slashed to around six councillors, it may not matter how the meetings are set up. We will be back to Labour councillors asking about that good thing again…

%d bloggers like this: