At this month’s Draycott-in-the-Moors Parish Council meeting, held on October 20th, two councillors got up and abandoned the meeting – despite the fact that a hugely important issue which needed their input was due to take place. Why?
The answer is: no one quite knows…
Application to build 168 homes
Over fifty residents had packed the church hall for the meeting – because a major item listed on the agenda was a discussion of the planning application for a new housing estate & business park in Cresswell. Some 168 homes could be built on the Blythe Park site. Many of the residents, though not all, were bitterly opposed to the plans.
(As it was, the discussion was deferred to next month’s meeting, on November 17th, in order to allow time for a full public meeting and a proper exhibition of the plans – details of that public meeting will be released by the parish council shortly).
The walk-out by the two councillors came about at the start of the evening
just as a member of the public, Shelagh Wood, started video-recording the proceedings.
A new law brought in by the government last month allows for the public to film council meetings.
One of the councillors, John Ford, objected to the filming – but it was pointed out to him that the filming was quite legal. Mr Ford said that he was “a volunteer” and did not see why he should be filmed. He got up and left, to be followed by the vice-chairman of the council, Gordon Winfield.
The other councillors – Jane Meller, Mark Deaville, Pauline Clarke, Roger Tabbinor and the chairman Tony Fletcher – stayed in their places, as did the two ‘observing’ local district councillors, Colin Pearce and David Trigger.
It’s not clear exactly why the two councillors left.
(The Association of Local Councils already says that, though parish councillors are unpaid, they cannot be classed as ‘volunteers’; councillors have greater responsibilities than a volunteer might, and cannot opt-out as a volunteer might.
Also, district councillors, such as those at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council are also ‘volunteers’ – but SMDC has not objected to the law.)
Because the meeting-quorum was still in force, it’s quite possible that the planning application – crucial though it is – could even have been decided in the two councillors’ absence.
New law on filming
The new law allowing video-recording of councils was brought in by the current government to combat what it has described as secretive local councils which try to block public transparency of their proceedings.
Eric Pickles, the local government minister, has been quoted: “….robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy. We have given councils more power, but local people need to be able to hold their councils to account.
“I asked for councils to open their doors, but some have slammed theirs shut, calling in the police to arrest bloggers and clinging to old-fashioned standing orders.
“It was Mrs Thatcher (as a minister) who introduced the right to attend council meetings back in 1960. It is right that we now bring her legacy up to date with the digital age. Councillors should not be shy about the good work that they do.”
However, Mr Pickles’ new law has already caused controversy. While many councils across the country have welcomed the moves toward more openness, some councillors have reacted angrily: in East Suffolk last month, all the Beyton Village Council members walked out, cancelling their meeting, rather than allow filming.
No doubt Mr Ford and Mr Winfield will want to explain to electors as soon as they can why they abandoned such an important meeting.
Certainly, if they wish to use the pages of this website to explain their actions, we can assure them they will have as much space as they need.
However, the more important issue is: …what happens at the next meeting?
Shelagh Wood says she will be filming at the next meeting. She says her motivation is quite simple: as someone very worried about the housing planning application, and a member of the local VVSM Community Action Group, all she wants to achieve is an unchallengeable account of the meeting, so that the main points of the debate can be recorded, and examined later, without misinterpretation caused by faulty memory.
So… will the two councillors leave any future meetings in the same fashion? Do they even feel they may have to resign from the parish council altogether? (After all, they can’t get up and leave each and every time someone starts filming a meeting.)
However, the planning debate, which now will take place at the November meeting, will be one that could mark the beginning of irrevocable changes to Draycott-in-the-Moors.
Electors will surely want all their representatives there for a meeting as important as that.
Gov.uk – Making local councils more transparent and accountable to local people
Gov.uk – Transparency code for parish councils
Staffordshire Parish Councils Website – New rules on open local government
Independent – Local government can no longer act like Putin, says Pickles
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