Friday, 25 May 2007

My first two Council Meetings - and a maiden speech

My first Council meeting is Annual Council: a formal meeting where the new mayor is sworn in and we all get to eat some nice food afterwards. It's very nice for friends and relatives, who cram into the public gallery, from where just about all they can see is the Mayor's podium.
From a political point of view, perhaps the most interesting event is the make-up of the Labour Cabinet. A newly-elected Councillor, Jenny Chapman, is made a member of the Cabinet, responsible for Leisure Services.
Jenny, who often visits my shop, has always seemed to me to be a very nice person, who has no doubt benefitted from being part of a Labour family (her mother is the new mayor). I do wonder, however, quite how enthusiatic some of the longer-serving but overlooked Labour Councillors are about her being appointed to Cabinet over their heads.

The next day there is a special meeting of the full Council, to approve changes to the Constitution and the Code of Conduct, and also to approve the details of the Referendum for a directly elected mayor.
Political constitutions are of great interest to me. My degree subject was Political Theory and Government and I've been fascinated by political and governmental organisation ever since (sad, or what?). So, having read the documents for Council, and having a strong commitment to delegation and devolution of power, I decided this was an opportunity to make my maiden speech.

I wanted to speak out in favour of the establishment of Area Committees: groups of Councillors from neighbouring wards who have spending, administrative and scrutiny powers delegated to them.

Although the Leader of the Council had publicly stated that he wanted a new, more democratic culture in the Council, these proposed changes to the Constitution contained no such references. I checked with the Borough Solicitor that I would be permitted to speak about this, and was assured that it would be in order. So I prepared a few choice words and phrases.

The debate started with Councillor Williams introducing the paper by saying that these were interim proposals (I didn't know that!) and that he was intending to bring before Council at some time in the future proposals for a new Constitution which was more open and democratic (I didn't know that, either!). This was not what I was expecting to hear. I wanted to criticise Labour for producing revisions to the Constitution which included no reference whatsoever to openness and democracy.

So I had to change the whole direction of what I wanted to say and abandon my carefully crafted words. Having decided to get my maiden speech out of the way at the first opportunity, however, I put my hand up and was called to speak by the mayor.
I acknowledged the Council Leader's promise to produce a new Constitution in the near future and went on to ask whether he would consider the introduction of Area Committees as part of this. I explained briefly what Area Committees were, and sat down. At last my heart stopped thumping loudly against the wall of my chest!

When he replied, Cllr Williams said that Area Committees were possible - anything is possible. My short speech and Councillor Williams' response formed the basis of a significant article in the Echo and the Advertiser, in which Paul Cook, the reporter, took a giant leap and effectively suggested that Area Committees were going to be introduced. We shall see!

Although my short speech was listened to by councillors without interruption, there were several examples of the boorish behaviour that I have come to expect from certain members of the Labour Group, in response to a speech by Conservative Councillor Ian Galletley (who the councillor who will be next year's mayor insisted on calling Cllr Go Lightley - my, how the Labour Group laughed at this witticism) and a question put by our own Cllr Malcolm Dunstone.

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