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FTC – a 21st Century Council
Like something out of a Stephen King Novel, it really was a dark and stormy night; the rain cold, the wind bitter. Myself and fellow Real Whitby contributor, Nigel WARD attended the Filey Town (Parish) Council meeting of Wednesday 12th February 2014. Nigel and I had arrived in Filey in good time for the meeting, scheduled to begin at 7:00pm.
We had erroneously been directed to the Evron Centre on John Street, but arriving there we quickly discovered that we were in totally the wrong place. However, after some very fortuitous help from a local Police Constable, we soon arrived where we needed to be.
We were greeted in the foyer area by the Mayor, John SHACKLETON, and the Clerk, Gina ROBINSON, who appeared to have been anticipating our visit. The greeting was very warm, and friendly, with no sign of any sort of hostility to the presence of two contributors of Real Whitby.
I made no attempt to hide my camera equipment. (Readers might remember the reception given to me by Seamer & Crossgates Parish Council upon seeing my recording equipment).
After introducing ourselves to the Mayor, and outlining our intentions, he expressed his support for transparency made the request that we not begin filming until he had taken the opportunity to address the Council in relation to the issue. Given the friendly nature of the request, and the fact that we had been greeted so warmly I was only too happy to oblige.
Mayor SHACKLETON had indicated that he was aware we were legally entitled to film, but wanted to address the issue of the Councils’ Standing Orders (presently at odds with the law) with the rest of the Council, and allow all members to take into account what will be occurring presently in Council meetings all over the country.
Upon entering the Council chamber. we found over a dozen seats arranged around the room. replete with Agendas and other pertinent information. The chamber itself was well lit, and all Councillors were easy to see and hear – certainly no adverse acoustics or people speaking too quietly to for the human ear – which is what we were equipped with (in the words of Peter Cook).
The proceedings began promptly, with another warm welcome from the Mayor to all present.
Before beginning the meeting, as indicated the Mayor introduced myself and Nigel to the rest of those assembled and indicated that we were here to film the meeting, and then upload the un-edited film to a popular video sharing site. I was then invited to address the Council and describe my intentions and motives behind this.
I described my intention as being to encourage Councils to provide more access to the public, via the technological means at our disposal. I explained how making a recording of an entire proceeding would provide a totally accurate record of any Council business, which could also be referred to at any point in the future, by any one – including the Council itself.
Mayor John SHACKLETON then asked if individual members wanted to question me, which they did, about:
The last question was perhaps the most important. As a Council, they are wary of the possibility of being “edited” and made to look foolish. (They perhaps have yet to consider the long interviews that the Real Whitby crew did with the BBC, and the few short clips that were edited from that to present on ‘live’ television).
Whilst I could certainly edit the video, and perhaps raise a few cheap laughs in the process, there would be no real benefit in doing so. Additionally, it would give rise to the possibility that I wasn’t really serious about transparency in local government, when in fact I am deadly serious about it – so serious that I don’t feel there should be ANY secrets between Councils and the public they SERVE.
All members gave their opinions on what they thought of the idea of their Council being filmed. In fact, with one or two reservations, all were in amenable to being filmed.
One comment made was that “change is coming” and if filming Councils engaged a wider audience in the public it would be “a very good thing indeed”.
Throughout, the discussion was light, friendly, and the passion these Councillors had for their town and greater for greater public engagement was clearly manifested.
Certainly, no one raised their voice, no one called the Police.
Two Councillors noted that the Standing Orders for the Council did need to be changed to reflect the law and the changing times. It was then proposed that the Council address the issue of amending the Standing Orders at the next meeting. It was requested that since Councillors were aware of the law, and the necessary changes to the Standing Orders would be addressed, that I not film – so as to avoid placing the Council at odds with the existing Standing Orders..
I was certainly happy to oblige.
“Why?”, you might ask, and you would be right to do so.
For the simple reason that the Council, who (let us remember) serve their community most diligently, had dealt with me in a professional and courteous manner at all times. At no time was I treated like an inferior entity. Rather, I felt like I was amongst equals with a sincere commitment to serving their community – no silly ego games at this Council.
That means, unfortunately, that there is no video on this occasion, but that’s not where we end.
Nigel was invited to speak as well, and re-iterated that Real Whitby has no interest in making those in PUBLIC SERVICE look ‘silly’, or to ‘mock’ them. Rather, we have a vested interest in pushing an agenda of transparency, and openness in the domain of Public Service and most especially relating to anyone who might seek to use privilege of position to draw personal gain from the public purse.
The time taken to accommodate ‘Real Whitby’, filming and discussion with Nigel and I was in the order of twenty minutes. No-one could have called it a ‘row’ or a ‘disruption’. I would describe it as a Council embracing change, recognising the law, and serving the community’s interests.
The Council thanked Nigel for addressing them (something no other Council has done thus far), and the scheduled business continued without further delay. I certainly won’t bore the readers with a complete breakdown of the minutes of the whole meeting, although I did make some extensive notes. I will, however, give a bit of a run down of some of the items on the agenda. Item 4a was a report from Sgt Chris Gosling, of the local Police Constabulary. Rather than being a dry reading from a pre-prepared document, Sgt Gosling had sound knowledge of what he was talking about, was articulate, clear, and answered questions put to him in a succinct and professional manner. He reminded the Councillors that they were also ‘the eyes and ears of the community’ and if there were any matters to look into he would gladly do so. This prompted two Councillors to describe individuals walking along the railway line, which, aside from the dangers of trains, is trespassing. Sgt Gosling, gave his full attention, actually noted down all details and assured he would look into the matter fully.
A little while later, under issues of traffic problems in the town, Councillor Jeffrey MEEK raised the serious issue that Nick WEST, of North Yorkshire County Council notoriety, had made it clear that he would not be taking any action in relation to problems raised by FTC. Essentially, Nick WEST was suggesting that problems couldn’t be addressed until there was an accident. Surely this is unacceptable, and Nick WEST needs to answer directly to the people of Filey for why he holds this view.
County and Borough Councillor Sam CROSS (a former Mayor of Filey) provided a County report to the Council described the many problems in relation to roads/traffic, and how Nick WEST had even been to visit Filey on a ‘walkabout’ with some of the Councillors. This event was to highlight some of the serious concerns of the Council, and residents within the town. Councillor CROSS seemed deeply disappointed that little has been done to address these issues, but assured the Council he was certainly working as hard as he could to ‘get things moving’. It was pointed out that problems in Station Road/Scarborough Road junction had been reported to County Hall 18 months ago, and still nothing had been done.
Real Whitby question: Just what is Nick WEST being paid to do? Is he doing it? Answers on a post card (or comment below).
Borough Councillor Mike COCKERILL was on the stand to give his SBC report on issues taking place in the Borough Council a short while later, and was quizzed about the report provided by SBC to FTC. Another £16,000 spent on iPads! Councillor COCKERILL’s reponse to this was that SBC are “spending money to save money”. Quite how that works in the real world is beyond me, because last time I checked you had to save money to actually save money.
Councillor John HAXBY pointed out that reading the financial report from SBC was heavy going, that it was unclear and like reading “War and Peace” in a foreign language. He went on to state that lots of items “slipped in” to the report were not explained clearly, and items such as spending “£129,000 on EDRM” made little sense to anyone who didn’t have qualifications in IT. Indeed, the idea of the “G Cloud” might leave some readers wondering. The suggestion that £219,00 spent on “corporate desktops” could leave some with the impression that SBC are buying their Executive Officers desks with marble and gold inlayed tops. However, that is not the case. But why are we spending all this money with no justification or explanation about what it will all achieve? Where is our money going? We should be told. Councillorr COCKERILL didn’t have an answer for why such exhorbitant sums were being spent on IT provision that made little sense – nor could he explain what “corporate desktops” actually were when pressed by Councillor HAXBY. I was quite surprised that Councillor COCKERILL wasn’t more knowledgeable about how public money was being spent. He appeared defensive and confused and at one point resorted to the old legal dodge “I couldn’t possibly comment”. It was particularly disappointing to see him struggle to defend the Borough Council – against the appeals of the people who elected him. A very poor performance indeed.
During the Clerks report I found myself pleasantly surprised by the fact that I didn’t have to strain to hear what was being said. Gina ROBINSON, the Clerk, was clear in what she said, and with all items she talked about, was knowledgeable, and had certainly ‘done her homework’.
One item of note is a piece of land being sold by Scarborough Borough Council. Again, Mike COCKERILL was put on the spot with this, and asked what will happen to the proceeds of the sale. As he didn’t know he couldn’t give an answer. Various members of FTC were quick to note that in previous sales of Filey’s assets, money that was supposed to have been “ring-fenced” for Filey was spirited away never to be seen again. Last time was under John TREBBLE (the infamous former Chief Exec who was forced out following the Highpoint Rendell procurement scandal in 2005). Certainly, I agree that any sale of Filey’s assets should ensure that Filey and its residents see the benefit of all of the money generated.
We will have to wait and see how the sale goes, and just what will happen to the money. Councillor COCKERILL did make it clear he was “in the know” about how the sale was going, and that there were “interested parties” but he couldn’t say too much, because it could “affect the sale of the property”. All very mysterious . . .
The whole of the meeting was conducted with enthusiasm – passion, even – but in a very positive sense. The members clearly care very deeply about their community. There were one or two jokes and laughs and a general sense of amicable banter, but these enlivened the proceeding which was firmly directed towards making Filey a better place to live.
At the point where press and public were excluded from the meeting, I tipped my imaginary hat to the members present, and received friendly smiles in return. A very positive meeting indeed.
I did have chance to chat to several members during a brief ‘comfort break’, called because the meeting had lasted over two hours at that point. All those I had chance to talk to were positive about the idea of progressing the Council into the 21st Century and using various social media to engage more with the community.
I am sure that there are lots of people who will have much to say about FTC and the work it does. Thus far, I have only had the opportunity to see them in action on one occasion. The possibility exists, and I am sure it’s true, that FTC don’t get it right all the time.
In fact, I am sure that there are occasions when they have got things wrong, but what I saw on Wednesday leaves me with the impression that this is a Council to be proud of. Lucky Filey!
I conclude with a question, however, about why it is that other Councils aren’t so keen to engage with the people they serve. Why it is that there are Councillors who are desperate to keep the cameras out at all costs, and what it could be that they have to hide? In an age where we have CCTV on every street corner, why not in the Council chamber? What are we not meant to be seeing?
We fund these organisations and it is our right to scrutinise them with all the tools at our disposal.
I, for one, look forward to working with FTC more in the future, and to seeing greater transparency, openness and accountability up and down the country for all communities.
Filey, you have a Council that sets a benchmark for others in the area to emulate – a credit to the Councillors themselves, and the people who elected them. Bravo!