Please note this post is from my previous blog. To read my posts during the 2017 General Election campaign click here.
As a candidate in the Royal Borough of Greenwich council elections next year, I’m making it my business to pop along to council meetings to sit in the public gallery – which is where I was last night for a three-and-a-half hour sitting that as usual, was pretty disheartening stuff.
Labour’s tactics in silencing debate on two opposition motions put forward by the Conservative group were nothing short of a disgrace. (I’ll blog about the second of these, a sensible and timely proposal to investigate the possibility of a minor injuries unit to relieve pressures on Queen Elizabeth A&E, another time.)
The first and most time-consuming opposition motion committed the council leadership to drop its deeply personal and frankly bizarre refusal to engage with London’s new Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan. Apparently the fact that Mr Gilligan happens to be a Greenwich resident and journalist who has blogged and written about local issues in Greenwich (for which read ‘has been critical of the council and of Chris Roberts in particular’) gives him “an irresolvable conflict of interest” that justifies this self-defeating snub.
The argument for the motion from Cllr Spencer Drury was an entirely reasonable one – why on earth, when we have a cycling commissioner with a better knowledge of Greenwich than any other Borough, and who has an enormous say in the distribution of £930m of funding through the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling, are we refusing to talk to him?
In what passes for drama at Greenwich council meetings, Labour produced an amendment (agreed, I understand, in an hour long private meeting immediately before council began). As the piece of paper flew around the council chamber (and, thankfully, the public gallery) it became clear what their game was – the amendment deleted everything but the words “Council notes” and replaced it with motherhood and apple pie statements about cycling in the Borough.
The amendment was clearly out of order, being totally irrelevant to the original motion and failing to address the relationship (or lack of it) between the council and London’s cycling commissioner – the important question that the opposition were attempting to put under scrutiny.
I have to say, the sight of Cllr Roberts’ faux outrage when this tactic was questioned, repeatedly jumping out of his seat to (successfully) pressure the mayor into bending to his will, was an unedifying one. Having now been to four council meetings, I can see for myself what awaits should the good people of Coldharbour & New Eltham lend me their votes in sufficient numbers next May – a truly remarkably thin-skinned administration unwilling to countenance the slightest hint of criticism or scrutiny of their actions in running this borough.
A telling moment came when Labour’s Cllr Mary Mills, who was recently de-selected despite being immensely popular in her Peninsula ward, dared to ask a member’s question of her own Party’s administration – not the done thing, it seems. There was visible shock from the Labour benches – amongst their ranks, holding your own leadership to account is clearly a game for the brave or for those with nothing to lose.
Streaming meetings online
All of this only reinforces my view that all councils should be making the most of cheap new technology by video-streaming council meetings on their websites. In Greenwich’s case, this is something that the Labour leadership have always refused to do – no doubt so they can continue these kind of low tactics to thwart democratic accountability in the borough.
It’s a campaign Labour’s colleagues over the river in Tower Hamlets seem happy to support, however, with Labour group leader pressing Mayor Rahman to drop his opposition to streaming council meetings because “we should be transparent and accountable to those who elect us”. Quite.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that streamed council meetings would demand huge audiences. It would take a brave soul to settle in the sofa on a Wednesday night in front of the three-and-a-half hour show we were treated to yesterday evening. But maybe the presence of cameras, especially a matter of months before the coming local elections, would mean that Labour councillors’ behaviour would improve – just enough to allow the functions of local democracy and accountability to operate as they should.
I am increasingly thinking that action is needed from above to force councils to do this. It was Margaret Thatcher who as a backbench MP first changed the law through a Private Members’ Bill to allow the press and public access to council meetings in 1960. Times have changed and in the same spirit, perhaps we need Parliament to take steps to ensure that councils like Greenwich can no longer hide their tactics from the public in the age of easy and affordable web streaming.
It wouldn’t be hard to do, and it might just mean that residents get the local democracy they deserve.