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.