CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Speak up at the back? Minutes show some councillors hardly say a word at meetings

Format of Town Hall sessions under review

30 August, 2019 — By Richard Osley

Council leader Georgia Gould

A CROSS-PARTY group of local politicians is looking at ways to make council meetings more engaging and give backbench councillors more opportunities to speak, after some went more than a year without saying anything.

Minutes and webcast recordings from all the full council meetings held since last May’s local elections show that several have made only one contribution or not spoken at all.

Members are, however, using some of the meetings to catch up with case work on their laptops and mobile phones instead.

The all-member sessions are largely set up for cabinet members to present reports or answer questions, and the time for backbenchers has been reduced by having members of the public invited to join “themed debates”.

It follows years of dwindling attendance in the public gallery and a new resolve by council leader Georgia Gould to improve relations with the public.

Although all sides of the chamber agree that worthy topics have often been chosen, it is not uncommon to hear privately expressed concern that some of the subjects have been so broad that it has been impossible to pinpoint possible changes to council policy. There is no vote on any element of the discussion and the meetings have instead been likened to “TED talks” or seminars, rather than debates.

After July’s full council meeting,  Labour councillor Awale Olad – who is recorded in the minutes as being a regular speaker – warned: “Most of us were exhausted by the time deputations and petitions had finished – then we had to go into another hour and a bit of a deep debate.”

A red light system warning some councillors they have used up their time is routinely ignored

A new screen showing councillors when they are over time and should wrap up their contributions has been ignored on several occasions by cabinet councillors since its introduction last year. Cllr Gould, who has made several attempts to make council meetings more hands on, said she had talked to the Mayor of Camden Maryam Eslamdoust about the possibility of having a shorter list of invitees and giving more time for backbenchers. But she said that more public involvement was important.

“We are committed to hearing the voices of Camden’s residents in all we do as a council. We have invited those with lived experiences to lead debates relevant to our communities including youth safety, homelessness, social isolation, air quality and the LGBT+ experience, helping councillors have more meaningful debates to shape council policy on these issues.”

She added: “Councillors play a crucial role in leading our communities, championing residents and working alongside them to solve the challenges our communities faced.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Luisa Porritt said she welcomed interest in changing the format, adding Camden needed more “focused discussion” at its council meetings and that motions should be prioritised.

“We should be given more time to scrutinise the decisions of the governing Labour Party through questions and answers,” she said. “This is not just a forum for the council to pat itself on the back.”

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