Thursday 4 July 2013

Not something to begrudge: transparency in local government - Eric Pickles, still banging on the door of the Town Hall

Eric opens the door ... Mrs Angry already has her foot well in place, of course

Yesterday saw Mrs Angry's friend and blushing admirer Eric Pickles give a speech to the LGA conference, in which he congratulated himself on his achievements, and, as we heard -  no doubt following Mrs Angry's sternly worded representations over the last week or so, communicated via the medium of Twitter - had this to say about the notion of open government:

Transparency is not something to begrudge

But transparency is not something to begrudge.

The other week, we issued a practical guide to the press and public on how they can report, tweet and film council meetings.

Embracing the digital age, rather than clinging to an analogue interpretation of press access rules.

There is still residual opposition.

Monitoring officers say: “We can’t oppose letting in cameras. Our standing orders prohibit it without 3 days notice”.

So change them! …get a better monitoring officer…or just ditch the standing order.

What does it say about the self-confidence of local government that when you watch an episode of Grand Designs…

When it comes to filming the Planning Committee…the door normally remains shut.

What does it communicate about our faith in planning officers, and what does it say about the role of councillors in shaping where development should and shouldn’t go.

I want people to see the good work that councils do.

The difficult choices, the trade offs, the debate.

The best thing we can do to get more people involved in local government is open the doors. 

It can show what armchair auditors are already finding out - local government has plenty to be proud of.

Despite all the guidance, soothing noises and gentle encouragement from Pickles, throughout the nation there are still many local authorities refusing to embrace the principle of localism in action, and who continue to slam the doors of the Town Hall in the faces of any resident wanting to report and record council meetings - or indeed to scrutinise their activities by examining the accounts, or through FOI requests.

In the last week we have seen plenty of evidence that citizens in many areas are being treated with every form of obstruction when they attempt to follow the suggestion of the Secretary of State, and hold their local authorities to account.

Eric's proclamation last month stated -  

"I want to stand up for the rights of journalists and taxpayers to scrutinise and challenge decisions of the state.

Modern technology has created a new cadre of bloggers and hyper-local journalists, and councils should open their digital doors and not cling to analogue interpretations of council rules.

Councillors shouldn’t be shy about the public seeing the good work they do in championing local communities and local interests." 

Four days later, Tory run Bexley Council  defied the new guidance, and stated that it would continue to ban filming, on the grounds that council 'protocols' did not allow it - see here

On the 26th June, blogger Richard Taylor attempted to film a meeting of Huntingdon District Council, also a Conservative run administration. He had, rather astonishingly, received a tweeted response from Pickles himself about his right to film, after asking him :

@HuntsDC requires chair's permission & 3 days notice to film, photo or record mtngs. Is this @EricPickles compliant?

 The reply from the Secretary of State was quite clear:

 @RTaylorUK @huntsdc as reported 3 day notice not required. Council Meetings should be open

Despite this, when Richard attended the meeting he was subjected to the most farcical obstruction by council officers and councillors, including most outrageously of all, in an echo of the 'daftarrest' of Welsh blogger Caebrwyn,  a threat to call the police.

Labour run Keighley Council bans filming, apparently on the grounds of it being a town council, although why that would confer any exemption has not been explained, and this provoked a plea from Eric to Keighley and other authorities:

27 Jun
Come on ,and the rest, don't be so soft let the cameras in

Is Eric losing his patience? Perhaps living on a diet of carrot sticks and salad is making him tetchy.

And then we have the example of Wirral Council, formerly run as a coalition administration by the  Tory group with their chums, the ever helpful Libdems, but now Labour controlled. In the past the authority has often featured in the Rotten Boroughs page of Private Eye. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are not awfully keen on citizen journalism, as found by blogger John Brace on 27th June, see here where he reports being stopped from filming a planning committee, on the pretext of considerations of 'health and safety' and 'data protection'.

Here is the fatal flaw in Pickles' policy. Look at yesterday's speech again.  If a monitoring officer tries to prevent a meeting from being filmed, what do we do? He says - get 'a better monitoring officer' or  'ditch the standing order'. 

Who has the power to do this? Not the resident wanting to scrutinise the authority. Such decisions can only be made by the elected representatives, the local politicians whose bidding the monitoring officer must obey, and who will be acting according to their wishes, to keep the town hall door firmly wedged shut. 

The only sanction that a local taxpayer has is at the ballot box, years later, and throughout the course of the current administration there is no process by which his or her opinion on the matter may have any influence on the policies his councillors introduce, if the members refuse to involve their electorate in the decision making.

This difficulty is perfectly illustrated in the case of councils like Tory Barnet, where a defiance of the statutory obligation to consult residents is so firmly entrenched that on these grounds alone, a Judicial Review has been referred to appeal before the Master of the Rolls ...

As has often been observed in this blog, if Pickles really wants to empower the citizen, and not commit the great folly of placing even more localised power in the hands of councils whose members, as in the case of the swivel eyed loons running Barnet, do everything they can to evade the scrutiny of residents, he has to introduce measures which compel them to obey the new guidance, rather than to choose to ignore it.

And that, Mrs Angry can exclusively reveal* after a masterly demonstration of her world renowned investigative skills as a citizen journalist, and a late night meeting with a source in a North Finchley car park, is exactly what we understand is going to happen. 

Mrs Angry imagines that Eric has taken Mrs Angry's advice, freely given, and at frequent intervals, to heart at last ...

27 Jun
time for to say how he is going to deal with councils openly defying his ruling on the free reporting of meetings. If at all.

And so it is now being rumoured that Pickles has finally lost his patience, and intends to introduce a statutory obligation to ensure authorities comply with the policy of transparency, rather than choose to opt out. 

If true, this will be an enormously significant victory for all of us who are trying to hold our elected representatives to account, and return the balance of power in the local democratic process to an equal and fair level of engagement. 

*Update Friday: 

After more antics in Keighley,  as reported in the Torygraph, (and we look forward, don't we, although no doubt in vain,  to similar reports on all the Tory councils acting in the same fashion)  the rather undignified spectacle of councils throughout the land sticking two fingers up to the Secretary of State continues to amuse us all, but more importantly, seriously compromises his credibility on the policy of transparency and open government:

Eric Pickles has replied a couple of times on twitter to 'daftarrest' blogger @caebrwyn (he is too scared/too bashful to speak to Mrs Angry) making his position clear, and confirming the suggestion reported here that an amendment to the law is being considered to compel local authorities to comply with government guidelines on Town Hall transparency, and allowing citizens to report and record council meetings:

it would be a pity if legislation is needed for councils to open their door to cameras, but I don't rule it out

The message to councillors is clear: sort yourselves out, or you will be compelled to fall into line. Tough talk: now let's see some action, Eric.

(*Exclusive - so probably already in Private Eye, then on Channel 4/Exaro news later tonight ... oh, and a fuller version of this blogpost is of course available behind Mrs Angry's paywall, if you can find it)


John Brace said...

Thanks for the link to my blog and another excellent article. Although Wirral Council was previously a Tory/Lib Dem coalition, last year those two parties lost enough seats in the election to give Labour a majority, so it's been a Labour controlled Council since May 2012.

I doubt Eric Pickles would be so keen to criticise them if they weren't controlled by Labour.

John Brace said...

Oh and this blog post of mine sums up what happened after the meeting basically it got written about in local papers and the next day sent the Council a letter before claim (the first stage in judicial review) which they haven't replied to yet.

Mrs Angry said...

I stand corrected, thanks John - will amend piece, and yes, only Labour councils are mentioned by Eric, although he did once make the exception, in splendid style, for Tory Barnet, and delivered a withering and humiliating rant about their behaviour in attempting to stop we naughty bloggers from filming etc.