Earlier this month saw the second meeting of the Canterbury Forum, latest incarnation of the city council committee devoted to discussing purely city-related issues. Cllr Alan Baldock sat on the panel and offers this assessment of it
The Canterbury Forum “a place where councillors and the public come together to talk about city council issues affecting their area”.
Well that was the grand idea following Canterbury City Council’s much heralded governance review. Everything, we were told, would be a whole lot better.
Sadly, I think we are nowhere near that: it’s a whole lot worse than we had before at the forum’s forerunner, the old Canterbury Area Member Panels, where there was always a lively debate about the city and a lot of public participation.
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Now the Forums are confined by a staged agenda and have lost the opportunity for our residents to ask about the issues of the moment. The short Q&A session has been withdrawn.
To cap it all the meeting is now held in the chilly St Peter’s Methodist Church, a stone’s throw from the original venue of the Guildhall, and set up like a panel on Question Time.
This arrangement is I understand to make the meeting more inclusive and friendlier, however hearing and seeing what is going on is challenge for all those attending.
This month saw the second Canterbury Forum. No Conservative Councillors turned up, except the chair Terry Westgate.
Still looking on the bright side we did have a meeting, a recent Whitstable Forum was cancelled as there was nothing to talk about in Whitstable.
But let’s try to be a bit positive, this Canterbury Forum certainly did have lots to talk about.
An idea based of a possible “youth space” based around a skate-park and making use of the locked off sub-way near St Georges. The item was presented by a local resident Luke Sullivan, it was interesting and thought provoking.
We talked through issues around busking, which like the previous item, had lots of public comment.
We even granted a small amount of money from the Forums Opportunities Fund to Jesus Hospital to write and publish a history of that much-loved old building at the Northgate end of the Sturry Road.
So, I hear you ask, what’s the problem?
Well, the elephant in the room was still there: the deeply unpopular multi-storey car park in Canterbury’s Station Road West.
At the first Canterbury Forum councillors (this time some of the Conservatives turned up as well) unanimously recommended that the idea of an integrated transport hub was explored thoroughly.
It is meant to be a possible alternative to building the car park, obviously that investigation was needed before continuing with the build.
During that evening in September the Canterbury Forum listened to the public, the debate was informative, open and straightforward.
The councillors were persuaded that other options were possible ones that did not involve building a multi-storey car park. In their opinion those options needed working through before spending £9 million of public money.
The recommendation from Canterbury Forum was given an agenda slot on the Regeneration and Property Committee, it was regrettably given short measure and dismissed.
This simply highlighted how little respect is be shown to a Forum recommendation under the new governance arrangements – especially if it dares to challenge.
But to compound the matter the Chair of the Canterbury Forum Councillor Terry Westgate refused to allow an agenda item for feedback on that decision at the November Canterbury Forum.
We all know it is a contentious and unpopular decision, one that is being thrust on an unwilling city, but it must stand up to scrutiny all the same.
His reason given was that the matter has already been discussed, the decision made and there was as such nothing further to add.
That approach to Forum recommendations cannot be good enough. The Forums are supposed to be there to engage with the public openly, that won’t happen if an administration fears scrutiny so much that it will avoid having a Q&A session at a local Forum or seeks to stifle conversation on contentions local issues.
Those conversations and questions will often involve hearing what one would prefer not to. That is the lot of a politician, equally it is the right of our electorate to challenge.
The irony that the Forums in their current format arose from a governance review of this council is not lost.
Cllr Alan Baldock is the leader of the Labour group on Canterbury City Council and represents Northgate ward. He lives and works in Canterbury