Councils and Committees: Where is the real work done?


southend civic centre
I read an interesting blog at the tail end of last year. John Barber, a local blogger on subjects ranging from local politics to religion, responded to a letter by Del Thomas, one time Conservative candidate for Victoria ward, decrying the absence of some councillors from chamber at the last Southend Borough Council meeting.

(So this is a blog, responding to a blog, responding to a letter in the paper? -Ed)

John points to councillors who sit in the chamber without saying anything. It’s an interesting point, and a quick glance over the list of councillors shows me a host of names that I cannot put a face to, let alone a voice.

Now, John is a St Luke’s resident, and a big fan of the Independent Party Group councillors representing that ward. Where would I be if I didn’t point out the irony of his position here? Has the most recently elected Independent in St Lukes, Caroline Endersby, said anything in the chamber yet, John?

I actually agree with John, in part. Councillors are elected to be a voice for their residents. If they aren’t doing that, then they aren’t fit to call themselves councillors. This is why I have kicked up a fuss over the poor attendence in the chamber of elements of the new UKIP contingent.

To damn councillors for not speaking at full council, though, misses a big point about how local government works. Full council is indeed the ultimate decision making body, where all final calls are taken. It is important that elected councillors are there, listening, voting, standing up for their residents.

But actually, a lot of the management of local government functions is already done by the time of full council; indeed, by the setting of the agenda. The decisions on what will and won’t be voted on decides much of the council’s business, and that in turn is set by the scrutiny committees.

These committees can “call in” decisions made by the cabinet to be voted on by the whole council. It’s the main method which opposition party groups have to hold the administration to account. Instead of being made by seven people selected by party leaderships in a room, they can be made by 51 councillors democratically elected by the voters of Southend. In, err, a room…

At any rate, the decisions actually discussed at the full council meetings represent a small amount of the actual business of councillors. So whilst I agree with John that councillors need to be standing up for their residents, I would hesitate to make the primary measurement of that the number of times they speak in full council.

A more holistic view of councillor roles would be more useful, something which at the moment is made sadly more difficult by the fact that they are not recorded and webcast, nor are the minutes a particularly useful reflection of what was said by whom. Given the opportunity, I would change these two issues.

I have less problem with a councillor keeping their silence in a full council meeting, if they are standing up for their residents in other arenas. And though John does raise an interesting point, I do think that silence in a meeting is less of a worry than councillors choosing not to turn up.

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2 comments

  1. You make a valid point Matthew about a lot of the important work in Council being done outside of the main council meetings, and of course this usually does not get reported. I have no issue with councillors not speaking in main meetings if they have nothing significant to say and prefer that to what often happens – councillors speaking who have nothing worthwhile to say (something I did point out when I wrote my blog). The point I was trying to make is that I would like to see councillors fully contributing to the political process AND serving residents in their ward when it comes to their concerns. I took exception to Del’s letter because it focussed on attending meetings rather than working on behalf of the residents. While I tend to concur with the view that politically my own councillors may not contribute as much as I would like, it cannot be denied that regarding the addressing of residents concerns point they have done a lot, unlike some councillors from some of the other wards, who may well turn up for all the meetings and even speak. As for my being a fan of the Independent group, check out my voting record: 2012 – Labour, 2013 – abstain, 2014 Conservative and only because I felt the candidate I supported was best for St. Lukes, irrespective of his/her political affiliation. You might also like to check out with Paul Van Looy who has declared he no longer supports my chairmanship of the local residents association because of what I wrote.

  2. Who is Van Looy to support somebodies chairmanship of a residents association. The residents should choose him not the other way round. Anyway I am less than impressed by many councillors although I think having a range of parties is helping improve the average councillor quality problem. In the past their have been too many silent Tories. The opening batsmen (or women) from each party are all competent but I am not sure all parties can be that proud of their lower order.

    Which independent would you back for cabinet next (if they need another) it doesn’t seem obvious to me that any could do it.

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