HOW will Camden’s scrutiny committees function now the council is more lop-sided in favour of Labour councillors than ever before? If the recent round of meetings are a guide, it looks like numbers could be a problem. The Culture and Environment Scrutiny Committee last week for example was down to such bare bones, a gang of only four, that when its only Conservative membe disappeared without putting up his hand to ask if he could go to the toilet, the meeting was no longer quorate.
Labour’s Heather Johnson was stopped in full flow. The webcam was paused. Presumably Councillor Henry Newman had not felt the need to declare his comfort break, or whatever he was doing off-camera, but it left the remaining panel sighing loudly as they speculated as to whether he was coming back or not.
More generally, after Labour gains at May’s local elections there is now real pressure on a relatively small group of opposition councillors trying to track Camden’s every move, thinly spread as they are across the diary of meetings at the Town Hall. While Labour has endless supply of substitutes that could be called up if necessary, the Tories are having to rotate the same faces across committees. That could get weary, especially for those subbed into meetings they may not have expected they would be needed at, leaving them with little time to eat the agenda.
Perhaps even more relevant as to how many councillors actually show up to these meetings – the missing members at the culture and environment scrutiny committee no doubt had fair apologies for their absence – is whether Labour councillors will be willing to challenge or even criticise council policy in open play.
Any internal concerns that Labour members hold have nearly always already been discussed to some degree within the group, privately, before we get to the public forum of a scrutiny committee, or via emails/Whatsapp messages to cabinet members. Councillors are then understood to feel wary about needing to conduct a ‘stageshow’ in which they ask questions they already know the answers to or risk revealing a difference of position.
Labour councillor Paul Tomlinson had a little peep over the parapet at last week’s meeting, criticising Camden’s waste contract in similar tones to those we’ve heard from the Tories and Lib Dems in recent months. Ward before party, he sounded very frustrated when said residents in his area had been let down by the new arrangements and called for a review. It’s still something of a rarity, however, for such pointed criticism from a Labour councillor of a contested Labour policy to be heard by public ears. They won the seats, they earned the power, but even more rare to see is Labour’s chief councillors change a major policy due to what’s been said or heard during the official scrutiny process.