But no formal recommendations were voted on and the subject has been deferred for a further debate at the committee’s next meeting, on Tuesday 23 July.
The debate started with references made to the marathon planning committee meeting last week, which lasted 11 hours.
Cllr Frances Newth was in favour of the South Hams Council model (outlined on page 11 of the agenda papers) which limited public questions to no longer than 50 words in length. She expressed concern about people making statements instead of asking questions.
Cllr Alan Dent said he had mixed feelings about public speaking rights. He made references to emotional speeches from members of the public, with little or no planning related arguments. He said councillors on the development management committee (planning committee) often have to clear out “dross” from their minds before being able to focus on the planning issues. Cllr Dent was in favour of limiting speakers to five for and five against. He added that it was healthy to allow people to be able to let off steam as well.
Cllr Susie Bond thought time was wasted in people getting ready to speak to the planning committee and that people should be encouraged to come forward and be ready to speak early.
David Mason (the parish council representative) suggested that it seemed that the standards committee was making policy based on one long meeting.
Cabinet member, Cllr Ray Bloxham, told the committee that it should re-examine its current rules on public speaking because in his view, they weren’t being adhered to. He said that the three minute rule relating to asking questions was being taken up with people making statements.
He said that during the last 8-9 months public questions were being taken up by the “same speakers speaking on the same subjects.”
Cllr Bloxham insisted that this prevented a “general flow of questions.”
“We don’t have equality of access,” he said.
He suggested that if there was a protest group then someone should be appointed to speak on its behalf, in which case the spokesperson could be allotted five minutes.
Cllr Bloxham then said he was “dismayed” about the coverage on this issue in the local media, relating to EDDC described as trying to limit public speaking. Instead, he insisted, the council was trying to maximise public engagement, but the abuse of public speaking needed addressing.
He finished by stating that development management committee meetings should have public speaking on all matters, not just planning applications, but in his view, this should not mean that people should have to sit through two hours of policy issues.
Cllr Douglas Hull said he would prefer the question put before any preamble that a member of the public outlined as part of their question.
Cllr Susie Bond suggested that planning committee meetings might take place twice a month if agendas were that big. She said she would hate to see anything, particularly at planning committee meetings, that would reduce the public’s right to speak. She said that a lot of issues could be resolved with good chairmanship.
EDDC’s Independent Person on the standards committee, Alison Willan, agreed with Cllr Hull on the question being put first. She said it would help the recipient with time to think about the answer.
Cllr Peter Bowden thought that if a member of the public made a statement rather than ask a question, the chairman could stand up and close the meeting.
There was then a series of recommendations put forward, including:
1. the question should be asked at the beginning of the allotted time
2. members of the public are given three minutes to “amplify” their question, as determined by the chair
3. The question should be submitted in advance and projected onto a screen
There was then a discussion around how long in advance questions should be submitted. Submission of questions in advance, it was said, was to increase the likelihood of questions being answered, as the answer could be found beforehand.
At this point, my mind drifted to the numerous times at full council meetings that I had submitted a written question, several days ahead and not had a satisfactory written answer, asked a supplementary question at the meeting but still not had a proper answer. Invariably, at full council meetings I end up waving my hand at the chairman, saying that I had not received an answer to my question. And invariably, the chairman replies that I have had “AN answer” and moves the meeting on.
Some members of the committee thought that submitting a question three days ahead was too restrictive, but Cllr Dent said any option for flexibility was “a fudge.”
Ray Davison, a standards committee member external to the council suggested that members of the public present might like to comment on the proposals. He also reminded the chairman that I had my hand up to speak.
Members of the public gave their views, which were largely related to ensuring the question was answered, flexibility around submitting questions in advance (if this was the proposal) and not enforcing a strict rule.
I told the meeting that I hoped that the proposal to allow public and ward member speaking on policy issues at the planning committee, would be captured in the recommendations.
I added that I did not recognise the description of queues of people waiting to speak at most meetings – full council and scrutiny for example. It was different at planning committee meetings but this could be helped by effective chairmanship (after all planning committee members are not always concise and often repeat each other)!
I agreed that there had been more people wanting to speak at meetings recently, but these small number of people speaking or asking questions were not delaying meetings significantly. And it was hardly surprising given the levels of controversy recently, that more people did want to attend meetings and make statements or ask questions.
I said that what is being proposed, especially in relation to setting up a system of advanced questions, could be perceived by members of the public as a desire for more control, rather than a system that would help residents. So with that in mind, I asked for the subject to be brought before the overview and scrutiny committee, of which I am a member.
The chairman asked me if I did not trust the standards committee deal with the issue. I replied that it was a public interest issue and it was appropriate that it came before the scrutiny committee.
Cllr Peter Bowden was not in favour of referring the matter to the scrutiny committee as he said it might overload the committee.
Officer advice was that if it fitted into the timetable then it could be put before the overview and scrutiny committee.
I have now emailed the chairman of the overview and scrutiny committee, Cllr Tim Wood, asking for the issue of public speaking to be brought before the committee.
It was agreed to discuss public speaking rights at the next standards committee meeting on Tuesday 23 July, at 10am. The meeting will be held at Knowle, Sidmouth and the press and public are welcome to attend.