Engaging Colchester Council

Just over a week ago, an official ushered blogger Jason Cobb out of a full meeting of Colchester Council and gave him a stiff talking to.

Now, contrary to what you might think, Jason hadn’t been tearing up the furniture or sprinkling litter in the vicinity of Councillor Goss. Nor had he preloaded on baked beans and dropped a fat one in the chamber.

No, Jason’s crime was to gather material for his excellent hyperlocal blog, the Colchester Chronicle. He wanted to make audio recordings of the principle speakers so his readers could hear the speeches for themselves.

A mistake. Jason was told that, unless he whipped out a digit and pressed the ‘stop’ button on his recorder pretty darned Q, he was out — and staying out.

Having a giraffe

He was welcome to listen. And forget. But taking away a recording that actually proved what was said by our elected representatives… well, that simply wouldn’t do.

And boy would that recording have been worth hearing. You see, this was the meeting at which councillors voted on whether to award themselves a handy increase in their own expenses.

‘Hang on!’ you say. ‘How does the sound of people sticking their hands in the air make good listening?’

Well, this was something called a named vote. In a nutshell, if you wanted to trouser a bit of extra council taxpayer’s money, you had to step up and say something like:

My name is Councillor Cashbags and I claim my extra 1.5% – crossed cheques or bank transfers only please.

Of course, you may simply have had to state your name. I don’t know — I wasn’t there, and I’ve not been allowed to hear a recording.

So what?

Boo hoo. We can’t hear councillors voting themselves extra cash. So what? We all read the results in the paper didn’t we? 

We certainly did. But next time your councillor pisses you off by voting to spend £2 million on a leaky bus shelter, or they decide to make a complete pig’s ear of our High Street, what would you rather do?

  1. Go down the pub and moan about how they get paid too much for doing too little
  2. Strap a loudspeaker on top of your car, and drive round your neighbourhood treating residents to a looped recording of “My name is Councillor Untomyself and I vote to trouser my extra 1.5%”.

Well, I know which one would make them sit up and start taking notice. Don’t you?

The only problem is they’re trying to stop us doing it. Read on a bit and I’ll show you how this rather undemocratic wheeze could very soon happen.

We’re scared. Let’s ban it

As Jason Cobb reported, a day or two after emerging from mourning for his lost audio, Colchester Council’s Technology and Community Engagement Task and Finish Group issued a document to Cabinet recommending that: 

There shall be no filming or recording of Council, Cabinet, Panel, Committee or Sub Committee meetings without the consent of the meeting.

In other words:

We reserve the right to stop you recording our words if we happen to feel they might embarrass us.

Hold on to that thought for a moment. You’ll be needing it in a moment. But first, let’s move on to the clever bit.

Believe what we say. Not what we do

I hesitate to say this, but there are politicians who are masters of the art of appearing to support something in public, while not supporting it in the slightest.

It’s a trick that easiest to pull off if you operate as part of a team. Say you want to build a huge new development, but you don’t want to lose the votes of the people living next to it, this is what you do:

  1. Get your irrelevant but friendly foot soldiers to make a lot of noise in your party’s name about how they oppose bricking over most of your area. Leaflet every household to this effect.
  2. Approve the development with apparent great reluctance
  3. Get your publicity-keen MP to make a lot of noise in your party’s name about how they oppose bricking over most of your area. Leaflet every household to this effect.
  4. Watch the houses rise out of previously green fields
  5. Instruct your officials to get their coffers ready for several thousand new taxpayers who’ll be moving in any day now.

This only works as long as the public doesn’t know exactly who said what, and when. The minutes of council meetings, of course, are useless. For a start, anyone reading them is likely to become comatose with boredom within 32 seconds. Secondly, using them to work out what politicians really said in a meeting is about as reliable as deducing the existence of a Roman settlement from the fossilised beak of a nightingale.

It just doesn’t work.

Personally, I’m all for it. But…

A clever variation on the ‘appearing to support it’ wheeze is when you say you support something, but include a clever and seemingly considerate caveat that allows you to do the opposite. 

This is what worried me about the Colchester Council leader Anne Turrell’s recent letter to me and other Myland Community Councillors. And it’s why I’m continuing to gather signatures for this petition for council transparency.

She said.

My personal view is as long as something is not commercially confidential and we are not breaking any laws then all available technology can be used. I don’t have any issue with being recorded, filmed, using Twitter, Facebook etc.

Clever that. Let’s throw open the gates etc etc.

But the cleverest bit comes here. Talking of Jason Cobb, she adds:

He also wants to record every meeting which as far as I am concerned he can, he must ask first so that everyone including members of the public are aware they are being recorded. Residents have rights as well as those trying to record.

AHA! Residents’ rights. People in a public place, in a public meeting, but with the right not to be photographed, recorded and so on.

How convenient. And here’s the rub.

Unless Colchester Council agrees to allow recording of all public meetings as a matter of general principle, there’s one thing you’ll be able to guarantee — every time the Council feels it could be embarrassed by a recording of its proceedings, there’ll be a member of the public at the meeting who will object to being recorded.

And out of apparent kindliness and consideration, the censors will win once more.

Sly. Don’t let them do it – sign the petition.

Sign the petition

5 Comments Engaging Colchester Council

  1. JC Piech

    Hi Ben, great post!
    I agree that there needs to be greater transparency, but I’m afraid I’m not convinced a petition will do much good.
    Even if everyone in a meeting agreed to being recorded, I think if you wanted to then share the recording with anyone, you’d have to seek everyone’s permission for that too. If someone says no, and you use the recording anyway, it will potentially count as a breach of an individual’s right to privacy, and either be disregarded as legitimate evidence, or you’d be open to possible injunction measures.
    This doesn’t just relate to council meetings, it applies to any kind of meeting. And whilst I think this is wrong when it comes to council meetings and other such gatherings, it’s the law. So something would have to be done to change the laws which cover this.
    The more people are aware of this though, the better!

    Reply
    1. Ben Locker

      Thanks for the comment! Actually, it’s perfectly permissible to record a public meeting – look at Parliament, the London Assembly and enlightened councils across the country! As long as the council doesn’t ban it, it’s absolutely fine in law.

      Reply
  2. Ben Locker

    Here it is:

    Eric Pickles, the UK Secretary for Communities and Local Government, last week entered the debate on Twitter under the hashtag #daft arrest, saying that the law had been changed in England last year, allowing people to to report, tweet and film council meeting

    Source: BBC

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Southend Bans Protestors' T-Shirts | Ben Locker

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