Northumberland opposition leader raises concerns about 'bizarre' new meeting format at County Hall
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At the meeting – the first following the summer break – councillors were told that they would only be able to ask one question on reports, while questions and debate were limited to ten minutes per report.
Coun Scott Dickinson, who leads the Labour opposition group on the council, said: “It was strictly controlled from a Tory PR point of view, very stale, not at all engaging and preventative from the point of view of the opposition holding the administration to account.
“An annual report shared by a cabinet member consisted of a big long backslapping introduction followed by 10 minutes of questions. That’s 10 minutes for 67 councillors and only one question each. There was definitely no debate on reports anymore that would be to open.
“It didn’t feel very democratic at all. Sure, the meeting ended earlier – but I’m not sure that’s what the public expect from us – to go in, be managed, and leave. It was very disappointing. I’d say members of the council could miss the first hour, as announcements appear now to be a Tory promotion slot, and nobody’s allowed to say anything in response.
“It was really bizarre.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, following the introduction of an annual report on the council’s highways work by cabinet member Coun John Riddle, business chairman Coun Barry Flux told members: “We’ve got 10 minutes for questions.”
Responding, Coun Dickinson said it had taken 40 minutes to get passed the “staged guff” before asking Coun Riddle a series of questions.
Coun Dickinson asked to hear more about the challenges faced by the department, before referring to the ongoing saga around the dualling of the A1.
Council leader Glen Sanderson responded to Coun Dickinson’s comments on the A1, but the Labour leader did not receive a response from Coun Riddle. When he pressed for this, Coun Flux told him: “To be honest, Coun Dickinson, you were asked to ask one question.
“You’ve got a response there, and we’re now eating into more time so I’m going to move on. There was an answer provided, Coun Dickinson.”
Other councillors have also raised concerns about the new format.
Coun Malcom Robinson, Bedlington West, stated on social media: “I was less than impressed with the new way of conducting business at full council, much less opportunity to hold the administration to account and almost no hope to getting a question raised.”
Responding, Coun Flux said: “The current constitution went through a very thorough scrutiny process involving all parties, including the Labour Group, before being adopted by the full council at its AGM in May.
“While very early days, the council’s monitoring officer is proposing to seek the views of members as to what works well and what could be improved, but we need to let new processes bed in. If there are ultimately issues which the majority of members want to change, that can be agreed at the next AGM.”
While the ten minute and one question rules were not explicitly mentioned during discussions around the constitution, the chairman was given discretion to order proceedings.