Councils have to be more open from the 10th September

New rules are set to become law in early September (10th) on Councils being more open and transparent in their day-to-day business.  The details can be found HERE and HERE from the Department of Communities and Local Government. The news rules do not stop all meeting from being held in private, as certain items are still allowed to be dealt privately.

If a meeting has to be held in private, the council has to give notice and reasons as to why. The new rules say where a meeting is due to be closed to the public, the council must now justify why that meeting is to be closed and give 28 days notice of such decision. On the whole I welcome these changes as I have found meetings have gone into closed sessions simply because of the controversial nature of the subject. This is wrong.

A real change a council will face is on recording of a meeting. Cornwall Council carries out a webcast on the main committees. Now it seems an individual can film, blog, tweet, or use some other social media in a meeting to report that meeting.  Furthermore, Cornwall Council’s new policy on filming/social media in a meeting might now be partially defunct because currently you have to ask permission to film/blog/tweet etc. Post the 10th September, it looks like you will not need permission. I wonder if we will see citizens filming at meetings?

The Key points are:

  •  New legal rights for citizen reporters: Local authorities are now obliged to provide reasonable facilities for members of the public to report the proceedings as well as accredited newspapers.This will make it easier for new ‘social media’ reporting of council executive meetings thereby opening proceedings up to internet bloggers, tweeting and hyperlocal news forums.
  • Holding private meetings: In the past council executives could hold meetings in private without giving public notice. Where a meeting is to be held in private, the executive or committee must provide 28 days notice during which the public may make representations about why the meeting should be held in public. Where the notice requirements for a private meeting and an agreement of the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or chairman of the relevant local authority has been obtained, the decision-making body must publish a notice as soon as reasonably practicable explaining why the meeting is urgent and cannot be deferred.
  • Less red tape for councils: Removing internal bureaucracy introduced by the last Government about ‘key decisions’, quarterly reports and ‘forward plans’. Instead, a document explaining the key decision to be made, the matter in respect of which a decision would be made, the documents to be considered before the decision is made, and the procedures for requesting details of those documents, has to be published.
  • Special urgent decision: Where it is impossible to meet the publication requirements before a key decision is made and an agreement has been obtained from the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee or the relevant local authority to make the key decision, the decision maker must publish a notice to explain the reasons why the making of the decision is urgent.. Previously no notice was required.
  • Stronger rights of individual councillors: Where an executive has in its  possession a document that contains materials relating to a business to be discussed at a public meeting, members of the local authority have additional rights to inspect such a document at least five days before the meeting . Previously no timescale existed.
  • Stronger rights for scrutiny members: Where the executive decides not to release the whole or part of a document to a member of an overview and scrutiny committee as requested by a councillor, it must provide a written statement to explain the reasons for not releasing such a documents.

I welcome these changes and have no problem with anything I say being filmed or recorded. However, will others feel the same?

Lastly, it should be pointed out, Cornwall Council has made massive strives in the use of social media, webcast and filming at meetings, thus making the council more open. It has not fully travelled the road, but it is seen as a tend-setting authority in this area.