Last night I had my say at the public meeting of Colchester Borough Council’s Cabinet. I had to skip bits of my speech in order not to stray too far over the 3 minute limit but this is what I had prepared. For an audio transcript (yes – audio recording was allowed as a one off) of what I did say, see the Colchester Chronicle.
If you’re a member of the public and you want to find out about public meetings of Colchester Borough Council, you face the same problem as Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
You will remember that Mr Dent woke up one morning to find his house on the verge of being bulldozered to make way for a bypass.
He had known nothing about it until the previous afternoon. But nonetheless an official reasoned with him:
“Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”
When I used official channels to find out what happened in last month’s full council meeting I faced similar difficulties.
First, I had to wait. Although the meeting took place on 20th February, the official minutes weren’t published on the council website until this week.
Second, I had trouble finding them.
I eventually worked out I had to go to the home page, click on ‘Borough Councillors and Committees’, then on ‘Committees’, then on ‘All Committees’, then ‘Council’, then ‘Latest Committee Meetings’ and then on the uninviting and completely context-free link to the minutes of the 20th February meeting.
That’s seven clicks deep, and not particularly intuitive clicks at that. There may not have been been a leopard at the end of them, but it’s certainly the online equivalent of a locked filing cabinet, in a disused lavatory, in an unlit display department, with broken stairs.
Now cast your mind back to the evening of the council meeting itself. Shortly after 6 o’clock, I was at home looking after my children, waiting for my wife to get back from London.
I was also following a tweet-by-tweet account of the Council meeting on the Colchester Chronicle Twitter feed, supplemented by other’s peoples tweets on the meeting – including those of councillors.
The very next day, I read a lively and interesting account of the meeting on the Colchester Chronicle website. I was engaged. The Chronicle was making it easy for me to engage because it didn’t make me wait a fortnight before issuing some extremely boring minutes in which all the important stuff is hidden in plain sight.
This is one reason why I find it alarming that the Task and Finish group has recommended that no recordings are made of council meetings — except with permission. If you really want residents to engage, you need to reach out to them yourselves and give community-spirited people like Jason Cobb the tools to do it too – not expect us, as residents, to do the detective work ourselves. Or even want to do the detective work ourselves – most of us don’t.
The second reason I am alarmed is that I believe the argument that Council should prevent the recording of a meeting if a member of the public objects to be a spurious one. These are public meetings, and there are plenty of councils who publish full audio transcripts of these meetings on their websites. The law now enables them to do it, and the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles positively encourages you to do so.
More importantly, by reserving the right to stop recording in this way, you will only end up looking compromised if a member of the public insists the meeting isn’t recorded — and there just happens to be an embarrassing named vote like the one last month in which most councillors voted to increase their expenses. That would undermine residents’ confidence in politics still further.
My request is that you not only allow the public full freedom to record all public meetings, but that you invest in doing it yourself. I work in the marketing and media industry and I can assure you it does not cost £30,000 to do – and as Jason Cobb wrote to you a year ago, it can be done for £250 per month. Even cheaper quotes may be available.
As you know, I have organised a petition against the proposals to ban recording and to silence councillors’ tweets. I will be submitting that at the next full council meeting. However, I urge you to reconsider the proposals on recording meetings in particular – as politicians, transparency of this kind is a brilliant way for you to engage with residents on real quality-of-life issues — issues like the pedestrianisation of our High Street and our £2million bus shelter — rather than relying on the small-issue stuff that we get in the political literature that’s shoved through our doors.