[Shropshire Council has censored this blog post.]
Members of the public have always had a right to be heard at Shropshire Council meetings. Since the council was founded in 2009, public questions and petitions have been heard at the beginning of the meeting. That’s going to change. The new council leader, Malcolm Pate, is determined to end any public participation in council meetings.
At present residents can ask a public question. The question is tabled at the beginning of the meeting. The resident then asks a supplementary question. It is answered by a cabinet member.
This will end under Malcolm Pate’s proposals. Public questions and the answers to them will be noted at the meeting, with no opportunity to ask a supplementary question. There will be no public participation as at present. It will not be worth members of the public turning up. Many will think it will not be worth asking a question at all if all that happens is that it is minuted in a thick wodge of council papers.
Maybe that is Malcolm Pate’s intention. To discourage the public from asking questions which challenge the council’s actions.
Shropshire Council has long had a dread of public scrutiny. The press and public are barred from meetings where vital decisions are made by cabinet members. It is very difficult to find out what is happening within ip&e. Last May, it blocked filming of a council meeting in a flagrant breach of government regulations. Scrutiny committees have tended to talk, rather than scrutinise.
Public and councillor questions have played a vital role in bringing issues and public feelings to the attention of the full council body. In the last year, Ludlow’s Joyce Brand has challenged the council to take a position on closure of one of our two A&E units. Rural broadband campaigner Patrick Cosgrove has pressed the council about the slow rollout of rural broadband. There were questions on the Church Stretton Visitor Information Centre and the council’s private company ip&e. Town and parish councils asked why Shropshire Council was retaining nearly £1million of government money allocated to parishes. Petitions have been received on Shawbury and Church Stretton libraries, the SPARC leisure centre at Bishop’s Castle and on council tax.
On 17 February, the council’s Political Structures Monitoring Group will consider a proposal from council leader Malcolm Pate to change arrangements for public and councillor questions. The PSMG is a pretty secretive group. It is not mentioned on Shropshire Council’s list of committees and I can’t find the paperwork for the meeting on the website either. (Here is the agenda for the meeting and the item on public and councillor questions.)
Councillor Pate is proposing, “The right for members of the public to put their question or statement in person or ask a supplementary question be removed.” He gives no reasons for this change.
I think this move is totally wrong and undemocratic. We councillors serve the public. The council’s funding comes from the public and our councillor’s allowances are paid by the public. This means that we should be open at every point we can be and that we should give the public every right to participate.
There is a second proposal from Councillor Pate. He wants questions from councillors to be moved to the end of the meeting. That means they will be heard by a tired council whose members are anxious to get away for lunch and other business. The media may well have left the council chamber to file stories about the main agenda or rushed off to other commitments. And it is likely as not that the questions will be heard after exempt papers, after the public and press will have been excluded from the chamber.
The previous Shropshire Council administration had adopted an attitude of, “I’ll listen to any voice providing its mine”. It looks like the new administration is a chip off the old Keith Barrow block. The public and opposition councillors are continue to be treated as second class citizens whose voice is supressed the ruling elite of cabinet.
I had hoped for better from the new leader.