How many meetings does it take to change a lightbulb?

In April 2018, a leadership coup within the Conservative group led to a restructure of the SKDC Executive and committee system. The restructure increased the size of the Cabinet and increased the numbers of committees which, in turn, increased the cost of Members’ Special Allowances (e.g. for committee Chairs) by almost £50,000/year.

In an e-mail about car parking, one of the new Cabinet members informed me:

“There is a new administration in place.
An administration of doers rather than talkers”

Let me recount the journey the Council has taken, so far, towards making a decision about street lights and you can decide for yourself whether the Council has acheived an appropriate balance between ‘talking’ and ‘doing’.

The District Council is responsible for 3,593 streetlights which are independent of the County Council (plus a few more relating to Council housing). Many parish councils have more lights to add to the tally. You might wonder why we have three tiers of local government each managing similar services but the reasons why Lincolnshire’s Conservatives do not wish to abolish the County Council is a whole different story.

Meeting #1 – 23rd May 2017

The EnvOSC meeting was on 23rd May, and while considering their remit and work programme they agreed an action point:

“that street lighting should be an agenda item for the next meeting.”

Meeting #2 – 18th July 2017

The next meeting of ENVOSC received a report on Street Lighting from the relevant portfolio holder. The report included a 56-page appendix listing the location of each and every streetlight.

After some discussion, the Committee recommendation was as follows:

“That Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee consider the options available
at a future meeting and review further analysis on the options
in order to recommend a course of action to the cabinet.”

Meeting #3 – 26th September 2017

Despite the aforementioned decision, Street Lighting was not an agenda item for this meeting. However, I raised the issue as a matter arising from the minutes of the previous meeting. The committee was told:

“Tender specifications had been sent to three contractors and it was agreed that the tender specicification would be supplied to an interested Councillor (Ashley Baxter) by e-mail. Street lighting would be included on the Committee’s agenda for November 2017.”

After the meeting I had a telephone conversation with a confused officer who had not been invited to the meeting but had been given the task of sending me the tender specifications. This was difficult because no such specifications existed and consequently they hadn’t been sent to three contractors after all. There was a maintenance contract which was being reviewed but I agreed with the officer that this was not the same thing at all.

Meeting #4 – 5th December 2017

At the start of the meeting, the Chair of the meeting apologised that the ‘tender specifications for street lighting’ I had been promised were ‘unfortunately not available’.

We then proceeded to the next agenda item which concerned a report from the Chair on the subject of street lighting. The report proposed 5 options. The first four options involved turning off the lights between midnight and 5.30 each night. The fifth option was to do nothing at all.

I am pleased to say that I had done my homework before this meeting and circulated a spreadsheet of the options A-D with an additional proposal I called “Option X”. This option suggested replacing the lamps with energy efficient alternatives but keeping all the lights on during the hours of darkness.

You might think this would have been an ideal opportunity to read the report, discuss the options and make a decision. Unfortunately, the recommendation of the report was to hold a members’ workshop, behind closed doors, and report back to a public meeting at a later date.

The recommendation was:

That the Environment Overview & Scrutiny Committee considers the options
and propose a working group be convened to consider the options in more detail.

I voted against this recommendation because I could see no reason why a proper debate over street-lighting couldn’t have taken place immediately and in public.

Cllr Craft (SK Ind) agreed with me and, after voting against the proposal, declared the whole meeting a farce and walked out. This meeting was reported in the Grantham Journal.

After the meeting, I met with Officers in order to compare notes and ensure the figures I was proposing as Option X tallied with their figures they had used in their report (I am not counting this kind of informal meeting towards the total number of meetings)

A date of January 16th was agreed for the workshop but this was later postponed to the genuine illness of some of the would-be participants.

Meetings #6 – 25th January

During a Full Council meeting, Cllr Matthew Lee (Con) who is leader of the council, declared that he was not personally in favour of turning of SKDC street-lights overnight. This was a helpful comment because it sent a clear signal to his Conservative colleagues, and to Council officers, that a decision to turn off lights during the hours of darkness would not be warmly welcomed by cabinet. He was keen to point out that his comments reflected his own opinion and shouldn’t prejudice the decision of EnvOSC but thankfully they probably did just that.

Meetings #7 and #8 – 20th February 2018

The next public meeting EnvOSC was held at 10.30 and street lighting was not on the agenda although Cllr Craft reiterated his opinion that a workshop was unnecessary.

The public meeting was immediately followed by a members workshop. This was effectively a confidential meeting to discuss street-lighting options. However, I don’t think I betray any secrets if I recount that a) I personally argued that we should not consider any option which involved switching off the majority of streetslights during the hours of darkness; and b) the only meaningful decision of the confidential members workshop was to hold another confidential workshop!

Meeting #9 – 27th March 2018

Due to family commitments, I was unable to attend the second members workshop and I wouldn’t be allowed to report on the secret  meeting even if I had been there.

Meeting #10 – 24th April 2018

Finally, the Committee were able to to discuss a report explaining the street lighting issues resulting from the two previous secret workshops. This included a short appendix with a street lighting policy. The recommendation to Cabinet was to proceed with replacing existing lamps with LEDs as and when each light reaches the end of life.

Once again I had done my homework and rewritten the proposed street lighting policy to include a commitment to

“to ensure SKDC street lights provide illuination during the hours of darkness.”

I proposed that this revised draft of the policy (Street lighting policy amended) be recommended for adoption by the Council and I am pleased to say that, by a narrow majority, the Committee agreed with the recommendation.

Meetings #11 and beyond

The recommendations will now be handed over to the Cabinet who will consider the matter again, probably on 10th May 2018. Hopefully, they will respect the decision of the Overview & Scrutiny Group and adopt the Street Lighting Policy without significant amendment.

The policy includes a commitment that lighting is properly maintained, increasingly energy efficient and also that it should ‘provide illumination during the hours of darkness’. Five years ago, all this would have been taken for granted, but in Lincolnshire we have a Conservative County Council who have decided that lighting roads and footpaths at night is a luxury we cannot afford and consequently thousands of them are turned off around midnight each night.

After a year of meetings, South Kesteven appears is on the brink of deciding that street lights should provide illumination whenever it’s dark!

One thought on “How many meetings does it take to change a lightbulb?

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