Sunday, 30 September 2012

How open is your Council meeting?

Over a year has passed since many councils in Wales pledged to be more open and transparent, or so it seemed at the time, with particular attention being paid to the recording of council meetings.
Progress is slow to say the least. It probably doesn't get much slower than Carmarthenshire though where we remain 'on the brink' of a recommendation to (or not to) pilot webcasting after the Task and Finish Group have chewed over it for a mind numbing 18 months. The Brecon Beacons National Park Authority have taken the plunge with an 18 month pilot and Cardiff Council has been webcasting its meetings for some time with no ill effects. Monmouthshire Council has also took something of a lead in publishing spending details as well as being able to see the advantages of modern communication technology. They even have a real life, and responsive Tweeting Chief Executive.

As for members of the public or bloggers being free to record meetings, again progress is inexplicably slow. Swansea Council made promising noises about 'leading the way' in transparency late last year but eventually came up with such a restrictive and I have to say ridiculous set of criteria that I doubt if anyone's bothered to make a request.
Just what is the problem? Eric Pickles has done his bit to try and move things along but whilst you have individuals running councils who have no concept of modern social networking, and that there's a big internet world out there, forget it.

I noticed a story from the Borough of Greenwich this morning where a request was made to amend their Constitution to allow the public to film and record council meetings. Their Constitution currently contains a clause preventing recording by the public and press without prior permission of the Chief Exec and Mayor. Previous requests to record have been refused. The leader of Greenwich Council typifies the insular attitude calling it 'anti-social networking', I doubt if our own Cllr Madge, with his fear of Twitter, would think any differently. Are some people born this way or is it something that happens to them when they get into public office after the long crawl up the greasy pole of local politics?

Carmarthenshire Council, unlike Greenwich, and as we now know, has no such barrier in their Constitution, there is no mention of filming, recording etc anywhere in their Constitution or Standing Orders. The 'ban' in Carmarthenshire has no basis, the claim that it is 'policy' to prevent the public from filming has no basis either in any democratic decision nor any written document.

There is still no rule, or law, which will prevent you quietly (but openly) filming a meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council. In theory anyway.

The requirement therefore to sign a written undertaking before you are allowed (to be escorted and then locked in) to the Public Gallery is unlawful and a breach of your democratic rights.
I find it absolutely astounding that neither a) the councillors, nor b) the Minister, Carl Sargeant haven't insisted that this wasn't kicked into touch over a year ago. Clearly 'operational decisions' by individual senior executive officers of Carmarthenshire Council can only be repealed by an act of parliament.

There were four people in the public gallery at the last full council meeting and one of them was me (10am, most people are in work and you'd be very fortunate to get there at that time on rural public transport), the published minutes give you a sanitised skeleton account of who was there and decisions taken. A video would have shown you, for instance, two councillors storming out in disgust after being prevented from verbally declaring an interest. Of course it was that verbal declaration that the senior management didn't want aired in public in the first place. The minutes merely record a declaration of interest.

There seems to be a fear that unless the authority remains in control of recording the meetings their innermost secrets (as publicly discussed in the public arena of the Council Chamber) will be ridiculed on You Tube and the proceedings viewed with as much amusement as a three ring circus. This is naive, there is a genuine interest, and a public interest in seeing how decisions are arrived at, not just the bare bones of the minutes, and if the authority does behave like a three ringed circus, then people have a right to know.

I am well aware of the arguments for and against the various practical steps to openness, including the question of exempt reports and not least of all the danger that more decisions will be taken out of the Chamber altogether. However, I remain an optimist (believe it or not).

There is an ongoing project for those who are interested in tracking the progress of opening up council meetings; an introductory blogpost can be read here, follow the link, or go directly to; 'Open Council Meetings', where you can register and contribute.

I am particuarly interested in Wales, please email me or leave a comment if you have any updates from any Welsh councils or National Park Authorities as to progress to open up meetings through filming or webcasting and developments with tweeting or blogging at meetings, or for that matter, any backwards steps to 'close' the doors to your Town Hall.

Update 30th September;
I was sent a link to the webcast of Powys Council Windfarm meeting held last week. The video runs for six and a half hours, but it's a good example of well presented, clear webcasting. 
Unfortunately the public were not allowed to film or record the proceedings which is a shame and a brownie point is lost;


John Brace said...

Thank you for that interesting post, I can post from experience of a local Council I report on, which although not in Wales, borders Wales (Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council in England). Sadly it's a slightly different set of laws, policies and rules in Wales.

They too tried (a long time ago) a trial of webcasting Planning Committee meetings, which was then abandoned on cost grounds, but the policy was kept in place.

When I tried to film the Planning Committee, with prior permission (and the agreed policy stating it could be filmed), it led to this interesting exchange between myself, the Chair of the meeting, the legal adviser and a Conservative councillor trying to stick up for me. Within two days there had been a U-turn on this and later a policy was agreed by full Council to allow filming at all public meetings.

The situation has somewhat changed for bloggers though (at least in England I really don't know about Wales) as the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 as now bloggers, Twitterers etc are classed as journalists and the local authority is under a legal obligation to provide "reasonable facilities" for taking their report.

Most of what happens at meetings though, doesn't attract much public attention (judging by the number of views), unless it's mentioned in the media before the meeting happens or is something controversial.

Our full Council meetings are traditionally held in the evening, which means some people can't go, however the way most Councils are laid out means traditionally journalists have a table or area to themselves which is separate to the public gallery to comply with the reasonable facilities part of the legislation, my own view is that until a few test cases are sent for judicial review (or a fuss is kicked up locally by the unions) local councils will continue to act in a way that doesn't seem to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998.

caebrwyn said...

Thanks for your comment and the link John. Yes, unfortunately things are different in Wales. At least in England bloggers etc now have the backing of some legislation which Councils will be aware of. Although how this will work in practice remains to be seen.
In Wales there is nothing and the Welsh Minister, Carl Sargeant (Eric Pickles equivalent but different politics)doesn't appear to be acting any time soon, he issued words of 'encouragement' some time ago to councils to allow members of the public to film but, in Carmarthenshire anyway, this has been completely ignored.

Cneifiwr said...

The other week Powys County Council broadcast the meeting which voted to oppose 3 very controversial wind farm applications. There was massive public interest in the issue, and somehow the council was able to decide (a) to film and (b) to make it happen in a very short space of time. They certainly did not need 18 months. It would be interesting to know what it cost them too.

darryl said...

I've been using Audioboo to record bits of Greenwich Council meetings for a year - easier just to go ahead and do it rather than ask.

The clique which runs Greenwich is petrified of public scrutiny - here's one cabinet member spouting nonsense earlier this year. b

But by the same token, I suspect they're also too scared to take action against anyone who records meetings, because then they'd be forced to consider it rather than sticking their heads in the sand.

John Brace said...

Have you made an FOI request to Powys County Council for this information?

caebrwyn said...

Thanks for your comment and link - and with regards to audio recording, yes, point taken.

@John Brace;
According to their website, Powys Council have webcast three meetings this year, so must have all the necessary gear in place. Pity they don't broadcast more. And allow the public to film.
Will try and find out the costs though.

John Brace said...

Yes, I've had a look at the link to the Powys County Council webcast too. Public I TV have advantages over others filming meetings, but I've seen this same system also used for some Liverpool City Council meetings previously too.

This does require however some kind of agreement with the Council involved as:-

(a) they have a direct feed into the audio system which means their audio is a lot clearer,
(b) they're recording in high definition from multiple cameras,
(c) they have someone to determine who's speaking when (for the junction points) and upload the documents and
(d) a person doing video editing to determine which camera is used and when.

To do the above doesn't come cheaply and the logistics would mean they'd need access to the room it was being held in prior to the meeting starting and either access to equipment already in the room and either a power source or batteries that last for a nearly seven hour meeting.

Clearly it's a step up merely a minute or two recorded on a mobile phones and is heading towards broadcast quality and gives the Council considerable control over how it's presented and how long the footage is on the web for.

caebrwyn said...

Initial estimate of cost including set up for Carmarthenshire was around £20,000.
I am hoping that when the group of councillors eventually produce their report it will detail costs and the practicalities/logistics.
They already have an audio system in place, they just don't use it.
There is also the issue of 'editing' - I'm sure Carmarthenshire are going to be able to shout 'cut!' if anything untoward happens ;)