It’s time to reform council meetings


By - Thursday 19th February, 2015

Freshman councillor Mario Creatura wants to shake things up in Croydon’s crucible of debate


Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

For many years I was one of a band of loyal attendees of full council meetings. Since May 2014 I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of those meetings and represent over 10,000 people with my words and actions in the chamber.

I’ve participated in four so far – and even at this early stage I’m finding them tedious. It shouldn’t be this way. It’s high time we reformed council meetings.

The new administration has started broadcasting and archiving meetings, which start at 6:30pm with urgent announcements. Questions from the public to the ruling cabinet follow. Councillors then ask their own question followed by two debate motions, one proposed by each of our two elected political parties. Then comes ‘ward matters’, in which up to five councillors talk about their wards.

Why do residents leave so soon? How can we make meetings more relevant?

So during a three and a half hour meeting, no more than twenty minutes are for public questions and just one hour is for councillors to scrutinise the ten cabinet members of the ruling administration.

Members of the public tend to escape the meeting soon after their question time. Why do residents leave so soon? How can we make meetings more useful and relevant, and make better use of our councillors’ time?

The first thing I believe needs to go is ‘ward matters’. By the time it begins, there are few locals present. Removing this vanity exercise would save twenty minutes.

It’s Punch and Judy, and things can get quite confrontational

Second on my reform list: the debate motions. They can be about any subject and provide an opportunity for the ruling party to grandstand with little scrutiny. Punch and Judy politics are clear for all to see, and it can get quite confrontational. When a member of the opposition attacks a teammate, it’s hard to resist joining in with panto cries of shock and derision. Many watching don’t like this, yet it is inevitable human behaviour. How to disincentivise the practice?

Why not allow the residents in the public gallery to also vote on each debate motion? This could be done by a simple show of hands or electronic vote counter. The councillors’ vote would be formally recorded but feedback from those present could direct future debates.

I propose the removal of guillotine powers from the leader of Croydon Council

The third area for reform is ‘councillor questions’. Each cabinet portfolio receives no more than ten minutes’ scrutiny with ten cabinet members present. If the total session exceeds sixty minutes then this item can guillotined by the council leader, leaving several portfolios unexamined. To remove such political expediency, I suggest this power is removed from him or her. When questions are complete, the chamber should move on, and not before.

This guillotine fails good scrutiny and good democratic practice. There are two possible solutions: either the opposition should decide the order of questioning, or the twenty minutes saved by abolition of ‘ward matters’ could be reassigned to provide eighty minutes for this item of business, assuring examination of almost all cabinet portfolios.

They’re paid enough to be masters of their briefs – let them contend with all issues

The fourth area for reform is ‘public question time’. Anyone resident in Croydon can ask a question on any local subject, submitted in advance, although it’s rare that residents get through all their questions in a twenty minute session. So why do residents need to submit questions in advance? Why not simply allow them to turn up and ask questions without notifying the cabinet? Its members are paid enough to be masters of their briefs so should be able to contend with any and all relevant issues. Equally, twenty minutes does not seem anywhere near long enough.

My fifth suggestion concerns the order of the meeting. If public questions are the most well-attended agenda item, is it right to have them at the start? To encourage democratic engagement, I suggest that my reformed debate motion take place immediately after urgent announcements so the public can watch their representatives discuss local issues, before public questions begin.

The more of you are watching us, the better we’ll behave

There are likely a dozen more ways that council meetings could be reformed to increase democratic engagement and public scrutiny – some have even argued abolishing them altogether! Whatever your stance on the meetings, I genuinely believe the more people that we councillors have watching us in the chamber, then the better we’ll behave and the more informed and relevant we’ll become to our residents.

Please leave your comments about how you would reform council meetings below. Who knows: if the leadership of Croydon Council is listening, then perhaps we can all work together to promote genuine democratic scrutiny and engagement for all.


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Mario Creatura

Mario Creatura

Mario is a lifelong Croydon resident. He works for Heineken as their Public Affairs Manager. He has previously worked in Parliament as a researcher for Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central. Mario has been a Conservative Councillor for Coulsdon West on Croydon Council since May 2014.

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  • http://idioplatform.com/ Jonny Rose

    SAFE.

    How does one enact these changes (i.e. what would it take to get council leadership to change its mind)? And, out of interest, who established the current council debate format – is the form of meetings the same across the country or decided locally?

    • Mario Creatura

      They changed their mind on school fields, Purley Pool, the Tenant Tax and their propaganda posters so my bet is that enough people get behind this then they’ll do it.

      In all seriousness though, there’s an appetite for some sort of reform among Councillors. Can’t imagine anything will change before the General Election though. But it’s all in the hands of the current Town Hall leadership.

  • Anne Giles

    Excellent article.

  • David White

    Mario is right to raise this issue. The main problem is that the Council has changed from a Committee system to a Cabinet system without finding a revised role for Council Meetings.

    When I was a Croydon councillor in the 1970s (Fieldway, Labour) the Council had to decide and vote on important issues. Matters went first to the Committees, and from there important or contentious matters were referred to the full Council. So at every Council meeting you could expect several debates, followed usually by a vote.

    Personally I would rather revert to the Committee system, but if we’re going to have the Cabinet system (by which decisions are usually made by action by a single Cabinet member) we need to change the way the Council operates fundamentally. It needs to become more like the Greater London Assembly (GLA) where members basically scrutinise the decisions of the Mayor, or other action taker.

    The Council should be greatly reduced in size – perhaps one member per ward, rather than two or three as at present. Woolly debates and ward reports should go. Questions from the public should be expanded.

    The length of Council Meetings should be shortened. Three and a half hours is too long to keep anyone’s attention.

    Coupled with these changes there should be moves to involve communities more in Council decisions. For example, neighbourhood partnerships should be reinstated.

  • https://tradeonion.wordpress.com/ Jon Bigger

    This is tinkering. If you want to transform politics let’s ditch the idea of representation completely and opt for street committees that send delegates to the next level up. The delegates have to vote for whatever the street committees have told them. It’s direct democracy folks, where you decide what happens in your area.

    Oh hang on, getting rid of representatives would mean not having to pay people like Mario for their time and efforts. This is exactly why Mario shouldn’t be leading this debate – despite him raising an important issue, he is right in the thick of being part of the problem.

  • John Cartwright

    I agree that Ward Matters is a pointless wasted of time, and can be disposed of. After 16 years of attending council meetings, I still get confused by the layout of the agenda paper. The order in which Cabinet members give their reports and answer questions is usually different from the order in which they appear in the agenda, and I often have difficulty in finding which page someone is referring to. The whole thing could be timetabled better so that each Cabinet member has their allotted time.

    As for allowing members of the public to vote on debate motions, I often do anyway by putting my hand up.