Saturday, 21 July 2007

Tories slapped down in Council

The proposal from Darlington Conservatives this week that Scrutiny Committees should all be chaired by opposition councillors was given short shrift by Labour Leader, John Williams, in full Council. Unfortunately, the Conservative proposals had been prepared by Alan Coultas, who was absent from Council. Cllrs Scott and Johnson presented the scheme in a rather lacklustre way - almost as if they realised what was coming from Labour.

Cllr Williams rubbished their scheme, asking how many majority Council Groups gave the Opposition parties such positions. He accused the Conservative Council Deputy Leader, Cllr Johnson, of "sour grapes" because, despite winning the popular vote, they had failed to take control of the Council in May. Cllr Williams ridiculed the Tories for booking their post-election committee room to organise their Cabinet, even before the votes were cast. He told the Tories to wise up and accept that the Council was still controlled by the Labour Party and they'd better get used to it.

Such are the rules in place, which prohibit proper debate in the Council Chamber, that the Conservatives were not allowed to respond to this.

We in the Liberal Democrats support many of the Conservatives' ideas for change within the Council: including giving Scrutiny Committees more power to question Cabinet members and a greater role in the formation of policy. In my speech on Community Engagement (to be blogged on later) I mentioned in passing that we supported these ideas and was critical of Labour Councillor Ian Hazeldine, who asserted in the Echo that there was nothing wrong with the Scrutiny system and that it should be a non-aggressive, non-political system. I thought his comments to the press were dismissive and unhelpful, since his party leader had been commending the idea of a full debate on any ideas for constitutional change.

Cllr Hazeldine, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of the mayor, took the opportunity to have a pop at me and Charles Johnson. Clearly, as a Scrutiny Committee chair himself, and therefore as recipient of several thousands of pounds of Council Tax payers money, he should have declared an interest and probably been barred from speaking on the subject - but, as a new Councillor, I wasn't certain about the protocol and kept to my seat. It would have been interesting though, raising a point of order with the Deputy Mayor against the Deputy Mayor himself!

Frankly, as I mentioned previously in a training session, I have still to find anyone who can give me any examples of how Scrutiny, in its current guise, has influenced the policy-making process - apart from the single issue of bringing the lack of breast-feeding facilities in the town higher up the political agenda. Cllr Hazeldine sarcastically mentioned this (nodding knowingly as he did so to his chums on the Labour side). Just as new councillors on the Labour side aren't allowed to speak in Council, I get the impression they don't like new councillors from any party speaking up. Tough - I'm beginning to enjoy it now! Had they really been gossiping about a point I made in a training session?


Anonymous said...

Wonder which one of the 3 has been gossiping?

Cllr. Mark Burton said...

As a newly elected Labour Councillor I have never been told that I can not speak out in Full Council. You’ll know this, but to help others to understand; all Councillors receive documents relevant to the agenda a week or so before the meeting, your group, the Conservatives, Independents and our group then hold a pre-council meeting. These meetings (held separately of course) provide me, along with all members of the Labour group, an opportunity to air our views - should we have any. One Labour Councillor, who wasn’t present at our pre-council meeting, did ask their question during full council.

Every councillor and resident at full council will of course have their own views and it struck me how the opposition (Liberal Democrats & Conservatives) obviously hadn’t taken the time study and subsequently question any of the documents. There was the odd question on Transport; which was really nit-picking of a particular area of the town - where some members ‘might’ drive past from time to time. I was waiting in anticipation as one Conservative Councillor stood up and rattled off a series of statistics on resources, only to be let down as there wasn’t really any substance or relative question which then followed.

It seams the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives only desire and ambition is portfolio and chair. Strangely the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives can’t see that to have those positions you first need to win the elections!

Personally I think the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives should think of their achievement of being a Councillor and in the early years concentrate more on actually engaging and representing their continuance... instead of twittering on.

Best regards
Cllr. Mark Burton

Mike Barker said...

Fair enough, Mark: I look forward to your maiden speech.

Perhaps you were asleep, or distracted by the thunderstorm outside, during my contributions, which were based not only on a complete and thorough reading of all the Council papers, but also on studying the Local Government White Paper of 2006, the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act of 2005 and the Parliamentary debate on the Local Government White Paper recorded in Hansard.

I'm surprised you class my contributions as "twittering on". I thought they were well researched and thoughtful comments and questions which raised important matters of public interest concerning the sale of cars on the highway and the future consultative process on community engagement.

Martin Swainston's question on transport was also relevant - and not answered adequately by Nick Wallis: why was the opportunity not taken to draw forward lines for cyclists at the Woodland Road/ Greenbank Road junction (which is something the Darlington Cycling Campaign had asked for)?

My other contribution related to Cllr Copeland's "report" which consisted of little more than a list of meetings she'd been to. I invited her to tell us how she was going to ensure that climate change rose to the top of the Council's agenda: unfortunately, she has not yet mastered her brief, so she did not attempt to answer that question.

I did think the Tories were weak, though. Given their length of service and experience I was expecting better. You may well be right about their true ambitions - I couldn't possibly comment!

My interests are in holding the Labour Group to account for their actions in the areas for which I have responsibility and interest: public protection, the environment, democratic engagement and North Road ward. If I get up and speak (get used to it: I shall be doing so at every opportunity!) you can be assured that (just like last week) there will be a lot of research and background reading lying behind anything I have to say.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that constructive debate should be written of as "nit picking and twittering"!
Labour "won" the election but by polling less votes than the Conservatives. Therefore control was maintained by good luck rather than good management. If Labour are serious about making changes then it would seem fair to give the group who had the majority of the votes more involvement. That is what the people of Darlington would want, thats what they voted for.

Darlington Councillor said...

Hmmm. I thought I answered the Bondgate cycling question fully (but then I would, wouldn't I?)

To repeat - Martin Swainston asked about the apparent absence of pro-cycling measures in the Bondgate traffic management scheme. Other councillors pointed out that the impact had been to greatly assist traffic movements at what has been a key bottleneck in the town.

I replied that we had consulted with the Darlington Cycling Campaign when designing the scheme. It's fair to say, however, that the cycling campaign would have wanted more, but as I pointed out in Council, the Council was constrained by the tight nature of the junction, and the fact that first and foremost this was a scheme to tackle congestion.

As I further explained, officers are still looking at the possibility of installing advanced stop lines for cyclists at this junction.

I could have further elaborated that the reason why they weren't included in the initial scheme was that Department for Transport guidance suggests that they should not be deployed at junctions like this, but now we are looking at whether this advice can be by-passed. When you're answering 8 councillors, sometimes with two or three points each, it's usually more practical to give a simple factual answer - otherwise I'd be responding for 10 minutes and attention on the opposition side would inevitably flag...

That's why, strictly personally you understand, I have always thought that our rules of debate should be changed to allow individual answers to be given to questions from councillors - this would allow debate to range far more freely than it does at present, and lead to a better-informed discussion. I think (horrors!)Mike and I agree on this point.

Mike Barker said...

Thanks, Nick: you had to respond to so many comments from councillors about that road junction that I must have missed you saying that officers were still looking at the possibility of installing a forward line for cyclists. Thanks for clearing that up.
And, yes, we do agree about the need for better debate.

Darlington Tory said...

Slapped down is a bit harsh, Mike, it is easy to look slapped down when as you yourself pointed out we could not reply.

Nice to see Nick wanting more open debate, perhaps he should become labour group leader and make it happen.

Mike Barker said...

Fair point, David: Charles Johnson's only chance to respond to John Williams' put-down was by intervening in the "debate" on the following paper. But by that stage he could only protest at JW's comments, and not actually continue to debate the original issue...This isn't how good and informed political debate should be conducted.
There should be appropriate mechanisms in place for proper debate in Council, with the Opposition having the opportunity to respond to Cabinet members' answers.
One question at a time, as Nick suggests, would be useful (though not sufficient): even if the original questioner was still barred from speaking more than once, at least other opposition councillors could take up the debate.
Furthermore, Scrutiny Committees should have the automatic right to interview Cabinet members, question them in more detail than would be possible in Council, and hold them to account.
My fear is that Charles and Heather want jobs in Cabinet and Scrutiny that they're not going to get, which could divert attention away from what we want, and what is achievable, which is a more open and effective Council and Scrutiny system, with significant devolution of power over neighbourhood matters from Cabinet to Area Committees.