Bath Chronicle

‘Any­where your coun­cil tax is spent, our re­porters are your eyes and ears’

- Stephen Sum­ner Zoom Video Communications · Bath and North East Somerset · Bath and North East Somerset · Bath · Bristol · London · North Somerset · Clevedon · Weston General Hospital · Bath Cricket Club

Life didn’t stand still when the world went into lock­down. Many lo­cal au­thor­i­ties were busier than ever as they launched their emer­gency re­sponses.

Keep­ing peo­ple in­formed about that was still go­ing on, how­ever, be­came a chal­lenge.

With pub­lic meet­ings banned, many de­ci­sions were taken be­hind closed doors, some­times through pow­ers handed to top of­fi­cers. Com­mu­ni­ca­tions about the coro­n­avirus were pri­ori­tised above any­thing else. Staff were sec­onded into other roles, mak­ing them harder to reach. Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quests faced lengthy de­lays.

Even­tu­ally, coun­cils learned to adapt. Af­ter a few teething prob­lems – like when trolls hi­jacked a South Som­er­set District Coun­cil meet­ing on Zoom with ob­scene adult con­tent – meet­ings moved on­line and pub­lic ac­cess re­sumed.

A sense of nor­mal­ity was re­stored, al­beit through Zoom or Teams, with the now ubiq­ui­tous “you’re on mute”.

As a lo­cal democ­racy re­porter (LDR) – part of a Bbc-funded scheme launched in 2017 to get jour­nal­ists back into coun­cil cham­bers to hold power to ac­count – this is my bread and but­ter.

My main fo­cuses are Bath and North East Som­er­set Coun­cil and North Som­er­set Coun­cil, but the role also en­com­passes NHS bod­ies and the po­lice and fire au­thor­i­ties.

Ba­si­cally, any­where your coun­cil tax is spent. LDRS are your eyes and ears.

The coun­cils have led valiant ef­forts dur­ing the pan­demic to con­nect peo­ple in need with those who can help them.

But, as ever, they can’t please ev­ery­one all the time.

The big­gest story of the last year on my patch was North Som­er­set Coun­cil’s re­jec­tion of Bris­tol Air­port’s ex­pan­sion plans, de­light­ing cam­paign­ers who said it would harm the en­vi­ron­ment. The trans­port hub has since ap­pealed, claim­ing its pro­pos­als will be vi­tal for the lo­cal econ­omy to re­cover.

Yet many Cleve­don res­i­dents were left dis­mayed when the coun­cil gave the go-ahead for a spe­cial school to be built on a much-used field, de­spite claims there are more suit­able sites else­where.

Coun­cil­lors were keen to en­sure that lessons had been learned af­ter an out­break of Covid-19 in We­ston Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal that may have con­trib­uted to the deaths of 18 pa­tients.

B&NES Coun­cil has pressed ahead with its clean air zone pro­pos­als for Bath to tackle the il­le­gal lev­els of ni­tro­gen diox­ide. The zone is set to be the first out­side of Lon­don when it launches next year.

The coun­cil fol­lowed up its cli­mate emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion by declar­ing an eco­log­i­cal emer­gency – but crit­ics claimed it failed its first test af­ter photos emerged of “slaugh­tered” slow worms on the author­ity’s own sen­si­tive de­vel­op­ment site. The coun­cil and po­lice are now in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

B&NES Coun­cil was again crit­i­cised when a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest showed it had not pur­sued le­gal ac­tion against Bath Cricket Club when its con­trac­tors caused £200,000 of dam­age to trees.

Many of th­ese are sto­ries that would not have come to light with the Lo­cal Democ­racy Re­port­ing Ser­vice, a model that has earned such a high rep­u­ta­tion it is now be­ing repli­cated around the world.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK