By Chris Cornell
Photograph: the Whitstable Forum, November 2019
This week the new Conservative leader of Canterbury City Council brought forward proposals to abolish vital local meetings, which had been called ‘forums’. These local forums were relaunched only two years ago, following an extensive consultation, in order to provide a relatively informal place where members of the public and their local councillors could meet to discuss and debate hot local topics. They were a way in which local issues that people cared about could be fed into decision-making structures; they were also a place where absolutely anyone, elected or not, could propose an agenda item; and, crucially, they were presented as a better and cheaper alternative to Whitstable and Herne Bay having their own town councils.
In deciding to abolish these forums, the Conservative Party, who still somehow dominate the Guildhall in Canterbury despite seemingly showing a disinterest in local voices, suggested that such forums were ‘inefficient’ and ‘impossible’ given the dire financial position the council finds itself in. So, has Covid-19 damaged our democracy for good? And are we at risk of seeing councils become less engaged with their communities at a time when they need it most?
The calls to remove local forums are most surprising because it isn’t clear that they were failing. While attendance was occasionally patchy, when people were really interested in what is being discussed, 90-100 people could gather at one time. More importantly, the informal nature of these meetings often drew people together from a wide range of social groups. In the last two years, forums had been addressed by young people from Canterbury’s Thanington estate, the junior teams and coaches from Tankerton FC and even homeless people from Catching Lives.
The new leader of Canterbury City Council has suggested that abolishing local forums will provide an opportunity for the council’s Canterbury-based committees to have more public engagement. But speakers at these committees are time-limited to three minutes, they are held in the austere environment of the Guildhall and they follows a set agenda drawn up only by the council. Discussion in this type of forum is limited to the merits of ideas presented by council employees— rather than a place where people can suggest ideas from the floor, as used to happen in the forums.
While the forums don’t actually cost much apart from the hire of room and the cost of refreshments, there is an obvious cost in the council staff’s time to run a Guildhall event, prepare reports and attend on the night. Some would say this is the very thing they are employed by the council to do: but with the council not currently replacing any staff that leave, others would say that the pennies have to be saved somewhere — and the Conservatives seem to have actively chosen not to consult on ways to cut forum costs while ensuring local voices remain heard. Worryingly, the report explaining why forums should be closed said: ‘It is a waste of time and money to consult, and creates an unfair expectation that the public and interested parties will be able to influence the outcome.’
In the debate that followed the proposal to abolish local forums, it was argued that we no longer need them because people can engage online; we don’t need to meet people face-to-face because, according to local Conservatives, councillors can gather much of what they need from social media. However, our social-media groups, while useful, are full of a silent majority of people who never comment or are often concerned about the combative tone of some debates. Not everyone, we also know, has equal access to appropriate technology, and online meetings often collapse with more than 30 people in a virtual room. Less than two weeks ago, for example, I had to provide computers and microphones to the Whitstable Society to allow residents without a computer to engage in the public enquiry about the future of the Glebe Way railway crossing.
Large local consultations, which often draw many people, are also beginning to be cancelled, scaled back or delayed during this pandemic. Last month Chartway Homes, who are building the homes on Duncan Downs, wrote to 650 neighbouring properties to ask for their views on their proposed second phase of the development rather than meet them in person. People with concerns were encouraged to ring a phone line during a three-hour window. Many concerned parties didn’t know this was happening. The planned public enquiry on the oyster racks is delayed as their numbers grow, and a recent consultation run by the council on the future of Whitstable High Street was held in the middle of the day and didn’t include any Whitstable traders!
For some people, there is an argument that as long as people are represented by their elected officials, everything will be OK. We don’t need direct democracy because representative democracy works; councillors exist to represent the views of their constituents and all engage well.
I don’t agree with this at all: I believe in as many grassroots voices contributing opinions as possible. Unfortunately, councillors, despite their best endeavours, can’t and don’t speak with everyone. In a global pandemic, face-to-face surgeries and door-knocking were all-but suspended, and over half of Canterbury district’s current councillors are of, or near, the age when they may be asked to shield.
Since February, council meeting have moved to the daytime, disenfranchising councillors who work during the day: the voices of working people and those with childcare responsibilities are being muted. The ability of Labour or Liberal Democrat councillors to bring motions to committees for debate is currently suspended — because it was felt by the Conservatives that only vital and essential business should be heard. How cutting local forums that aren’t currently meeting is essential is beyond anyone, and seems to undermine their argument.
Furthermore, local petitions, which would traditionally trigger a detailed debate in the council chamber, are not being answered. Under the emergency measures, half of the councillors have lost their right to vote on council matters because now only 17 (rather than the normal 39) meet. And when they do, members of the public cannot directly speak. If you think this sounds like a bad Russian dystopian novel, you’d be right.
Alongside the decision to abolish forums, the council also quietly decided to scrap the right of people and parish councils (or alternative bodies such as the Whitstable Society) to refer controversial planning applications in front of the planning committee. This system, which, I admit, has never been perfect, was a pragmatic safeguard designed to protect councillors from accusations that they were in the pocket of developers. It also allowed people a chance to oppose schemes that were in the council’s long-term plans or served a particular political interest.
Now, there are very sensible reasons why the business of council has been stripped back: costs must be cut — central government hasn’t given local authorities anything like the amount of money it really needs. We are in a dire financial decision and we will have to make some unappetising cuts in the next couple of months. However, as this pandemic continues, the question is increasingly when or whether some of these rights will be returned.
Removing democratic systems because you deem them ‘inefficient’ is a value judgement best, perhaps, left reserved for the wider community at large rather than elected officials alone. In his famous speech entitled Five questions every person should ask the powerful, Tony Benn said: ‘No-one with power likes democracy, and that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it.’
On being elected leader of Canterbury City Council, Councillor Fitter Harding said that the council needs someone who could “look at the bigger picture with a vision for a district that is crying out for new direction”. I agree with much of his sentiment. But, for me, that vision is something we all need to be a part of, and the new direction should be forged by all of us, rather than drawn up by just one or two people.
The Campaign for Local Democracy in Canterbury District is actively considering running forums in Whitstable to which it will continue to invite councillors. If you wish to be involved in helping facilitate these sessions please contact CDCD chair Jan Pahl through their website cdcdonline.wordpress.com or by emailing them at email@example.com
Chris is a youth worker, school governor, university lecturer and proud dad of three. He has lived in Whitstable for over 10 years.
Chris is a former chair and current trustee of Whitstable Umbrella, where the impact of government cuts to front-line services inspired him to get involved in local politics. He takes an active interest in local youth services, whether as founder of a local dads’ group (Who Let the Dads Out) and scout leader at Long Rock or school governor and member of the PTA executive at Swalecliffe Community Primary School. After a career working in housing and youth-work charities across the country, he now is a senior lecturer in business administration and social enterprise at two London universities.
He was elected to Canterbury City Council in 2019 as a representative for Gorrell ward with George Caffery and Valerie Kenny.
Chris sits on the Whitstable Forum, Whitstable Harbour Board, community and governance committees in addition to full council.
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