For those that know me, and for those that read the communications I put out, you’ll know that I’m generally quite positive about the work that goes on at Wokingham Borough Council. I get on pretty well with most of the other elected members at the council across all parties, and believe in constructive challenge, avoiding the petty point scoring that so many of us despise in politics. One of our duties as elected members is to keep the community informed of what is taking place at the council, and as such, I feel that I am obliged to write the following blog post regarding last night’s full council meeting. I take no pleasure in writing this and genuinely wish I did not have to, but you need to know what happened.
Council meetings are open to the public. Under normal circumstances, there is a public gallery in the council chamber, but during the current restrictions, council meetings are live streamed on You Tube. But how many people watch these meetings? The press are also in attendance and choose which aspects of the meeting to report on. If you haven’t watched a council meeting before, I would recommend it so you can witness the theatre that takes place.
The Council has a constitution which sets out “how the Council operates, how decisions are made and the procedures which are followed to ensure that these are efficient, transparent and accountable to local people.” You can find a copy of the constitution here. My experience thus far of being an elected member is that these meetings revolve more around who is best at utilising the constitution to their political advantage over decision making for our community, and last night’s meeting was the worst experience of this that I have witnessed in the 18 months I’ve been involved in these meetings.
I remember when I was campaigning for the seat I now hold, knocking on doors in Woosehill, speaking with and listening to many of you, I remember one guy who told me that all politicians are the same. The system is a farce and he would not vote again as he didn’t trust anyone in politics. I remember feeling a little disheartened by this because there are some genuine people in the political world trying to make a difference, and unfortunately, we seem to be living in a society where having a difference of opinion leads to quite a lot of nastiness out there. We live in a society where often people are so blinded by party lines, that they automatically berate those that aren’t part of that same party. I got into this to try and change that and I ended the conversation with this guy saying that I wanted to show him that politics didn’t need to be like that. I was clearly naïve because after last night’s meeting, I completely understand his distrust and feel as disheartened as he does about our political scene.
Doing my best to avoid boring you, I’ll briefly explain the construct of full council meetings. The order is typically as follows:
- Apologies for absence
- Minutes of previous meeting
- Declarations of interest
- Mayor’s announcements
These are generally relatively quick and straight forward and don’t have any time limitations associated with them as set out in the constitution.
- Public questions time which is limited to 30 minutes in total.
- Various reports – these change from meeting to meeting and if any amendments are tabled, this is limited to 30 minutes of debate before voting takes place.
- Member question time which is limited to 30 minutes in total.
- Committee and ward question time which is limited to 20 minutes in total.
- Statements by the Leader and Executive which is limited to 20 minutes in total.
- Statements from Council owned companies which is limited to 10 minutes in total.
- Motions which are limited to 30 minutes each of debate before voting takes place.
In last night’s meeting, there were 6 reports presented to council before member’s question time. Full council meetings start at 7:30 pm and are constituted to finish by 10:30 pm, unless members vote to extend the meeting, by which the meeting can run until 11pm.
The first problem that arose last night was in the first report that was presented to council Addendum to the Constitution: Protocol for Holding Virtual Meetings. The constitution is not currently set up for virtual meetings so we needed to vote to include changes that would allow virtual meetings to run more smoothly. However, there was one element that we were not happy about, and as such, two of my colleagues (it needs to be proposed and seconded) presented an amendment. The bit we wanted to change was the public and ward member participation aspect of planning committee meetings.
Prior to lock down, at planning committee meetings, the developer, a ward member and a member of the public are each allowed to make representation, speaking for up to 3 minutes each to the planning committee, before they debate and decide which course of action to take. With the move to virtual meetings, this has been restricted to a 390 word written submission that needs to be supplied to the council, several days before the planning committee meeting. In all other virtual council meetings, the public are able to speak for their public questions through the Microsoft Teams function we have, and they can even dial in on the telephone if there are technology constraints. The rationale we are told as to why this can’t happen for planning committee is in case members of the public are disruptive. As with all Microsoft Teams meetings, the organisers of the meeting (Democratic Services) can mute and/or remove people from the meeting, and it’s a lot easier than physically removing someone from the council buildings should the same thing happen.
You may wonder what the difference is between providing a written statement and speaking to the planning committee. It is the democratic right of members of the public to have their voices quite literally heard on these matters. Planning is where members of the public are most engaged in council matters. The first virtual planning committee meeting I attended to speak against a development, I submitted my written submission as requested. So did the developer. In that meeting, neither of our statements were read out and I was not privy to what the developer wrote. It wasn’t until the minutes of the meeting were published that I could see what the developer’s submission was. His submission changed a large aspect of the development, and had I been aware of what his submission was, I would have changed my statement. I could not speak on behalf of my residents on the comments he made. Giving people the chance to speak at any council meeting is how our democratic process works, and we tabled an amendment to reflect that.
The amendment got voted down. My frustration though stems from the comments made by an elected member who questioned the fact that we debated these constitutional changes, and also to the previous changes that were proposed earlier this year. In fact, the words he said were “it’s a complete and utter waste of time.” The previous time constitutional changes were presented in the council chamber, some of the changes would have restricted diversity in the council chamber and we had a debate that actually changed the course of the vote. It is unacceptable to state that it is a waste of time to discuss and debate the democratic right of members of the public to make representation at planning committee.
The next frustration was in relation to a question my colleague Cllr Prue Bray asked. She asked:
“The Liberal Democrats have become increasingly concerned about the fact that due to the time constraints artificially imposed on them, meetings of full Council do not manage to complete all the business that is on the agenda. This has gone on for some time and means that important issues do not get discussed.
In an effort to try to ensure this Council meeting is at least able to reach the motions, which have been waiting some months to be debated, the Liberal Democrat group is submitting only this one written Member Question, saving time but sacrificing our limited opportunities to hold the ruling group to account in the process. At Annual Council the Conservative leader withdrew Conservative questions to get the meeting finished in time. Our question is: what will the Conservatives do at this and future meetings to try to ensure we reach the end of the agenda?”
To provide some context, back in September we submitted a motion to full council for debate. We are now in July, and it’s still on the agenda because we consistently don’t get to the motions. We also had another 2 motions on the agenda that were also from previous meetings.
The problem is that the council meetings get filled up with opportunities to grandstand. The Leader of the council and the Executive, as you’ll remember, get an opportunity to make statements about what they and their department are up to. Why then is the Deputy Executive for Climate Emergency asking the Executive for Climate Emergency in the members question time “Now that we are emerging from lockdown how can this Council work to continue the huge benefits that the environment has received from lower carbon emissions?” And why was the Deputy Executive for Regeneration asking the Executive for Regeneration in the members questions time “What are we doing to help the Towns and Villages recover from the emergency?”
In answer to Prue’s question, she was told that we shouldn’t debate reports, ask questions or even submit motions if we are to finish an agenda. As members of the opposition in a council where we have a cabinet style system, this is one of our only opportunities to give the opposition a voice and we were told not to use it.
All of the above is not new. These are issues that arise time and time again. What has made me incredibly angry though is what happened at the end of the meeting. At 10:10 pm, Cllrs Andy Croy and Prue Bray proposed and seconded a request to extend the meeting to 11pm as we were yet to start on the motions. All opposition councillors voted for it and all ruling party members voted against. This meant that we would only be able to debate the first motion, and the rest would fall. This includes the 2nd motion on the agenda which was the air pollution motion that I tabled. It’s hardly controversial tackling air pollution, so I’m completely bemused as to why we could not extend the meeting to debate and vote on this incredibly important issue. The other motions (that have also been carried forward from previous meetings) included one on EU nationals, adopting council tax collection protocol to assist those in financial difficulty, and the installation of sprinklers in buildings.
The rules of the constitution meant that we had to finish the meeting by 10:30 pm and so we had little time to discuss the 1st motion which was “This Council does not support the expansion of Heathrow airport.” Wokingham Borough Council is a consultee on this matter, but the decision was never brought to full council to debate and discuss, so we had to bring the motion to ensure it was a whole council decision and not a single member of the Executive.
At approximately 10:20 pm, an amendment to the motion was tabled by the ruling party that changed the motion. This had to be proposed and seconded in that time, debated and voted upon. As such, debate could not happen as we were out of time. The amendment was changed to “This Council does not support the expansion of any airport unless it can be proven to be carbon neutral.” This may seem like a trivial change, but given that you can only prove something after the event it actually makes it quite a dangerous stance. What is to stop Heathrow claiming they can be carbon neutral and build with conditional support to later find out that this isn’t the case. We had no opportunity to discuss as a party as to whether we wanted to accept the amendment or not and I barely got the opportunity to make my arguments. We were backed into a corner by running down the clock in the meeting to ensure that deliberation and debate of something that has a huge impact on climate change could not happen. Where is the sense in that?
What was very apparent to me last night was the rules around these meetings were used in order to stifle debate and restrict democracy. I left that meeting feeling not just angry, but incredibly upset that this kind of thing is happening. I described these council meetings as theatre, and they are just that: Punch and Judy politics.
If you want to watch how it unfolded, here is a link to the recording on the Council website.