Monday, July 21, 2014

The new “Local Forums”
– some thoughts and ideas


As has been pointed out in a comment on the earlier post on this subject, a supplementary report was submitted at the Full Council meeting last Thursday. I presume this is it. The opposition leader refers to the abolition of regional planning and area committees as “ ….. a democratic outrage which will destroy local accountability and it has been replaced with a Jas and Wes roadshow”. Unsurprisingly the Council Leader has a different view, here.

Well, as we have already pointed out it was a pre-election commitment and they have done it, or at least the first part of it. As we, both as individuals and as a community group, have a vested interest in the new arrangements being workable and effective, I think we should try our hands at some constructive criticism. The ruling administration may have rejected the opposition’s proposals for a period of consultation but that does not stop us from telling them what we think anyway. Fire away in the comments below.

So, what do we know?

We know that they will be called “Local Forums” and be held monthly. In reality that probably means 10 meetings per year as they are unlikely to schedule a forum in August or December. There would have been 34 Area Committee meetings. So that is quite a reduction already.

The Forums will be open to anyone. Area Committees were also open to anyone but if you wanted to speak or raise an issue it needed to be relevant to that committee’s area, even if you lived in a different area. Here you can raise any issue for any area, or borough wide, but in practice we suspect the idea is that issues would be localised to where the meeting is held.

Now, we don’t know where the meetings will be held other than that they will rotate across the borough. This is a very important point. If there are 10 venues you are only going to get one local meeting a year and possibly one or two more a bit less local. If it’s urgent you may end up travelling from one side of the borough to the other if that is the next available forum.

Now we come to the question of what does “Local” mean? Cllr McLaren (Church End) bemoans the lack of structure. This is a fundamental issue because the structure will define which councillors need to be present, or not. Because these forums are not formal committees, with a budget and decision making powers, there is no real requirement for the councillors to be there at all, other than to engage with their constituents. But they don’t know which forum their constituents are going to turn up at, unless they are told in advance which might be a good idea if you’re thinking of popping along. On the plus side we probably only need one councillor for each ward but even this may present problems with split wards.

The advantage of this flexible rather than structured approach is that the available structures (wards and their names plus areas) do not necessarily relate to identifiable communities and resident’s sense of place; as Area 4 found out when they put “Barkingside” on a notice board in Gants Hill. It was, and still is, in Barkingside Ward but the residents had other ideas and it was changed to Gants Hill. A forum held at Gants Hill Library, for example, would not need the duplication of 2 former Area Committees and attract residents from both sides of the A12. Not just good for community engagement but also for the community bonding within itself. I think this loose approach is good and is engagement on our (the residents) terms rather than the council trying to impose a structure based on electoral niceties (wards) to suit themselves. This was the problem with ward based policing which has now taken a back seat.

Now to the format. The sessions would kick off with an informal ‘market place’ followed by a formal panel sessions”. I quite like this. It gives you the chance to talk to people one-to-one which you didn’t get to do at Area Committees, except when Harry got to the Fairlop Oak afterwards. I prefer the phrase “cocktail party” though. Good for networking and community building when we residents actually get the chance to talk to each other as well. The panel bit is just the public participation part of an area committee meeting but there remains the question of which councillors are sitting on the panel and who gets to chair it.

So, “roadshow” is what it sounds like, or a sort of surgery for the whole council. It doesn't have to be just “Jas and Wes”, entertaining double act that they are, if the opposition take it seriously and provide some variety performances of their own.

Outstanding issues:

Much has been said and made about how few residents attended Area Committees. But attendance was not the whole of their worth, far from it. They were very good vehicles for local residents to find out what was going on in their local area, either by keeping tabs on the published agenda papers and minutes or the reports in the Ilford Recorder and sometimes here on this blog. As always it is the intangible and un-measurable benefits that suffer.

What we now need is the administration’s proposals to plug this gap. As I wrote in the last post on this subject - how do we get to know what decisions are being considered in our local area (by Chief Officers in consultation with ward members) and when/if we find out, how do we get to influence those decisions or engage in the decision making process?

3 comments:

  1. Funny, because a few years ago the current opposition proposed abolishing local committees and didn't describe it as an outrage then!

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    1. Some - but by no means all - members might have SUGGESTED it, but did not actually do so.

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  2. Bear in mind that Labour's motivation here isn't to save money, as they claim, nor to exclude the public, as others suggest. Almost certainly the driving force is actually to deny other councillors - most particularly their own backbenchers - future opportunity to take a different view from the administration, particularly when the difficult budget decisions come along. Hence decision-making powers outside the Cabinet are all being stripped away. Area Committees are a 'weak spot' for the council as they are the point in decision-making where public pressure was most easily brought to bear, as has been amply demonstrated both in Redbridge (e.g. allotments!) and elsewhere (Barnet being an obvious example).

    I do believe that Labour wants the new forums to work, but they don't seem to appreciate that the public-council relationship will be fundamentally different in a situation where individuals come along essentially to ask favours of councillors and officers, who are free to take issues away and decide later. A consequence of last week's change is that hundreds of local decisions, previously taken by councillors in front of (indeed physically facing - which never happens at town hall committees!) the press and public, now go behind closed doors to officers, after a quiet word with a cabinet member. Yes, people can still ask beforehand, and complain afterwards, but they no longer have the right to see these decisions being made, and to influence them at the time, both directly and simply because they are in the room.

    The logistics of how the "local" forums will work aren't clear, as you say. It will interesting to see how willing Labour is to grant ward members the leading role. A key issue not covered in your article is the need for a feedback system - as operated very effectively at Area Committees with the 'action list'. If someone raises an issue they, and others interested, are entitled to know the outcome and to have an opportunity to complain if nothing subsequently gets done.

    The most powerful impact of Area Committees was that they delivered a big change in the attitude of both officers and councillors to public suggestions. Not everything was agreed and not everything got done, but they forced the organisation to at least consider the issues, because we all knew they would come up again two months later. There are many many local things around the Borough that have got done solely because we had the committees, irrespective of party politics. It would be a tragedy if their loss returns the council to its default pre-2000 position of generally being able to fob people off at the town hall and then count on few being persistent or bothered enough to know how to rock the boat thereafter.

    Ian

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