Our challenge is how to shine a light on this, and raise our conerns without ourselves falling into the mire. Maybe it is not possible, but lets try...
Changes to the Committee system and Abolishing of Neighbourhood Committees
Last nights full Council meeting ( 14 July 2015 ) breifly debated constitutional changes to Kingston's democracy before voting the draft in.
How is this a concern for us?
For the large planning applications coming in Central Kingston, consultation is hugely important to us.
As is our ability and opportunity to influence change - which could be further strangulated by this.
We have had multiple meetings with the Leader of the Council, yet there remains trust and transparency problems.
We come away with unanswered questions and wondering how an hour of talk could be so unfruitful. Sadly the Leader of the Council told us on June 24th he is the single person strategy to solve the consultation issue between the council and its 165,000 residents.
So when the Leader of the Council seeks to rush through a change to our democratic system, in an undemocratic way - we are right to be concerned.
This then follows the current theme from the Councillors-in-power: deliver major changes, all at once, unexplained, in a rush.
While it is possible that this could be well intended in part or whole, there could be very bad consequences. The point is we don't know. We don't have clarity, it has not been tested in free and open debate.
So how does this effect large planning applications coming in Central Kingston? It looks like Neighbourhood committee meetings will no longer be involved, so for example the recent TOPO planning application would have gone to just two meetings instead of the three meetings we had. This paves the way for further streamlining for large developers. No wonder a developer was one of the few members of public that stayed on past 11pm last night...
The Mayor has a specific role to uphold the Constitution’s purposes & to promote public involvement in the Council’s activities.
- he was reminded of this fact, but failed to act.
Amendments and deputation
A mostly sensible one page Opposition Amendment was ignored. Sadly though its self-defeating inflammatory tone would have made it difficult to gain the required support. Especially given we were just 2 days from a Grove ward by-election.
The cross party deputation was more even handed, delivered by ex Conservative Councillor Lynne Finnerty, but the effort to introduce these changes in a democratic way ultimately failed.
The deputation called upon the Mayor to recommend this decision be deferred to allow public involvement. The Mayor looked baffled, spoke to the Head of Governance then said it would be taken into account in the debate. It wasn't. The deputation was duly forgotten.
The cross-party deputation
Representation tonight is felt necessary as residents have not been given the opportunity to comment, question or seek clarification at Neighbourhood or Strategic Committee stage on these significant democratic & Constitutional changes.
Our Constitution states that one of its purposes is to support the active involvement of citizens in the process of local authority decision-making.
The Mayor has a specific role to uphold the Constitution’s purposes & to promote public involvement in the Council’s activities. We call upon the Mayor to recommend this decision be deferred to allow public involvement.
With regard to the report - Community & street forums and the streaming of Council meetings should open up the Council for residents.
However major change is planned for the structure of Committees, including the reform of Neighbourhoods. This raises many questions which cover, among others, Portfolio holders & lead members & the possibility of individual Councillors allocating community grants without recourse to proposals or outcomes.
Clarity is also required regarding planning. It appears the system would in future be reliant on the ability to persuade our ward Councillors to bring some applications to Committee for decision. This would replace the current clear-cut, transparent process.
No costings are available but approval will authorise the Director of Finance to make budget adjustments.
Why no reference to these changes on the Council’s published Forward Plans? A personal blog & Twitter are useful means for the Council leader to communicate his vision, thoughts & ideas.
However is it democratic to then propose reform without recourse to any Committee other than full Council? - bearing in mind that a huge number of residents are not even aware of, or have access to, the blog. Is it appropriate, when a resident questions the changes, to be directed to the blog rather than the official Council website containing full reports?
With these changes there’s the opportunity to strengthen the democratic process in the event of community call-ins of decisions for review. It need not require a full allowance for a separate Chair. The process was weakened with the discontinuance of the Scrutiny Panel – proposed without any prior warning or opportunity for public participation. The process now borders on the unconstitutional.
Our Constitution is being altered again. Constitutional issues fall within the remit of the Policy & Finance Committee which sat on 2nd July where questions could have been raised & clarification sought by the public & Council members.
Time constraints here at full Council will not allow for adequate cross-party discussion on such major changes & restructuring.
The report recognizes that there’s regular attendance at Neighbourhood Committee meetings of a small number of residents attached to resident associations.
Residents should - & still could be – asked how communication, engagement & empowerment can be improved. This need not have the financial implications of a major consultation exercise. For instance, it could involve informal interaction with the many resident associations & alliances borough-wide.
This deputation has no political intent.
The message - the speed & degree of change combined with lack of clarity & consultation is a very big concern.
It’s a positive sign that residents are interested in being architects of reforms that affect them.
If the Council intends to ‘listen, interact & engage’ better with residents then these proposals offer an excellent starting point.
We would welcome a commitment that residents have a voice on future reforms and/or Constitutional changes affecting them.
We request that these fundamental changes, at the very least, are routed via a Committee or Committees to give residents a voice BEFORE being ratified at full Council.
The report mentions the public voice needing to be allowed to permeate the Council ear.
Mr. Mayor, Councillors - our representatives - we ask you to listen now & vote to defer this decision.