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THE WAY that 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 (for this meet­ing) 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.

“Youwill 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 (as leader of the coun­cil).”

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.”

ADECISION 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 390words – 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.

“Cll­rWeeks 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 Cll­rWeeks.”

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.

They 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.

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 for­mof (po­lit­i­cal) po­si­tion­ing. We haven’t had a mo­tion (de­bated) 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, butwe 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 from­day one has been try­ing to get the coun­cil more trans­par­ent.”

Editorial page 18

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