Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Talking Together

Tonight the "Talking Together" roadshow came to North Road ward. As a vehicle for stakeholders to meet it was useful; as a vehicle for public engagement it was much less successful.

Representatives from the police, PCT, Groundwork, Streetscene, Community Partnerships and public transport had set up display stalls in the hall. Local ward councillors, council officers (including the Chief Executive) and two Cabinet members were there too - but very few local residents.

At the hour-long question-and-answer session there were just six residents present: somewhat outnumbered by councillors and officers. I knew all but one of the residents: all well-known, hard-working community activists from the area who are involved in local residents', tenants' and friends' groups. Maybe there were three or four others in the exhibition hall - but that was all.

As Cllr Bill Dixon, the Cabinet member chairing the Q&A sessions said, it's early days and the Council is still learning how best to organise and publicise these events. While there may well be improvements which could be made, and as these events become more established the attendance may improve, I do have a couple of fundamental concerns.

First, will "ordinary" residents ever attend in significant numbers if these events are seen as talking shops? Maybe "Talking Together" was a bad choice of title for this reason. As one of the community activists said, it's actions that count, not words.

Second, if "ordinary" residents fail to attend, will this be used by those on the Council who oppose devoluton of decision-making to Area Committees to suggest that local people are not interested, so why devolve power? This would be a mistake. Local residents do get involved when their personal interests are affected, and if they believe their involvment will have beneficial consequences. If "Talking Together" is seen as just a talking shop, they won't attend. This does not mean they would not get involved if there are genuine local decisons to be made and money to be spent on local projects. If "Talking Together" fails, this does not mean that Area Committees with devolved powers would also fail.


Anonymous said...

I turned up for the so called Talking Together event at 6pm.

I expected that there might be someone there from my ward (Harrowgate Hill) and was told by a very helpful Council employee that I might like to talk to a councillor from North Road or Northgate.

This thought sent me home to watch Coronation Street. Whose bright idea was it to have a discussion 1.5 hours after the start of the event.

So much for "Talking Together"- the only sign I saw oftalking together was Ada Burns in conversation with members of her Cabinet possibly negotiating a pay rise.

Is there any wonder the public can't be bothered ?

The event was a glorified coffee evening.

Mike Barker said...

Well, obviously I'm sorry you prefered Corrie to talking to me! I do know Cllr Burton was working a late shift this week and was therefore unable to attend, but I don't know where the Cartwrights, the two Conservative councillors, were. I've checked their blogs but there have been no entries since September.
I'm not sure the idea of trying to attract residents by providing activities for their kids and various stalls to visit is necessary. It is rather condescending to suggest that people won't turn up unless they have some entertainment.
I think these events should consist just of the discussion forum, which might evolve in due course into a decision-making body.
Keep it short, simple and businesslike with direct contact between residents, councillors and officers.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments Councillor Barker.

The event was a total waste of time serving no purpose. If this is the best the Council can do to talk to its council tax payers then it should not bother. Publish on this website the total cost of this and similar events. I asked this same question about the Tesco farce and was told there was no cost. I can't believe that the council employees did not either get paid overtime or were given time off to compensate.

Talking Together needs to be structured so that meaningful outcomes in terms of action can be achieved. Otherwise it remains empty (and pointless)talk. To quote your own words itneeds to be short (why then 2.5 hours) businesslike (conversation without record between a few members of the public & council reps).

If this is the best the Council &its councillors can do then they should be ashamed of themselvesin wasting public money on a charade.

At least Coronation Street is paid for by advertising unlike Ada Burn's time at £150,000 per year

Anonymous said...

Devolved power to area comittees is doomed to as much failure as the takling together nights have been. Just a few making decisions for the masses is not what anyone calls democracy.. . How can you ask for this.

The labour/cooperative party and the proposed Conservative/cooperatives and yourselves. Are you really all singing the same song to get in these loacal comittees yourselves and use the power with the one , two or three residents who turn up, or even the activists you say were at the talking together. pretty ridiculous outcomes would be the result in most cases.

you councillors really need to grow up and smell the coffee.

we are not all pea brains and will not be used in cooperatives. The game is over.

Mike Barker said...

The cost of the Talking Together roadshow in the first year will be £45,000.
The cost of the community engagement project in the first year will be £144,500, composed of £82,500 for admin and implementation plus £62,000 to fund two new staff positions to run Talking Together.

As for the Tesco costs, if you asked the Council for the cost of the Tesco consultation exercise and they told you there was no cost they were presumably referring to staff costs, which, given that it was a relatively short consultation period, would allow staff costs to be met by diverting staff to this exercise, at no additional cost.

Mike Barker said...

With reference to the second "anonymous" poster: I disagree with your scepticism about Area Committees, which work extremely well in many local authorities across the country.

You object to small numbers of people making decisions on behalf of others, yet a system of devolved decision-making, particularly where neighbourhood-specific issues are concerned, would mean decisions are taken more locally and more democratically than at present.

There would be greater opportunity for local residents to influence the process. I do not accept that the fact that Talking Together has so far failed to ignite public interest (I believe there were just TWO residents at the Hurworth event) should be used as an excuse for not proceeding in time to a system of Area Committees. I believe that neighbourhood decision-making, with an appropriate budget, would be of far more greater interest to residents than a mere consultation exercise such as Talking Together.

Anonymous said...

I am anonymous simply because that is the way in which it goes on the website.

£45000 is a cost which we can do without if there are no benefits to it other than to give the Council the satisfaction of saying we tried to "talk together". This is a council that has preached "a best value" policy.

Until they are clear about what they are trying to do then organising face painting/coffee and chat sessions will be a waste of money and when the budget comes out and cuts have got to be made in other services this expense should have been avoided.

Does the Council really know what the purpose of the talking together process is ? If so let them publish it on their website and in the Town Crier which simply seems to be a vehicle for trying to convince the people that everything is rosy in the garden

ian holme said...

Cannot agree with the anonymous poster. Whats the point of whinging about poor consultation, and then attacking a council for attempting to engage (even if the attempt gets off to a shaky start)

I too understand that the Hurworth event was very poorly attended. I am sure that the principle reason for this was holding it on 31 October...Halloween night. Most families were busy doing other things that night, whilst older residents I am sure would not choose that particular night to venture out.

However the only time such events will truly inspire local interest is when a major issue hits the borough again, eg Tescos, Hurworth school etc

Anonymous said...

Far from "whinging about poor consultation" I am advocating better consultation but that means that it must be looked carefully as to how it is done.

Did you attend the Hurworth event ? And if so tell me how it achieved anything. The Northland event was pointless and if these events have caused the council to employ two more people at a cost to the council tax payer then surely we need to see some benefit.

Yes of course only big controversial issues will bring out the crowds but how many people would stand around from 6.00pm to 7.30 in front of a cup of coffee before they get a chance to do something more productive than chat to a councillor (if one was there from their ward.

If Hurworth folk prefer Halloween to the future of the village then they can hardly complain when things don't go their way.

miketually said...

Like others have said, the exact format of the Talking Together "roadshow" obviously needs considering, but the idea is a good one and should be encouraged.

"I am anonymous simply because that is the way in which it goes on the website."

You need to tick the little 'other' box, then you can enter a name. Or, simply write you name at the end of your comment.