Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Democracy 'wishlist' - Bloggers' letter in the South Wales Guardian

Further to yesterday's WLGA announcement, fellow blogger Cneifiwr and I have put together a 'wishlist' of some suggestions for the 'review panel' to consider. It is in the form of an open letter and has been published in today's South Wales Guardian. See below.

We hope you will be inspired to make your own contributions to this panel and remember, this is not any old 'annual' review; it's supposed to be a special, extraordinary, and very badly needed review of how this council is run. It was finally triggered by the unlawful actions and catastrophic failures documented in the Wales Audit Office Reports;

Let the light in

Dear Editor,

Carmarthenshire County Council  has announced that it will be beginning a review of its governance arrangements in the near future. On the face of it, this sounds like a very dry and technical subject, but it goes to the heart of what sort of local government we want.

Readers of the South Wales Guardian will know that Carmarthenshire County Council has been through a very turbulent year and has often made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Council Leader, Kevin Madge, has gone on record as saying that he would like a fresh start, and we think that the review which has just been announced is an opportunity for the council to do just that.

Although the review panel will be talking to councillors and officers, we feel strongly that they should also listen to the views of the public in Carmarthenshire, and we would like to encourage everyone who cares about local government and the services it provides to write in and give their views on what needs to change.

Local government directly affects all of us in our daily lives, often more so than what happens in the Welsh Assembly or Westminster. It is responsible for education, social services, the roads, waste and the environment, planning, public health and much else besides.

Only a minority of voters turns out to vote in council elections, and many councils are effectively run year in, year out by the same old faces. They are often less than welcoming when their actions and decisions are questioned by the press and public. That needs to change.

In Carmarthenshire a recent survey commissioned by the Welsh Government showed that more people than in any other part of Wales felt that they were unable to influence council decisions.

In recent years the constitution which governs the democratic functions of the council has been amended many times, and the cumulative effect of these changes has been to reduce the ability of ordinary councillors to scrutinise the actions of the governing board and senior officers.

Not long ago a request from opposition and backbench councillors to get the council to consult them on charges for sports facilities in the south of the county was rejected by a senior officer as an attempt at “micro-managing” executive decisions.

On another occasion a planning officer rejected a request for a report on traffic and road safety in connection with a planning application saying that it was the council’s policy only to publish what it was legally obliged to publish.

On several occasions in the last year the council executive has refused to allow debate or questions on a number of serious matters.

We believe that the default should be set to “open”, with the council withholding only what it is legal prevented from publishing.

Here are some of the changes we would like to see:

•Encouraging public participation, with time set aside for public questions and answers at monthly meetings and a much simplified procedure for submitting questions.

•Restoring urgent items to the agenda to enable councillors to raise pressing matters with the executive.

•Set aside a part of meetings of the full council with an open session of questions for the Leader and members of the Executive Board.

•Removing unreasonable restrictions on the numbers of signatures councillors need before they can submit a motion.

•Restoring recorded votes in committees so that members of the public can see how councillors voted on controversial matters.

•Extend filming to all committees, and the Planning Committee in particular. If this cannot be done for reasons of cost, the council should allow members of the public to record these public meetings.

•There should be fewer meetings held behind closed doors and independent opinion sought whenever the council applies the so-called “public interest test” before excluding press and public.

•The registers of interests for councillors and senior officers should be published online and updated.

•The Business Management Group which makes important decisions on council business should publish its minutes as a matter of course.

•Details of councillors’ attendance records should be published online.

•Carmarthenshire should follow the example set by Monmouthshire and publish details of council spending online.

•Groups bringing petitions to Council should be heard by the full council, and ordinary backbench councillors should be given an opportunity to speak on the petition.

A former US Supreme Court justice once said “sunshine is the best disinfectant” when it came to ensuring good government, and we believe it is time for Carmarthenshire County Council to pull back the curtains at County Hall and let the light in

Yours sincerely

Richard Vale (Newcastle Emlyn)
Jacqui Thompson (Llanwrda)

See also my post from Saturday; Ten years of damage - the Carmarthenshire 'review


Sian Caiach said...

Excellent letter! I hope you copy it to the Review Administrator who is collecting evidence. I'm sure many people may wish to share their opinions and experiences of council governance. The first stage will be the panel looking at the background, preparatory research, and some may be able to help by submitting details of your experiences relevant to the remit.
Daniel Hurford of the WLGA has offered himself as a contact:

Lesley said...

Excellent letter. I wonder whether the Journal would publish it??