The Wokingham Paper

Questions asked over Wokingham Borough Council’s inability to debate motions

Wokingham Borough Council offices shute end
Wokingham Borough Council

THE WAY in which Wokingham Borough Council’s online meetings are conducted became a fierce battle as parties argued over the best way for them to be held.

The clash came shortly after a member of the public wanted to know why the council was not getting through all its business.

Mike Smith addressed the leader of the council at the virtual meeting, broadcast live on YouTube on Monday evening.

He said: “There are a very large number of agenda items, some of which have not been addressed despite being on the agenda since September 2019.

“In particular, there are some 10 Members questions of which eight, submitted by Conservative members of council, seem to have little useful purpose and will consume time unnecessarily, and which will probably result in none of the later agenda items such as Motions being debated.

“Indeed, five of these Member questions were on the agenda for the previous meeting but were withdrawn, as they were presumably deemed unimportant then and I doubt much has changed in three weeks.”

He highlighted item 27.3, which was a question from the Deputy Executive Member for Climate Emergency to the Lead Executive member for Climate emergency.

Mr Smith said: “Surely if they both attend their sub-committee meetings and read the various reports and plans prepared for those meetings, there is absolutely no need for such a question at full Council – surely a press release would be better?”

Responding, council leader John Halsall said: “The Council Meeting Agenda has evolved over a very long period and is a little arcane and predates me.

“It’s interesting that the thrust of your question is not consuming time unnecessarily and yet you ask a question which is very similar to 27.2. and does not the asking of the question – similar to 27.2 – in duplicate have the effect of endangering the debate of any motions.”

He also argued that to stop Conservative members from asking questions would effectively disenfranchise them.

“You will appreciate that there are five motions, four of which are Lib Dem Motions, which is two-and-a-half hours of debate for a meeting which should be three hours in total,” he continued.

“The interests of ensuring the Council can efficiently discharge its duty” surely is an opportunity for members of the public and councillors to ask questions, to enact whatever business needs enacting and for the
Executive and Chairmen of other Committees to update Council on their activities.”

Mr Smith replied by saying, “The obvious supplementary (question) is when can time be made so that these motions can be debated?”

Cllr Halsall: “That is not a matter for me, the agenda predates me.”

A similar question was asked by Cllr Prue Bray later in the meeting – she asked the Conservatives to
withdraw their members questions so that the motions planned for the end of the meeting could be
debated.

Cllr Halsall said: “The Conservatives have no control of what other parties seek to include in Council Meetings and therefore cannot ensure that we reach the end of the agenda.”

A DECISION to prevent members of the public from speaking at virtual planning committee meetings was panned by opposition parties.

The council has been using Microsoft Teams since the pandemic, but there has been no protocols in place in the constitution as virtual meetings were not possible when the original constitution was drawn up.

Constitution amendments were introduced by Cllr Chris Smith during the meeting, allowing the online meetings to be held “until such time as Regulations state that virtual meetings are no longer permissible”.

But the Liberal Democrats feel that the decision to only allow written submissions to the planning committee – to a maximum length of 390 words – sent in advance of a planning committee meeting.

The party argues that the only people who know what these letters state are the planning committee and council officers.

They wanted the committee to use Microsoft Teams to allow residents to take part in the meetings, but the Conservatives disagreed. The chair of the planning committee, Cllr Simon Weeks, told the chamber that the current solution enabled all residents, even those without access to a computer, to have their say.

Cllr Lindsay Ferris was disappointed, saying afterwards that the Conservatives were frightened and it meant that it could lead to controversial planning applications being swept under the carpet.

“To see Conservatives queuing up to deny people the right to speak was a bad night for local democracy,” he said.

“Cllr Weeks seems to be stuck on letter writing – it’s old fashioned. If other councils have moved to online meetings, why can’t we?”

And Labour leader Cllr Andy Croy agreed. “There is no reason why a member of the public should not be allowed to made a representation by video.

“There seems to be some technophobia among the Conservatives.

“They were worried about losing control of the planning meeting, but it’s ludicrous: you can eject people from a virtual meeting far more easily than a normal meeting.”

But Cllr John Halsall said: “It’s naive to consider planning and licensing committees as other council committees: they are unique in what they do. The chairmen of both committees have to consider legal procedures.

“I have no doubt that Cllr Weeks is a great chap who has an absolutely unblemished record of integrity.

“The issue is very simple: if you are tech savvy, you are advantaged, but a whole sector of the borough is not, and they still write long-hand letters. It should be a level playing field and I agree with Cllr Weeks.”

The issue of the virtual meetings came up again later in the meeting, when it came to extending it by half-an-hour so that five motions could be discussed.

This focused on Heathrow’s third runway, air pollution, supporting
EU residents, adopting the Citizens Advice council tax protocol and a final one that would make sprinklers compulsory in new builds and major refurbishments.

Opposition parties all wanted to vote in favour of extending the meeting beyond 10.30pm so that some of these motions could be discussed, but the Conservatives didn’t.

As they hold the majority, they won and there was only time to discuss a motion about Heathrow.

This would have been a simple statement: “This council does not support the expansion of Heathrow airport”, but an amendment from the Conservatives changed it to: “This Council does not support the expansion of any airport unless it can be proven to be carbon neutral.”

Earlier in the meeting, Cllr Chris Smith has berated the council for debating the constitutional amendments over virtual meetings, including the public’s access to the planning committee meetings.

“We have spent 25 minutes on one item … I think that is an utter waste of time,” he said.

“If we want to get these motions … we don’t need to comment on everything. The constitution can work if people are a little bit sensible about how long we spend talking.”

But this was not a view shared by the opposition parties.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Lindsay Ferris, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “It was
completely unnecessary not to agree to carrying on the meeting: we were in our homes.

“The Conservatives did not want to discuss these motions.

“They just wanted to have a bit of a discussion about Heathrow and then ‘go home’. It got a bit disappointing.”

Cllr Andy Croy that the decision was “symptomatic” of the Conservatives

“I am furious,” he added. “Look at the things the Tories didn’t want to vote on: clearer air, not sending bailiffs in, they don’t want water sprinklers in schools… what’s wrong with them? It;’s unbelievable.

“They are determined to stop anything constructive.

“Why did the Tories not want to carry on with the meeting, everyone was at home. It was unbelievable.”

Council leader Cllr Halsall defended his party and their decisions during the meeting.

“We’ll never get to the end of the agenda if we have stuff that takes us over 10.30pm, I don’t think there is an appetite for meetings that go on all night.

“I was keen to get the Heathrow motion done and dusted as it was submitted by a councillor who is no longer a councillor. The climate has changed a lot since he first submitted it. It is hard to imagine the Heathrow of June 2019 to today: the landscape has totally changed (due to coronavirus).”

He added that the party was already doing what it could with the other motions, saying that the council was monitoring air quality, and it was helping EU nationals, among other things.

But it was the way in which the council holds its meetings that caused concerns. It is not unusual for meetings to come to an end before the motions have even been raised.

Cllr Ferris said that his party had been restrained in the number of members’ questions they had asked – “We try not to ask too many”.

“Council meetings are important, they are a form of local democracy, but there is some form of (political) positioning. We haven’t had a motion since September.

“We’re not sure what they can be replaced with, but we need council meeting where motions get discussed. The meeting could have started earlier – we started at 7pm for the annual council meeting.”

Labour’s Cllr Croy said that his party decided to limit their speeches to enable the debate to go through faster.

“When it came to the reports being presented, we could have spoken about them,” he continued, saying that they contained lots of details that they wanted to draw attention to.

“We didn’t do that because we wanted to get the five good motions on the agenda.”

Cllr Halsall felt that time was wasted on named votes – where each councillor is called by name, rather than block voting by party.

“How much time did we spend on voting?” he asked. “It’s a democratic process, but who didn’t vote with their party?”

And on this, he said that parties made decisions on how to vote at group meetings.

“It’s a private meeting,” he said. “It can be quite vocal, but we use it to decide our position and stick to that.

“As leaders, we are servants of our groups and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So when we come to council, our collective position is worked out.

“No one decided on the day how to vote.”

He added: “I agree that council meetings could be better, but only if parties sit down and agree on rules which will make them better.

“At the moment, it’s a bunfight to see who gets the most attention.

“My ambition almost from day one has been trying to get the council more transparent.”

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