What Price Local Democracy?
Written by Tabitha Droy on May 19, 2021
Article Published on Wednesday May 19, 2021 1:46 PM by Tabitha Droy
What Price Local Democracy?
As the new West Northamptonshire Council prepares to meet for the first time since the elections on 4th May, many are hoping that this new authority draws a line under a difficult period of Local Government and marks the start of a more transparent, more democratic and engaged council. This Thursday’s meeting however, which will see the confirmation of new council leader Mr. Jonathan Nunn, already raises serious questions about strategic planning and running of council meetings and importantly around the cost of this meeting to the tax- payer. Rugby and Daventry Radio has discovered that the meeting, to be held in person at Franklin’s Gardens, home to The Saints Rugby club, is costing jaw- dropping £8,360…
When asked whether other venue options had been considered a spokesperson for West Northamptonshire explained :
“Initially all internal venues were assessed and none were found to be able to safely and legally accommodate the meeting. Then a list of 17 external options were identified (including schools, community centres, theatres and hotels) each was then assessed for capacity, availability, accessibility, suitability and cost. Of the small number that met the base criteria, the Saints was agreed as the most suitable and safe.”
Whilst perhaps surprisingly the £8,360 doesn’t include posh biscuits, coffee or a break-time performance from Lionel Richie, more than 50% of that cost does include the necessary audio visual equipment; such as head-sets for members to ensure council business is carried out properly.
So, who is paying for this two hour show of local democracy in action? Well, the money is coming from a central Government pot, provided by Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. Intended to support local governments in their response to the pandemic, the money was not specifically ear-marked to pay for meetings. There would appear to be no set budget for these meetings either.
So why is the meeting taking place in person, when MP’s can still meet remotely? Well on Monday the law came into force that means that all local governments must return to face-to-face meetings and hold their first council meeting 21 days following an election. However the challenge for all councils, is that these meetings must also take place with social distancing and Covid secure measures in place. With the new West Northamptonshire Council now having 93 members, plus staff , the venue has to be big enough to do this and no existing council venue met those requirements.
Other councils are facing a similar problem and while questions around the cost of this meeting should rightly be put to those decision makers in West Northamptonshire, the true failing appears to be from government, in not fully addressing this problem earlier. Since Spring last year, local governments have lobbied for action. In April this year, Hertfordshire council with the support of LGA (Local Government Association ) went to the high court to try to extend councils ability to hold virtual meetings. They argued that being forced to hold meetings face-to-face, would not only have cost implications, but also potentially damage the huge gains seen in public participation in local democracy experienced during the pandemic, where more people have engaged remotely.
The case failed because it was ruled that in order for virtual meetings to continue there would have to be a change in the law to extend the date that had been put in to the CoVID Act last year. In order for that to happen, there needed to be a new Act passed in Parliament and there was no parliamentary time left to get this through.
Regardless of the fact that it has been central government that has put local councils, including West Northants in this position, by not making a collective, up-front public statement expressing perhaps “frustration” or even “regret” at having to pay such huge sums of money in this way, the new Council does little to reassure the public that things will be different moving forward. Add to that. the as yet unsubstantiated claims that the food bill for those working election night at Silverstone ran to £30,000 and hotel rooms were paid for but not used, The new Councils must appreciate not only the Optics but the expectation of the public after what has been a depressing period of mismanagement over recent years for the county – even before the pandemic and the ongoing fallout being felt by those working in much needed services.
The fact that this money is not coming directly from local tax payers, still matters because it is still arguably another example of public money being wasted by government, but surely what really also matters is that that money is being spent wisely and the council is accountable for that.
If there was a room big enough to put an elephant in, then that elephant would be; – That as yet, even when all social distancing measures are gone (June 21st), there is still not one council chamber or council venue large enough to hold all 93 council members , officers and public, anywhere!
When asked to confirm where all subsequent meetings will take place, a council spokesperson confirmed that multiple venues are being considered currently as a priority.
As for the public attending the meeting on Thursday May 20th 6PM at Franklin’s Gardens, well we are encouraged to do so virtually. Please follow the link for the agenda and the link to attend the meeting.
Tabitha Droy presents The Morning Show, 9-11, and will be talking to the new councilleader Jonathan Nunn next week
Photo of What Price Local Democracy? | All Text and Images are the Copyright property of Tabitha Droy unless otherwise stated above. Where the Copyright ownership does not sit with Tabitha Droy the text and images are used under the creative commons and fair use frameworks with the relevant credits offered.