New law to force Croydon to open up its council meetings

Croydon Council is to be forced by law to allow the public to record Town Hall  meetings,  in audio and video, and to Tweet and live blog from Katharine Street without their data being routed through the council’s wi-fi.

In a Pickles (again): Croydon's secretive attitude to public meetings has forced the cabinet meeting to change the law

In a Pickles (again): Croydon’s secretive attitude to public meetings has forced the cabinet meeting to change the law

Eric Pickles, the local government minister in the ConDem government, is having to resort to legislation after senior Tory councillors in Croydon effectively told him to sod off when he provided guidance to allow residents to record council proceedings, for which they are paying through their Council Tax.

Croydon Council did have the facilities to broadcast its meetings, but this was disconnected and discontinued after the Conservatives took control of the Town Hall at the 2006 local elections. Only very recently have they allowed Croydon Radio some access to meetings, in doing so opting to break their own “rules” about only allowing professional journalists into the press gallery for meetings.

And according to Tim Pollard, the deputy leader of Croydon’s secretive Tories on the council, his group had no intention of allowing greater transparency and openness of their conduct.

In answer to a question from Waddon resident Joy Prince, who is a Labour  candidate in that ward at next May’s local elections, Pollard said in a written response, “The unauthorised recording of meetings using any type of audio or visual equipment is strictly prohibited.”

Pollard said that Pickles had merely given guidance, and that his council would only permit filming and recording if it is forced to do so by law.

Croydon councillor Tim Pollard: has opposed openness and transparency

Croydon councillor Tim Pollard: has opposed openness and transparency

Pollard wrote: “Whilst the Council does review and update the Constitution in line with legislative changes and will continue to do so, the document published by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) on 14 June 2013 is a guide rather than statutory guidance which the Secretary of State is empowered to issue under various statutory regimes and expressly provides that the Guide should not be taken as providing any definitive interpretation of the statutory requirements on Councils.”

Or, summarised: sod off Eric.

Pollard continues, “The Guide makes reference to ‘new’ rules, namely the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 which were enacted last year and have been in force since September 2012. These 2012 regulations provide expressly as follows in regulation 20(4): ‘Nothing in these regulations requires a decision making body to permit the taking of any photographs of any proceedings or the use of any means to enable persons not present to see or hear any proceedings (whether at the time or later), or the making of any oral report on any proceedings as they take place’. Regulation 20(4) is not a departure from previous requirements – it is almost identical.”

It is as if Pollard, who has himself been playing fast and loose with the truth in some of his recent statements, was accusing a Conservative party cabinet member of lying, and saying that Pickles’s “guidance” did not mean what it said.

With Croydon councillors having a lot to hide, not least their frequently petulant and childish behaviour at council meetings, we should not be surprised that Pollard has no desire to open up council meetings to the widest possible scrutiny available in the 21st century.

Pollard will have no choice from next week. Pickles issued a press release on Friday saying that to bring recalcitrant councils, such as Croydon, into line on this issue, he will add an amendment to the Local Audit and Accountability Bill which gets its second reading in the Commons on Monday, to give the public the right to “report, blog, tweet and film” council meetings as “many councils are still not complying”.

Pickles’ departmental statement said, “An independent local press and robust public scrutiny is essential for a healthy local democracy, we have given councils more power, but local people need to be able to hold their councils to account.” It is as if Pickles has been closely following some of the shady goings ons around Croydon’s £140 million council office block.

“We are taking action against town hall Pravdas which are undermining the independent free press, but I want to do more to help the new cadre of hyper-local journalists and bloggers,” Pickles said. Cheers, Eric.

According to the release, the law is also going to have to be changed to “protect local press from taxpayer funded town hall propaganda sheets”.

It is unclear where this will leave Croydon Council’s Ministry of Truth propaganda department, which operated on a budget of more than £600,000 per year of public money.

There have been many occasions when the council’s press department’s conduct has caused people to ask whether it is serving the residents, or serving the political purposes of the likes of Pollard and his boss, the florid-faced Mike Fisher. For example, in its effort to cover the last full council meeting,  the council’s publicly funded press office managed to send no fewer than 16 tweets from the @YourCroydon Twitter account reporting the comments of Conservative councillors, yet it somehow failed to mention a single intervention from any Labour councillors. How odd.

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2 Responses to New law to force Croydon to open up its council meetings

  1. This has to be good news! The behaviour has to improve in the Council Chamber; no-one I know ever comes away from a debate feeling that there has been a proper evaluation of all relevant evidence to arrive at a decision which will maximise social welfare.
    We are very short of resources;we cannot indulge this tiny group of people any longer; we need proper democracy to ensure that we are getting good value for money.

  2. Much as I sympathise with Charlotte’s views, I fear the days of open government in Croydon are as far away as ever.

    For decades, administrations of both major parties have manipulated agenda items to ensure that anything sensitive was consigned to Part B and thus discussed in private.

    Whatever Big Eric does, I am sure that like every good rat-catcher, he will leave a breeding pair in the form of a loophole or two through which his local government colleagues can escape the scrutiny he pretends to endorse.

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