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