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Their Worst Nightmare?

Their Worst Nightmare?It was Friday, and the Rt Hon St Eric Pickles was at it again.

He does love his Friday 'good news' announcements.

Having finished his week 'on a high', and maybe rested a bit on Saturday, we have this mental picture of him in the countryside just North East of the M25, strolling down to the village pub on a Sunday morning, wearing a happy smile; anticipating a pre-lunch pint, and being greeted by a pub full of happy, grateful folk when he gets there.

We see him in much the same mould as many people regard Boris Johnson, but in St Eric's case, we see understated good judgement about what the electorate want - and a lot less buffoonery.

We also think he is grossly undervalued - and too often overridden - in Government (as, we believe, happened with both Queensway and with much of the 'planning legislation' that is now being driven by the George Osborne, the Treasury and the Lib Dems, in a desperate (and inevitably futile) attempt to get 'growth' going again so they have half a chance of being re-elected). We look at this in more detail in our next article.

But back to St Eric's latest announcement. He sent out a Press Statement.

It is headed "Town Hall Doors Unlocked To Social Media And Bloggers" and it follows his making of Statutory Regulations that will "introduce greater openness and transparency in executive councils meetings will mean all decisions including those affecting budgets and local services will have to be taken in an open and public forum"

The gloriously named "Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012" will come into force on 10th September, and will extend the rights of people to attend all meetings of a council's executive, its committees and subcommittees.

The existing 'media' definition will be broadened to cover organisations that provide internet news, thereby opening up councils more to local online news outlets (such as counterbalance). Individual councillors will also have stronger rights to scrutinise the actions of their council.

However, the list of 'exempt items' remains.

(There has long been a list of topics which Councils may use to exclude the press and public from hearing if they vote to do so, and that list isn't going to change as a result of the new Regulations.

Readers can follow this link to see the list of exempt items)

So sadly, it's not as big a change as we might have hoped for, (and Council officers will still be able to insert unnecessary personal details about someone, or some spurious contractual information into a 'sensitive' or 'difficult' report in order to justify excluding press and public), but there are changes that will make it more difficult for meetings to be held behind closed doors. For example, where a whole meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council must now justify *why* that meeting is to be closed, and give 28 days notice of such decision. Many will struggle to do this.

St Eric himself says "Every decision a council takes has a major impact on the lives of local people so it is crucial that whenever it takes a significant decision about local budgets that affect local communities whether it is in a full council meeting or in a unheard of sub-committee it has got to be taken in the full glare of all the press and any of the public.

Margaret Thatcher was first to pry open the doors of Town Hall transparency. Fifty years on we are modernising those pioneering principles so that every kind of modern journalists can go through those doors - be it from the daily reporter, the hyper-local news website or the armchair activist and concerned citizen blogger - councils can no longer continue to persist with a digital divide."

He goes on to quote Chris Taggart, of 'Openly Local' who has long championed the need to open council business up to public scrutiny, and who St Eric reports as saying....

"In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under 100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings."

That logic will shock a lot of councils.

Both Fylde BC, and many of our Town and Parish Councils, have regulations that specifically prohibit the recording of any part of their meetings by the public or by councillors. And when we went to Blackpool Town Hall to report the Marton Moss Decision, the committee chairman there publicly threatened us with ejection from the public gallery for taking an unobtrusive photograph of the scene in the Council chamber (no flash) of democracy in action, as councillors debated the issue.

It will be interesting to see if those situations change now.

The main provisions of the new regulations are

A PRESUMPTION IN FAVOUR OF OPENNESS:
The new regulations create a presumption that all meetings of the executive, its committees and subcommittees are to be held in public (unless a narrowly defined legal exception applies). In practice this situation is mostly the same as before except that there is now an explicit presumption in favour of openness, and suspect reasons for secrecy - such as "political advice" that some councils (not Fylde) were citing for exclusion, are now prohibited reasons for exemption.

NEW LEGAL RIGHTS FOR CITIZEN REPORTERS:
Local authorities will be obliged to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers. St Eric says that this will make it easier for new 'social media' reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyper local news forums. We suspect this move is not going to prove universally popular with councils.

HOLDING PRIVATE MEETINGS:
In the past, council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice.

This has happened at Fylde - perhaps historically not on a significant scale - but the trend has been in the wrong direction.

However, as we recently reported in 'Housing Numbers' we were very concerned when The Local Development Framework Steering Group was holding meetings in secret. (We're still pursuing the right to have those meetings and their minutes and agenda made public).

But more recently, the Cabinet has taken to holding what it calls 'Informal Meetings' and these do not have papers published, nor is the public given notice of the meeting, and thus the opportunity for the public to attend is denied.

It appears to us that the Cabinet holds these 'informal meetings'  where real discussion might take place, then it holds a public version of the meeting where there is little or no debate or discussion. The agenda item is simply read out or introduced; someone makes  short speech about it (usually saying how wonderful they are for being concerned about it); then a unanimous vote is taken.

This is a travesty of democracy of course and, more especially,it prevents the electorate from knowing the views and beliefs that are held by councillors who subsequently seek their vote.

But in future, where a meeting is to be held in private, the executive or committee must now provide 28 days notice during which the public may make representations about why the meeting should be held in public.

And in urgent cases (where the notice requirements for a private meeting cannot be met and an agreement of the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or chairman of the relevant local authority has been obtained), the decision making body must publish a notice 'as soon as reasonably practicable' explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred.

This measure might well cause greater openness than before.

LESS RED TAPE FOR COUNCILS:
Some internal bureaucracy introduced by the last Government about 'key decisions', quarterly reports and 'forward plans'. has been abolished. And instead, a less rigorous document has to be published.

SPECIAL URGENT DECISION:
Where it is impossible to meet the publication requirements before a key decision is made, and an agreement has been obtained from the chairman of the overview and scrutiny committee of the authority, the decision maker must publish a notice to explain the reasons why the making of the decision is urgent. Previously no notice was required.

STRONGER RIGHTS OF INDIVIDUAL COUNCILLORS:
Where an executive has a document that contains materials relating to a business that will be discussed at a public meeting, members of the local authority have additional rights to inspect such a document at least five days before the meeting. Previously no timescale existed.

STRONGER RIGHTS FOR SCRUTINY MEMBERS:
Where the executive decides not to release the whole or part of a document to a member of an overview and scrutiny committee as requested by a councillor, it must provide a written statement to explain the reasons for not releasing such document.

PUBLICATION REQUIREMENT:
Publication of any notice by a decision-making body or a proper officer; or any document in relation to a key decision or public meeting and background papers must be on the relevant local authority's website.

So what does all this add up to?

Well in reality, we think not that much will change at Fylde. For all our criticism, Fylde is less bad than some other councils  who have taken to selectively excluding people who produce adverse reports of their meetings, and using dubious reasons such as 'political advice' as a reason for excluding the press and public from meetings generally.

But although it might not be the worst, Fylde still has much room for improvement when it comes to openness and transparency. Things have improved a little since the new Chief Executive Allan Oldfield took the helm, but with the awful and flawed Cabinet system still in place, power and information is concentrated into too few hands, and we will never have proper, one-councillor-one-vote and the absolute right for Councillors to speak on any item.

So whilst the changes are not momentous, they do mark a direction that is to be welcomed, and it might make it a bit easier for counterbalance to get at the information some would prefer not to be published

Dated:  26 August 2012


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