I had asked for an agenda item at the April procedures committee meeting, after February’s full council budget meeting, where a group of young people from across Devon had been refused to address the council.
Since then, two scrutiny committee meetings have hit the headlines, due to its chairman not allowing members of the public to address the committee. This caused considerable anger among councillors and members of the public.
I argued at full council in June, that the current rules were restrictive and were preventing members of the public from getting involved with important council business which was very important to them personally. Especially now, due to huge budget cuts of £100m. Here’s my speech – http://www.devoncc.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/118257
I do commend Devon County Council for its excellent webcasting facility – it is brilliant and prevents unnecessary travel as well as ensuring debates and council decision-making are as transparent and as accountable as possible. The archive facility allows members of the public to trawl back through webcasts of council meetings that took place months ago, to see who said what.
Part of the problem is that the council currently rules that any public speaker must register four working days in advance of the meeting. This means that they must ask to speak almost immediately after the agenda is published, which is a very difficult thing to achieve if you are not completely clued up on council protocol, or you don’t have a helpful councillor working with you.
The other issue is that only questions can currently be asked for the main meetings, such as cabinet and full council. There is no facility for making statements, which of course, many members of the public will wish to make, particularly in the current perilous financial situation and swingeing budget cuts.
The scrutiny committees currently have no facility for public participation, it is down to the chairman’s discretion.
A balanced report by the county solicitor in today’s procedures committee papers gave three options, including my own proposals to allow public speaking for three minutes each at all committees for a period of 15 minutes, without notice required.
The other options were:
(b) at the joint budget scrutiny meeting, members of the public be permitted to make oral representations on any matter relating to the proposed budget, providing they register by 12 noon on the day before the meeting.
(c) Alter public speaking at county council meetings so that members of the public can make statements as well as ask questions on any matter relating to the functions of the Council, limited to three minutes each, within an overall time limit of 30 minutes. Members of the public be required to submit in advance a brief outline of the point(s) they may wish to make by 12 noon on the day before meeting.
I spoke in favour of all three options, as did leader of the libdems, Cllr Alan Connett.
Labour leader, Cllr Richard Westlake, said he supported greater flexibility on public speaking but was concerned about allowing public speaking per se at scrutiny committee meetings and wanted to discuss this with the other scrutiny committee chairmen.
Leader, Cllr John Hart said he would prefer to put option a (my proposal) on hold for now but was happy to agree options b and c. He said that this was a halfway house and that my proposals could be revisited at a later date.
This very reasonable compromise, which will significantly improve the current situation, was supported unanimously by the procedures committee.
I was really delighted that my efforts and my arguments had been acknowledged and clearly taken on board.
Certainly, it has never been more important to hear clearly the voice of the community, as it is at the moment. The changes will allow many more people to have their say at key meetings. I am hopeful that the council will agree my proposals at a later date.
The proposals will now go before full council as part of the minutes, on Thursday 24 July.
Photograph: Youth centre campaigner, George Munn addresses cabinet last month (I had asked that he be allowed to speak, after missing the deadline).