Thursday 23 August 2012

Prying open the Town Hall doors: a letter for Eric Pickles, from Mrs Angry

Margaret Thatcher, democracy campaigner and supporter of the armchair auditor, at Hendon Town Hall, in the good old days

Well, well, more good news for Barnet Council! Here is a press release from Eric Pickles, and one which is bound to bring a glad smile to the face of every Tory councillor, and CEO Mr Walkley, and little Andrew Travers, and yes, you too, Tooting Twister, and all your chums in the Comms team.

Town Hall doors unlocked to social media and bloggers

Published 23 August 2012

New law changes to introduce greater openness and transparency in executive councils meetings will mean all decisions including those affecting budgets and local services will have to be taken in an open and public forum, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles announced today.

Ministers have put new regulations before Parliament that would come into force next month to extend the rights of people to attend all meetings of a council's executive, its committees and subcommittees.

The changes will result in greater public scrutiny. The existing media definition will be broadened to cover organisations that provide internet news thereby opening up councils to local online news outlets. Individual councillors will also have stronger rights to scrutinise the actions of their council.

Any executive decision that would result in the council incurring new spending or savings significantly affecting its budget or where it would affect the communities of two or more council wards will have to be taken in a more transparent way as a result.

Crucially councils will no longer be able to cite political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press. In addition any intentional obstruction or refusal to supply certain documents could result in a fine for the individual concerned.

The changes clarify the limited circumstances where meetings can be closed, for example, where it is likely that a public meeting would result in the disclosure of confidential information. Where a meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council must now justify why that meeting is to be closed and give 28 days notice of such decision.

As a consequence of the greater levels of transparency around meetings, the Government is able to remove unnecessary and bureaucratic red tape on forward plans introduced by legislation in 2000.

Eric Pickles said:

"Every decision a council takes has a major impact on the lives of local people so it is crucial that whenever it takes a significant decision about local budgets that affect local communities whether it is in a full council meeting or in a unheard of sub-committee it has got to be taken in the full glare of all the press and any of the public.

"Margaret Thatcher was first to pry ( *sic - please don't blame Mrs Angry for Eric Pickles' grammatical errors - tut, Eric, really ...) open the doors of Town Hall transparency. Fifty years on we are modernising those pioneering principles so that every kind of modern journalists can go through those doors - be it from the daily reporter, the hyper-local news website or the armchair activist and concerned citizen blogger - councils can no longer continue to persist with a digital divide."

Chris Taggart, of, which has long championed the need to open council business up to public scrutiny, added:

"In a world where hi-definition video cameras are under £100 and hyperlocal bloggers are doing some of the best council reporting in the country, it is crazy that councils are prohibiting members of the public from videoing, tweeting and live-blogging their meetings."

Oh, yes: good point. Hyperlocal bloggers doing some of the best council reporting in the country. Certainly true here in Broken Barnet, Mrs Angry would modestly suggest, where there is an embarrassment (yes, the perfect term) of riches offered for the enjoyment of residents by the local blogosphere.

Mrs Angry's No 1 fan

Eric refers us to the achievement of Margaret Thatcher in being the first to 'pry open' the doors of Town Hall transparency. Prise, Eric, I think you mean, although an interesting Freudian slip.

Hmm. As he well knows, here in Margaret's own Town Hall, where her electoral victories used to be proclaimed to the nation from the balcony of the council chamber, the local citizen journalists are at war with their elected representatives - and the senior officers - in a perpetual fight to defend our right to exert some sort of effective scrutiny on the machinations of this deeply secretive and morally corrupt administration.

Right here in Margaret Thatcher's former Town Hall, Eric, we have been banned from filming meetings, bullied and secretly filmed by the council's own illegal, jackbooted security firm, and generally treated like the enemy rather than the concerned residents and armchair auditors that you think are so important to local democracy.

We have been obstructed from inspecting the annual accounts, we are continually prevented from receiving the full, accurate and timely responses to FOI requests.

We have been falsely accused of breaches of the data protection act, and making vexatious requests, or stalking councillors.

We are not allowed to discuss any council policies at our local forums,

Oh, and we are told by one or two of your Tory councillors reply to our emails that we are idiots, or that further communications will be referred to the police ...

So: will the new changes create greater openness and transparency here in Broken Barnet?

I don't really think so, Eric, to be honest, do you - really?

In an authority that is losing a grip on plans to outsource £1 billion worth of our local services in the biggest giveaway in the history of local government, the excuse given to exclude public scrutiny is not so much confidential political information as 'commercial sensitivity'.

Frankly, if you are really sincere in improving the ability of residents to maintain any sort of control and scrutiny over their public services, you need to make sure that private sector companies providing public sector services are obliged to be accountable to tax payers by extending the FOI act.*

Still: good news for the bloggers. We can sit at the press table at council meetings, now, friends, and enjoy a speedy and full response from the Tooting Twister and his PR team, when we ask those awkward questions they choose always to ignore.

Expect one very soon, in fact.

In Barnet, it is true to say that the public are not generally excluded from meetings due to the need for political confidentiality because there is no political debate in any council meeting.There may be some benefit from the effect of taking the pre meeting meetings for Tory councillors off the agenda, because in this council, all decisions are taken behind the scenes, decided upon by senior officers, run by the Tory leadership, laid before Cabinet members, and rubber stamped. In all probability, however, these discussions will simply take place in private, unannounced.

This is just how we do things here: this is Broken Barnet.

Who broke it? Ask your own Tory councillors sitting quietly, slack jawed and sleepy eyed, in Maggie Thatcher's old Town Hall.

* You might want to sign this Avaaz petition, if you are interested in this issue:


Mr Mustard said...

How interesting Mrs A. That table for the press that only has room for one or two people is going have to be considerably extended. In fact at some meetings there is the possibility that there will be more citizen journalists present than councillors, perhaps it might be easier on those occasions if we and they were to swap places?

Mrs Angry said...

Might as well, Mr Mustard: let's face it, we'd make a better job of it than that bunch of dimwits ...

Nutsville said...

Right on the nail there Mrs Angry, commercial sensitivity is the most used excuse for withholding information. Mr Pickles is no fool and knows exactly how things work in councils, so the omission of commercially sensitive material can be no mistake.

In most London councils it's still too much like chipping away at a granite rock face with a toffee hammer.

Until we have sharper tools every press release Mr Pickles puts out about transparency might end up being laughed at by those ultra cynical party poopers. As the attitude is still very much “please leave us alone and stop asking awkward questions” from the once flagship borough of Westminster.

Mrs Angry said...

Nutsville: yep, seems Eric's 'prying' Freudian slip tells us all we need to know about the hardline Tory attitude underlying the veneer of 'localism', transparency etc. They want to be seen to be open to scrutiny, whilst at the same time hiding the really important information from ... prying eyes?