Cornwall Council has cancelled their Full Council meeting for September because, wait for it, there is a ‘lack of business’ at County Hall to justify the expense to bring them all to Truro.
Yes you read that right. According to the council there’s nothing to discuss, nothing urgent, nothing to do.
(The expense, of course does not just include petrol money at 40p a mile, it includes, for example, the free lunch given to every councillor at full Council meetings).
If you’ve had to force yourself out of bed today and get back to work, spare a thought for those poor overworked Councillors who haven’t met since July 25, their only Full Council meeting since the election. Even that was attended by only about two thirds of them, or only half of them if you had counted in the afternoon… The meeting on May 23rd was the ‘Annual general meeting’ of the council where they do nothing but divvy up the jobs between themselves.
Full Council operates mostly these days to give final approval to the meanderings of the committee system – but as the council has been on unofficial holiday for six weeks the committees haven’t thrown up any decisions to be made. However, the council is not supposed to have a recess, like parliament does for the summer.
The next Full Council is now not due til 21 November. So from the election in May to November only one proper Full Council meeting will have been held!
There is now no set amount of meetings for full Council per year (it used to be 10). However this administration only had six scheduled from May ’17 to May ’18. So now one has been cancelled that only leaves scheduled meetings in November, January, February and April. Who knows if they will bother to hold them?
What’s more the new council had agreed for an open session during full Council, of 60 minutes, where Councillors could question the cabinet and Leader on topics of the day (a bit like Prime Minister’s Questions). Plus another 30 mins when councillors can question Committee Chairs. This scrutiny and questioning will now not happen.
For perspective, since the unitary authority was formed in 2009, although some meetings have been delayed or moved, only one full council has ever been cancelled, in March 2015.
The decision to cancel full council was agreed just before the weekend, suggested by the Lib Dem / Independent administration and officers of the council. It was then put out piecemeal to all group leaders who although they raised objections, had no real choice but to go along with it.
Cllr James Mustoe (Mevagissey), Deputy Leader of the Conservative group told us today
“While this was a cross-party decision made by the Group leaders to cancel this meeting due to lack of business to avoid wasting Councillor and officer time, it is a shame that the administration has not seen fit to bring forward any business to Full Council since the last Full Council meeting in July. Not all of us are on holiday!”
“Opposition Members are also disappointed that they will not get the opportunity to ask questions of the Cabinet on behalf of the people of Cornwall in the 60 minute q&a session that is a feature of this new Council.”
“Should they wish to do this again they can be assured the Conservative Group will provide business in their absence.”
Tim Dwelly, leader of Labour Group has called the cancellation another sign of the dimishing accountability and democracy at County Hall.
We have been told by other councillors today ‘so what? it doesn’t matter’ as ‘everything is done by the committees’. However these committees are losing their power of scrutiny too.
Cllr Dwelly told us today,
“It’s essential that the leader and the cabinet are scrutinised. If you don’t have these sessions you can’t have the public debate”
Regarding the reduction in the amount of scrutiny committees and the overload of work they are expected to do, he said “It’s a great example of the 1 hr a month democracy at Cornwall Council”.
The scrutiny committees, according to the council constitution “shall contribute to the work of the Cabinet and the Council as a whole by providing robust arrangements for holding the Cabinet to account” or “Committee’s main function is to provide effective critical friend challenge and policy development as part of the decision making process to improve outcomes for the residents of Cornwall”. You decide whether this is happening or no.
Cllr Dwelly explained his “one hour democracy” to us : The council’s five Overview and Scrutiny Committees only meet 6 times a year each and are supposed to last 8 hours a time (they very rarely do), with each scrutiny committee having at least four briefs eg economic committee looks at the economy, housing, planning and transport; the Neighbourhoods Scrutiny committee looks at the fire and rescue service, community safety and localism, emergency management, public protection and enforcement, libraries, waste, historic environment, maritime services, crime and disorder and flooding!!
If time is equally divided between the briefs then two hours are set aside for each topic once every two months. Therefore huge topics like housing and transport are only given 1 hour a month to discuss (assuming the councillors meet for the whole 8 hours – which they very rarely do). So cancelling full council for September and not having a meeting at all in August dramatically reduces the time important issues can be aired publicly.
“One hour a month is no way for Cornwall Council to have it’s actions properly scrutinised” Cllr Dwelly told us today. “It’s unaccountable, undemocratic and it’s weak political leadership which enables that to be the case” he added.
“There may be nothing to come to full council but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening”
The Labour Group had two motions ready to go – one insisting on fair pay for leisure centre staff – but those will now have to be delayed.
Although the Labour Group disagreed with the decision, no one group has the power of veto.
Cllr Dwelly: “I think it’s a bad idea. It stacks up work for the next meeting. It has also added to the delay from when the Lib Dems decided or not to go in with the Tories. We’ve all just come from elections where we published manifestos. You’d think that the idea would be to hit the ground running and make these things happen”
“Instead we are getting fewer, bigger, more vague proposals from fewer, bigger, more vague meetings”
So it’s either the council really don’t have anything on the agenda and have run out of steam only a couple of months since being elected, or is it that they don’t want what they are doing scrutinised?
Cornish Stuff asked the council for a response- sent yesterday so they’d get it first thing this morning – however by the time of publication (5pm ish) no statement had been sent – although we were told it had been ‘received and actioned’.
But ‘action’ is not a word one associates with County Hall is it?