Ben Locker, a Conservative activist from Colchester stood in the borough council election in 2012. He explains why he has started a petition to press for greater transparency in Colchester Council public meetings
Almost exactly two years ago, Eric Pickles launched a campaign for councils to open up their public meetings to local bloggers and allow online filming of public discussions. At the time, transparency of this kind wasn’t coming easily to some local authorities. As Pickles’ then Under Secretary Bob Neill pointed out in a letter to all council leaders:
There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience.
Since then, many councils have turned a deaf ear and the stories have continued to pour in.
In June 2011, blogger Jacqui Thompson was arrested and handcuffed after filming a Carmarthen Council meeting on her phone.
Last December, Croydon Council’s CEO demanded that journalists and bloggers were excluded from an open meeting of the West Croydon Community Forum because they made him ‘feel uncomfortable’.
Then this month an official took a blogger, Jason Cobb, out of a full council meeting in Colchester and ordered him to stop making audio recordings of the session. (This turned out to be the meeting at which every Lib Dem, Labour and Independent councillor voted themselves a 1.5% increase in expenses — in a named vote).
Only days after Cobb was silenced, Colchester Council’s cross-party Technology and Community Engagement Task and Finish Group published a series of recommendations for approval by Cabinet. They included:
There shall be no filming or recording of Council, Cabinet, Panel, Committee or Sub-Committee meetings without the consent of the meeting.
Use of devices by Councillors participating and voting at a meeting and by all councillors at full Council meetings does not extend to viewing or participation in social media, including, but not exclusively, Twitter and Facebook.
Or to put it another way, the authority doesn’t want the wider public to see what councillors get up to, or to let social media users hear what they think.
At a time when turnout in Colchester’s borough elections is somewhere near the 30% mark, it’s crazy for councillors to cut themselves off from a potentially large new audience.
The fact is that most people don’t have the lifestyles that allow them to turn up to 6pm council meetings, or the inclination to wade through reams of council minutes.
Bloggers like Cobb perform a real service by allowing people to engage with the council in ways that suit them best. If I want to attend a meeting, I need to arrange childcare. Instead, I follow the tweets of
people like Cobb and the handful of councillors who tweet during meetings (while they’re still allowed to). Quickly uploaded audio (or better, a webcast) would give me — and hundreds of others — a chance to participate that we currently don’t have.
As Conservatives we should certainly be taking the message out to voters, and not demanding they come and sit through our meetings. ‘Get-what-you’re-given’ politics doesn’t turn anyone one.
The failure of councils like Colchester to support new methods of public participation reminds of the current state of the High Street. Retailers like Blockbuster, Jessops, HMV and the like didn’t realise that most of us just don’t want to trudge into their shops to buy things. Smart ones like John Lewis did, and they began to use their shops as showrooms for their online products — and even use the data about our online buying habits to tailor the stock they offer in different stores.
Shoppers are voters too. Engaging them drives votes up, not down. If we can see our elected representatives in action online and in video, or start conversations with them on social media – then not only will it get many more people interested in local politics, they’ll have a clearer idea of who they’re voting for and why.