Only two rounds into Canterbury City Council’s revamped local “Forum” meetings and already the system, brought in as a supposed improvement on the Area Member Panels, is looking to be at risk of failure.
What is dooming them is not the lack of interest from the public.
Rather, it the apparent indifference of councillors from the majority Conservative Party.
Of the November cycle of Forums:
Canterbury’s was attended by just one of the ruling Tory group, and that was the chairman. Some of those missing hadn’t even bothered with the basic courtesy of proffering their apologies for absence
Herne Bay’s had very few councillors present, despite a healthy attendance of the public
Whitstable’s was simply cancelled, for reasons which are unclear but are alleged to be because someone – one assumes the chairman – considered it not worth holding because of a supposed lack of pressing issues to discuss, a point of view which I suspect many people will find quite ridiculous.
Since the meetings are meant to be a way of improving contact between our elected representatives and the people, and for discussing local issues in a more informal manner than council committee meetings allow, this apparent disdain of the majority group for the forums doesn’t bode well for the improved engagement that these meetings were designed to deliver.
Already the evidence is clear that the Forums are regarded as an unwelcome distraction by some Councillors.
For example, the unanimous recommendation – which included the support of the three Tories present – from the September Canterbury Forum was that work on the reviled Station Road West car park be deferred until after the idea of an integrated transport hub had been explored.
When that got to the Property and Regeneration committee, though, it was rejected out of hand. So what exactly was the point of a discussion at the Forum?
To make matters worse, it seems that the conduct of the various meetings is becoming less rather than more consistent. The quality of meeting chairing, always something of a mixed bag, has I’m told become somewhat idiosyncratic.
Windbaggery by councillors seems to be unconstrained. The involvement of the attending public is encouraged by one chair and treated as a vile perversion of the natural order by another.
Chances to have a dialogue, as opposed to making statements or just asking questions, are being not just missed but deliberately avoided.
And, as shown by the cancellation of the Whitstable meeting, the idea that people outside the council might actually have their own ideas on issues to be discussed seems to have passed by our precious councillors and their officers without making any impression.
All this adds to a general air of dysfunction around the city council.
Not only can they – predictably – not manage Serco effectively, putting in the most spineless performance by a buyer of services I’ve ever seen, but they seem intent on shirking every difficult decision while at the same time wasting our money on utterly bonkers investments.
This isn’t helped by the fact that several of our Councillors have been allowed to step back from active involvement in the tiresome business of actually attending Council committee meetings. A couple have had significant medical issues to deal with, which of course we can be sympathetic towards – but why have they not resigned so that active replacements can be elected?
Worse, one councillor has virtually abandoned the district altogether, taking a job elsewhere to which he is, rightly, totally committed. But why has he not stood down? Indeed, why has his party permitted him to stay on the council, knowing that he cannot properly represent the people of his ward?
Such failures may be symptomatic of a Party which believes more in its right to rule than in democracy, and which at the same time is fearful of actually putting its dire record up for scrutiny by the electorate, especially after the last city by-election in Westgate was won by a Labour landslide.
This simply will not do.
Although it is now too close to the next full council election for there to be resignations and new by-elections, the complacency and self-interest of the current Tory councillors should be evident for all to see. They don’t want to listen to residents, they don’t want to attend meetings more than they have to, and they sure as hell don’t want to actually think about the difficult challenges the district faces.
Since many of them appear keen not to have the peace of their slumbers disrupted by the work we elect them to do, perhaps we should let them slide off to quieter pastures come next May.
Dave Wilson is a Labour Party member and community activist who has worked in and around local authorities for 35 years. He is a trustee of Kent Savers Credit Union.