Asking questions of West Berkshire Council
This is the second of two blog posts
discussing how, as citizens of West Berkshire and members of a political group, we might better scrutinise the decisions and actions of our district council. The first post looked at a recent complaint in which we acted with and on behalf of a member of the public. This one gives a little background – to our Newbury/West Berkshire constituency and to West Berkshire Council (WBC) – and goes on to consider the mechanisms we can use to increase scrutiny and improve local democracy.
We briefly discuss three questions:
- What information is available about WBC committees that are open to the public?
- How can we participate, and what’s it like to ask a question of councillors in a public meeting?
- Why should we, as a local political group, participate in local council meetings?
We live in a constituency that has been solidly Tory-voting since 2005, where the chance of winning in a general election can seem remote. But, because 8596 people gave us their vote in the last general election, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and with Alex Skirvin as our local candidate, we made a big leap in vote share – up in just two years from 8.4% (2015) to 14.1% (2017). We now rival the Liberal Democrats; whatever they may say, their chances of winning in a general election are around the same as ours, according to Baxter’s analysis. In terms of trajectory, in Newbury it’s Labour that’s on the up, with a sharply increasing level of support and every chance of winning local council seats. We are getting this message out to voters, preparing local candidates and challenging the cosy relationships that have characterised politics in West Berkshire for so long.
While it is of course the democratic will of the people to return almost entirely one party to local government in West Berkshire, it can feel frustrating for those of us who support other parties. So, we want to engage as a CLP with an important and accessible form of democracy: the management of our local resources and services by West Berkshire Council. The following are questions we think are useful starting points:
1. What information is available about WBC committees that are open to the public?
WBC has comprehensive webpages dedicated to informing the public about council meetings and ways to get involved. The information online is continually improving and is well worth a look. We’re lucky in having an excellent administrative team who, in our experience, answer questions swiftly and work hard to ensure we are able to participate as fully as possible.
The three committees open to the public are:
2. How can we participate, and what’s it like to ask a question of councillors in a public meeting?
We can all participate by keeping an eye on what’s being decided and by attending meetings: simply to observe or by sharing outcomes using social media or reporting back to All Members’ Meetings. As preparation for asking a question, it’s invaluable. Don’t expect too much – responses seem to be scripted, issues are closed down pretty quickly, and opportunities for self-congratulation are many! But you will soon see what a difference it makes to attend in a group and to press important points.
If you decide to submit a question, it’s very important to know the exact deadline for submission, as we have both experienced missing it by a whisker. There is absolutely no scope for negotiation. You are asked whether you prefer to attend the meeting to pose your question in person, or to receive a written response. It’s one or the other. Written answers should be received around a week after the meeting and if, like us, you struggle to attend meetings, then it may be the only option. There’s a lot of support from the administrative team.
Various ‘rules’ around how questions are expressed are set by councillors. See: Asking a Question at a Meeting. Only 30 minutes are set aside for the public part of meetings so there’s little time for discussion. There are also rules around the structure of the question; no ‘statement’ is allowed, and we have often been told how a question might be altered in order to be acceptable to councillors. For an example of several questions posed by Tom, check out his blogpost. We’re saddened by the rigidity and formality of council meetings, and at times what seems like downright pomposity: as a CLP Executive we see no good reason why questions are not allowed to be read out (spoken) by the questioner instead of the instructed “I ask my question as set out in the agenda”. We are arguing that this practice excludes and disadvantages people with, for example, visual problems, literacy difficulties or dyslexia. We’ve asked too why meetings can’t be livestreamed – see how Cambridge does it here. These barriers are in contrast though to the warmth and cheer of other members of the public who attend. We do our best to make sure there are a few of us around to support each other and often retire to a local hostelry to reflect on events.
3. Why should we, as a local political group, participate in local council meetings?
We’re all pulled in a dozen different directions at once – you may ask, why should we even try to spend precious time getting to grips with what the council is doing, when getting anything changed can feel so tough? And why would we want to stand out, or seem to cause trouble, when doing so can feel lonely and risky? Well we need only look at the frightening situation in Northamptonshire to see the consequences of a total failure of local government. And we need to act together as a strong and vibrant group, to understand priorities and where we can make most difference. When we work in this way we see real dividends.
We are, too, members of a political party that opposes the Tory’s failed austerity project, and we need to see its implementation up close to understand just how short-termist and deeply destructive a project it really is. We are preparing for local council elections in May 2019, offering a radical alternative, and need to be fully aware of just how precarious and flawed the Tory plans really are.
Finally, we need to scrutinise WBC’s work in the real sense of democratic public engagement and activism. The term ‘scrutiny’ has a narrow meaning in local authorities and WBC’s scrutiny process is typical in that one group of councillors examines the decisions of fellow councillors. We are learning how this works and want to know more. We understand that when there is dispute, councillors may choose to ‘call-in’ a decision for scrutiny. Members of the public are not allowed to do so but can ask their councillor – however there is opportunity to attend scrutiny meetings and suggest topics. We didn’t know this before!
So, scrutiny of our local councillors is carried out by our local councillors, with scope for us to prompt the process. Although Executive members cannot be involved in scrutiny, the minimal opposition on WBC is just one more reason why having a council dominated by one political group is so problematic. A recent report by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee concluded that a “culture change” is needed within local authorities, to ensure scrutiny is genuinely independent from executive members and to improve services for taxpayers. Many specific recommendations are made and are well worth investigating, but our specific interest is in recommendation 18 that states:
“The Government should promote the role of the public in scrutiny in revised and reissued guidance to authorities and encourage council leaderships to allocate sufficient resources to enable it to happen. Councils should also take note of the issues discussed elsewhere in this report regarding raising the profile and prominence of the scrutiny process, and in so doing encourage more members of the public to participate in local scrutiny. Consideration also need to be given to the role of digital engagement, and we believe that local authorities should commit time and resources to effective digital engagement strategies. The LGA should also consider how it can best share examples of best practise of digital engagement to the wider sector. (Paragraph 82)”
From very personal perspectives, as we write, it does not feel easy challenging our council, or even asking for information or improvements. We’ve found it tricky and time consuming. How much more daunting must it be to question something with life changing consequences, or deeply personal and private, or which you are simply struggling to understand?
So it’s vital we begin, in however small a way, to understand and hold to account this thing called ‘the council’, and to connect the social problems we see around us to their decisions to cut services, and in turn to the Coalition and Tory governments’ failed austerity regime. Let’s be ready to do as the Select Committee recommends and become part of scrutinising the work of WBC – wherever it takes us.
Julie Wintrup, Treasurer Newbury CLP
Tom Tunney, VC Membership, Newbury CLP