When I was first elected to South Kesteven District Council eight years ago, my motivation was to improve services for residents, especially for the poor, the old, the young and the vulnerable, and also to improve and protect the global and local environment.
I had not expected to spend so much time trying to extract information which should rightly be in the public domain. Deliberate attempts to hide spending and obscure decision-making have made it difficult for councillors, or anyone else, to hold the Conservative Cabinet to account. Is is abundantly clear that they HATE scrutiny.
It’s not all bad news. During the last four years, SKDC have started recording meetings which has been invaluable in holding people to account for what they say (including me!). Mrs Thatcher would have approved because one of her first acts as a Member of Parliament was to introduce legislation to ensure the press and public had access to meetings; this is most ironic given the extent to which SKDC Tories use workshops and group meetings to try to avoid public scrutiny.
We will have a different council after the local elections on 4th May. Hopefully we will have far more Independents and a chance to change. Here are some ideas for how to improve scrutiny and decision-making at SKDC.
1. Ensure public questions are allowed at the start of all council meetings, committee meetings and workshops.
2. With the possible exception of Full Council meetings, allow members of the public to turn up to ask questions on the day, rather than having to submit them in writing the day before. This was the case until last year when the Conservatives decided to put barriers in the way of public questions. There was never a long queue of questions and the new rule was merely a means of protecting slow-witted councillors from embarrassing themselves by exposing their ignorance. Any pro-active Councillor should welcome questions about service provision even when they don’t have an immediate answer.
3. Supplementary questions from members of the public at Full Council were banned last year. They should be re-instated. People don’t want to drive 30 miles to be fobbed off with an answer prepared by an officer in advance of the meeting.
4. Open questions to Cabinet members at committees and council meetings should be encouraged not stifled.
5. Workshops should be open to attendance by members of the public (unless discussing commercial or personally sensitive information). I have recently been denied access to workshops as a councillor, let alone as a member of the public. On one occasion I was told that the workshop was ‘not a formal meeting’ even though it was set up at the behest of a council committee, held in a council office and attended by councillors and council officers!
6. Some meetings should be held in the evening to allow access to people who are not able to attend meetings during the day.
7. Some meetings should be held elsewhere than Grantham, especially if they are particular concern to a local community. When the Council was debating the future of the Deepings leisure centre, I asked for meetings to be held in the Deepings. This was considered ‘impossible’.
8. Workshops and committee meetings should occasionally invite expert witnesses to participate in deliberations. Sometimes, the Conservatives seem positively frightened at the prospect of hearing from anyone who actually knows anything about a given subject.
9. A general attitude of openness and honesty from councillors would be helpful. When Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) sent himself on a training course which included a stay in America and cost the council £6,000, he seemed determined to cover it up. It took a good deal of investigation by Phil Gadd (Ind) and I to unearth the details and, when we asked who had authorised the course, Cllr Cooke’s Cabinet colleagues performed verbal gymnastics to try to avoid responsibility. It would have been much easier to be upfront and come clean.
10. Finally, one measure which is beyond the control of the SKDC – The press have a responsibility to allow the truth to be told and it is disappointing that the Stamford Mercury have, until now, resisted printing opinion pieces from Independent councillors while allowing prominent Conservatives to use monthly columns to say pretty much whatever they like. I hope this imbalance will be redressed after the election.
None of this is going to happen unless a big chunk of the South Kesteven Conservative group is removed from office in May. If you want better, more open decision-making, vote for decent Independent candidates.