In Council – June 2009
I attended my first Full County Council Meeting today and in the aftermath there are various things I’d like to talk about. Since it’s clear this is going to be a big part of why I blog I’ve decided to make it a regular feature. After each full council meeting I’ll have an ‘In Council’ post which features the things I found interesting, notable (or irritating) about it.
Today was the first meeting of the ‘new’ council too, comprised of returning councillors and a healthy bunch of brand new faces (like mine.) The elected council currently consists of forty-two Conservatives, twenty-three Liberal Democrats, two Labour(s) and one Green. Due to the sad death of one candidate – the election for the sixty-ninth seat has not yet been held and the seat remains vacant until it is.
For the most part this should have been a simple ‘by the book’ meeting since the agenda was mostly just voting on some of the officers and positions available, confirming people’s new committee posts, confirming the constitution and doing the necessary paperwork to get the new council term underway. Having read the agenda in advance I was expecting a fairly simply affair. Yeah right.
Policy Development Groups – To Be Private or Not To Be Private
During the early portion of the meeting the Lib Dems sat patiently in their chairs opposite, looking quietly self-satisfied. They proposed alternatives to various posts and – not being the majority party – lost. That didn’t matter though, I imagine they wanted to be seen to be doing and saying something and that’s fair enough. But then we got to the first sticky agenda item. The Lib Dems wanted to propose that Policy Development Groups (PDGs) be ‘public’ instead of ‘private’. More specifically, Councillor Rupert Moss-Eccardt wanted to amend the constitution to make this happen.
Jargon-Smasher (Councillese Version)
For the uninitiated, a Policy Development Group is a committee which meets to discuss policy ideas for a specified area the council handles and then makes those ideas available to cabinet for possible implementation. The groups have members from all political parties on the council and are there to make sure that all councillors, regardless of their political colours, get a chance to have input on the direction of the council’s governance.
Jargon-Smasher (Plain English Version)
PDGs are a place for councillors to share and debate ideas about what we should be doing and then to suggest those ideas later to our cabinet leaders.
The Lib Dems were saying that “openness” and “transparency” were something we should always try to achieve more of. That the public had a right to be present at all our deliberations and that making some meetings private was not sending out the right message. They used very flowery adjectives like “secret” and “hush-hush” and talked about “meetings in wood-panelled smoky rooms” a la David Cameron. It was all very imaginative and full of colourful invective.
Now on the face of it this seems like a great idea, right? Open! Transparent! What’s not to like? But just because somebody is able to dress an idea up in the current buzzwords and then pass it off with a smooth turn-of-phrase doesn’t necessarily mean the idea will stand up to scrutiny.
Anybody who has spent any time in business will know that the best, most imaginative, most incredible ideas come out when people feel comfortable enough to speak freely. That’s why so many companies try and encourage their employees to “think outside the box” and have “brain-storming” sessions where anything goes. For every fifty zany, improbable, wacky ideas you throw out there, one of them may be an insightful new approach to a problem. The trouble is those ideas tend to be much less likely to come out when the cold light of public scrutiny is shining upon you. Suddenly the fear of looking (or sounding) stupid, of saying some too controversial, of being ‘on record’ as having had one of the fifty zany, improbable, wacky ideas which didn’t pan out becomes stifling and counterproductive.
The Lib Dems want to paint the idea that PDG’s are secretive because that sounds nefarious and suspicious. Of course, that’s pure political wordplay for their benefit. The fact is PDG’s don’t ‘set’ policy at all. They are the ideas stage, the place for free debate over policy possibilities. Yes, let’s be “open” and “transparent”. God knows the public have had enough of political skullduggery lately on the national stage. But like any place where business is done, representatives have a private meeting to discuss ideas and thrash out the wheat from the chaff. Then, when there are some actual policies to put forward the openness and transparency is handled perfectly well at that stage. The alternative would be turn successful PDG meetings into a bizarre spectacle where real ideas and discussion where replaced by some parties parading like peacocks in front of their pocket audience just for the sake of proving to the world how very clever they are. Which parties? I couldn’t possibly say. But the feathers would be yellow, I suspect.
A Time And A Place
The next piece of ‘excitement’ (perhaps this is a new use of the word of which you were not previously aware, if so, you will not be alone in that) was another proposed amendment. While our good friend Cllr Moss-Eccardt did not make this proposal, it had all the hallmarks of being his plaything (it was utterly inane, he was sitting next to the young lady who made the proposal, she regularly turned to him for advice during the discussion and at one point he took over on her behalf.) This proposal was that councillors “be allowed to ask questions during the first meeting of a new council”.
I should point out that the first meeting is considered (as I said in the beginning of this lengthy blog post) as being for making certain necessary decisions; the new council chairman, the new council vice-chairman, approving the constitution, appointing the new council leader etc etc. It is a structured meeting conducted for certain business and that is why this one lone meeting in a full four-year term does not allow other questions. But it seems that today was the day for making pointless amendment proposals so ahead went another half an hour of argument over, basically, nothing.
Some time into this charade it appeared that Cllr Sarah Whitebread (the proposer) became uncomfortable with the Monster she had summoned and turned plaintively to Cllr Moss-Eccardt for assistance in somehow banishing it to the netherworld from whence it came. He, the grand puppet master, grinning like a cheshire cat and bouncing up and down like Winnie’s friend Tigger (with whom he equates himself on his home page) was enjoying the spectacle far too much to notice.
End result – no pointless change in the rules was agreed. A predictable and sensible result but that didn’t stop Cllr. Moss-Eccardt interrupting the chairman (again) with his erstwhile cry of: “I protest”. One too many coffees with his Weetabix, methinks.
What I Will Be Doing
During the course of the council meeting we were informed what our posts and committee memberships would be for the forthcoming council term. We’ve all recently had to fill in forms about our previous experience and interests so that the Powers That Be have information to hand and can make informed decisions. Now I’ve got to admit I wondered how effective this was going to be. Cllr. Jill Tuck (Leader of the Council) is clearly a smart lady and knows a thing or two about all this (a darn sight more than I do, to be sure) but I wasn’t sure how well she knew me. I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d end up poorly placed or stuffed uncomfortably into the wrong job, a square peg in a round hole as it were. As it turns out I’ve been given four’positions’:
Children & Young People – Policy Development Group
Growth & Environment – Policy Development Group
Traffic Management Area Joint Committee (Fenland)
Corporate Services – Scrutiny Committee
I’ll admit to being very pleasantly surprised. I expect, if I’d chosen the positions myself, my own selections wouldn’t have been far off these. It’s very encouraging for me to see that our county leadership, even with the little exposure they’ve had to me, seem to have understood my experience and strengths well. I just hope my colleagues don’t mind a little radical thinking. I’m a Conservative Libertarian and I strongly favour localism, as per the gospel of Mssrs. Hannan and Carswell. As such, I think I might be a little different to some of my more traditionally Conservative peers. From what I’ve seen so far, the Conservative Council are a broad church with very open minds. I hope, as somebody who hasn’t come up the “usual” path into County Council, I might have a fresh (or at least different) viewpoint to offer. In the end, I can only do my best for the people of my division and for the council as a whole. Let’s hope that’s enough!