Council Round-Up: Red Tape, Tweets, and Funding Gaps
January 23rd 2013
None of your noise
Red TapeOne of the things I usually count as too dull to include in these reports is the red tape surrounding public standards, but things are definitely getting silly. Councillors are expected to declare their interests at the beginning of each meeting (all well and good), but this sometimes results in them walking out in the middle of each meeting for items that they have an interest in. I understand why some would have to abstain from voting on certain issues, but I'm not sure why that means they can't even hear the arguments, which are after all public information and will be available in the press for anyone to read afterwards.
Anyway, this mania for scrupulously examining the honesty of public officials reaches its logical conclusion in the madness of dispensations. Apparently there are some topics in which everyone has a financial interest, such as the council tax level, or anything that affects people who own a home or business in the area. When this applies to most councillors nobody would be able to vote on certain issues, so they have to grant themselves a dispensation. This leads to a lot of form-filling, voting, and confusion about who exactly needs to fill in the forms and so on, all to do something that the council were elected to do in the first place. It's distrust by default. The practical result of the localism bill means a lot of paper pushing and time wasted.
"I can't say I understand a bit of it, I think we're in loony land," Councillor Margaret Ottaway said.
Series of tubesThere was quite a lively debate about a request by a member of the press to change the council's rules to allow the use of laptops, live Tweeting, and the posting of a report straight onto a website towards the end of a meeting.
To put this into context, there are rarely more than three reporters, with an average of about one and a half, at most town council meetings. Although the Mayor wasn't present she sent a letter expressing concerns that this would be distracting. This was echoed by Councillor Andrew Leonard's comment about the noise of a laptop. "It's click, click, click in the background. That I would find irritating."
Most councillors were happy about the use of a laptop, but expressed reservations about Twitter. But Councillor Pauline Watson said "I don't see any problem with it at all. It should be a public place... You've got to move with the times."
Councillor Neil Ward said "I think Twitter is a way of reaching citizens we wouldn't already be reaching."
However Councillor Burnett had concerns about live Tweeting. "There's no chance to edit that. To do it live is asking for mistakes."
Councillor Laura Stephenson made the point that "everyone would have the right to tweet as well, even the councillors."
In the end the council voted to allow laptop use, provided the laptop was silent, and to allow the posting of reports at the end of meetings, but they rejected the request for live Twitter updates. Which is fine by me, because it avoids the spectre of councillors checking Twitter to see what's being said about them, then replying on that site, so eventually we might as well just have the whole meeting online in a completely haphazard fashion. I'm not a fan of live tweeting events, especially when there's a lot to think about. 140 characters at speed is no way to get your thoughts in order.
The town council budgetThe council voted to approve the gross precept of £212 304, which leaves £183 202 after the support grant of £29 102.
Electoral reviewThe council discussed the Boundary Commission's plans to cut the number of ELDC councillors to 55, a reduction of five. Councillor Leonard noted that "five is neither here nor there" and characterised the commission's exercise as "a waste of blooming money."
Councillor Stephenson had concerns about the increased transport costs. "Someone on benefits could not be a councillor in a big rural area," she said.
However the commission have already made their decision about district council numbers, and all that remains is for them to decide on the ward boundaries.
Money, money, moneyThese days it seems like nasty financial shocks are hitting us one after another, like a plague of buses driven by pin-striped mobsters. The next round of cutbacks means that ELDC faces a £1.6 million shortfall for 2013-14, and a further £1.75 million funding gap for 2014-15. That's from an overall budget in the region of £4.8 million for 2013-14, down from just under £5.4 million in 2012-13, according to figures on ELDC's draft budget report. "It's a horrendous gap to fill," Councillor Burnett said.
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