It seems like Northamptonshire County Council has been facing stick forever. After the recent Judicial review victory by Library campaigners, it’s worth stating that the stick seems well justified. Most criticisms have focussed on the the deterioration in services but there have also been failures in the organisational culture, as anyone whose had any kind of engagement with the Council may have noticed. As an opposition councillor it is extremely hard to influence budget decisions and this is why my immediate focus will be on the organisational culture.
Here’s some statements made by others about this.
In the Local Government Authority (LGA) Peer Review;
“Decisions taken by the Cabinet need greater transparency. Council members and scrutiny chairs need access to more information. There was a desire expressed from some cabinet members for greater discussion and challenge across portfolios. However, where challenge has been provided, for example from the Audit Committee, that has not been welcomed.”
(Financial Peer Review - Northamptonshire County Council, Dates: 12th – 14th September 2017, Feedback Report)
Max Caller (the Government appointed Commissioner) in his report stated,
“the approach adopted made it very difficult for any backbench councillor to establish what was going on and the absence of effective controls made the job of budget management an exercise”. (2.12)
“Even if there was a concern about the publishing of confidential information, most authorities have protocols and practices which make it possible for key information to be shared and protect the authority. To refuse it outright is just wrong.” (3.82)
“challenge and criticism was to be discouraged as senior members and officers knew best.”
“The council did not respond well, or in many cases even react, to external and internal criticism. Individual councillors appear to have been denied answers to questions that were entirely legitimate to ask and scrutiny arrangements were constrained by what was felt the executive would allow. When external agencies reported adverse findings these were not reported with an analysis of the issues and either a justification or an action led response to a relevant decision taking body. At its most extreme, the two KPMG ISA 260 reports, stating an adverse opinion on Value For Money matters were just reported to the Audit Committee without comment and the unprecedented KPMG Advisory Notice issued under the 2014 Act was reported to full council without any officer covering report giving advice on what the response was recommended to be.”
Since my first Council meeting, on 1st August, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in dealing with the public in County Council meetings. I’ve regularly attended Council meetings, as a member of the public, often registering to speak. Even when not registered to speak, as a member of the public I was able to sit in the public gallery and watch proceedings. But, since 1st August, members of the public who haven’t registered to speak at least two days before the Council meeting, are ushered into a side room where they can only view one camera angle from the Council chamber and thus unable to see all the speakers. This additional resource comes without council papers (which were previously available) but with a security guard.
The creation of this distance from the public shows the Council failing in it’s requirement for transparency at the very time that it is most needed. Without transparency, there is less likely to be confidence in the decisions taken by the administration. It also indicates the Council’s wish for distance between decision making and the community. The Chair of the Council has on at least two occasions stated that members of the public who heckle in public would not be given the right to speak at Council again.
At a time when communities, families and staff are promised swingeing cuts and massive job losses, the Council’s Chairman requires decorum to continue above all else. This approach denies the reality of the pain being felt in the County. It denies the passion that local people have about their public services and denies the life and death nature of some of the decisions being taken in the Council. Hearing the views of members of the public who often give a context to how decisions made or about to be made would impact on their communities, is an important element in local democracy. But we are now seeing an erosion to these rights. The three minute limit is often reduced to two, which makes it more difficult to make a point.
Prior to February of this year Council meetings were webcast, so anyone across the world could see what was happening and the decisions being taken. But the contract was allowed to run out and because most meetings happen during the day it’s now impossible for the majority of the public to view what goes on. More evidence that the Council wants decisions taken out of sight and out of mind of the public.
So, whilst the people of Northampton can still express their views directly to the Council it is no longer possible to sit in the public gallery unless you have registered to speak (remember to register two days in advance). And for those who choose to speak they would like you be polite, stick to your two minutes and go away and don’t expect anyone not able to be present to hear what you have to say. Yet another example of the dysfunctional organisational culture at the heart of this Conservative administration.