Parish Council Steering Group refuse to open up meetings to public

royal town of sutton coldfield sign

Despite calls for the Sutton Coldfield Parish Council Steering Group to employ a more transparent approach they are flatly refusing to open up their meetings to either the public or the press.

Although the group are digging in their heels they have yet to put forward a convincing argument as to why the decision not to sit in public was made.

And it was their decision, “…they could have elected to do so (meet in public)… however, they decided that given the significant workload they have to progress in such a short period of time that they would proceed without members of the public present, until the Interim Parish Council is established on 1 March 2016.” Ifor Jones, Service Director for Localisation.

Accusations that observers would slow things down just doesn’t wash. BCC hold numerous meetings that sit in public without having to stop every five minutes to explain things to the gallery and quite frankly the suggestion that this would be necessary is nothing short of an insult to the people of Sutton Coldfield.

The question was raised, apparently, at the previous meeting but by whom it is unclear as a number of members appear to be taking the credit for doing so. Unfortunately confirmation at this time is not possible as more than two weeks after the event there are still no minutes available. While it is appreciated that council officers are being overstretched as their numbers are decreased and their workload increased, it is important that minutes are released in sufficient time for residents to access them, reflect upon them and respond if necessary if their is to be any public engagement during this process.

There should also be concerns over the make up of the Steering Group which consists of nine Birmingham City councillors, seven of which are Conservative, and one BCC officer.

Of the three representatives from the Town Council Referendum Group at least one was an active UKIP campaigner during May’s Local and General Elections. Steering Group member Paul Long was UKIP Sutton Coldfield’s press officer. Now obviously this in itself is not a problem but what is of concern is that UKIP – who no doubt feel that there is a real opportunity to get some of its supporters on the Town Council – appear to be asking its supporters to keep a low profile. This in turn begs the important question, just how much boat rocking within the steering group can we expect from those supposedly representing the residents if their main priority is to keep a low profile? Time will tell but if they are truly representing the residents shouldn’t they be making a bigger issue of the closed group policy?

Transparent – not a word that readily springs to mind in the early evolution of the Sutton Coldfield Town Council.

8 Responses

  1. Paul Long says:

    It’s a shame Najm has a bee in his bonnet about this and it was me who asked the question about whether meetings could be held in public. I asked the question on behalf of Najm and he well knows it. I also fed back to him. This is disappointing journalism from somebody who normally champions the community. If making reference to an individual you should at least give them the opportunity to comment, especially when that person has offered you so many leads on articles of interest to Sutton. It’s interesting that our MP Andrew Mitchell never gets criticised by Sutton Coldfield Local, despite plebgate and his tax affairs but a local campaigner who does his best for his community is picked on in this way.

    My skills are being used appropriately. I have a lot to offer the referendum group and the Town Council. I am at present not a member of UKIP and I have never been one to keep a low profile – again as Najm well knows. However, the group is working well together at the moment and so there is no boat rocking necessary. Why rock a boat if all is going well?

    Regarding UKIP – there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a national political allegiance in the same way that Najm has allegiance to the Labour party. I would like to see us exit Europe. However, this has absolutely no bearing on local politics where I want to see a thriving community in Sutton Coldfield and specifically in Boldmere. This is best done in an independent manner and without political interference. As Najm rightly says, 7 of the steering group are Conservative councillors, although he did neglect to mention that two are Labour councillors, not just one. We are stuck in a system of first past the post which means the majority of people are often not represented but less than 50% voted for councillors. The decisions for the steering group were made by BCC and not by those of us who campaigned for a town council. In order to ensure there is no conflict of interest, I have not renewed my membership to UKIP but that has NOT been reported. I have never been asked to keep a low profile and the decision to lapse my membership was mine and mine alone. Have you asked UKIP Sutton Coldfield for their views or are you just making assumptions? However, other representatives on the steering group are members of political parties. Transparency is only useful when the journalists record the true facts.

    Regarding the minutes, these are produced by BCC and it is their policy (as I’ve been informed) not to send out minutes to members of a committee (including this one) until the agenda pack is sent out to the committee. I find that strange, but it is not the fault of the steering group, it is BCC policy – again, please get the facts right. I am told that the minutes are made available on CMIS after they have been distributed to committee members. Please take this up with BCC as it is their policy, not the steering group’s.

  2. Richard says:

    I don’t care what party Paul belongs to. What I do care about is that he supports the exclusion of press and public from listening to a group making decisions about the future of Sutton. And worse – he doesn’t offer any serious justification for that exclusion nor does he explain how this furthers community engagement.

    As to his comments on minutes I am afraid he is missing the point. This is about the SC Town Council, not BCC. We don’t have to do things the BCC way. It would be open to the group to issue unconfirmed minutes well in advance of the meeting, or to confirm minutes in advance by email, especially as this is not a ‘committee’, as Paul keeps asserting. It is a ‘group’ and could thus act in a more informal fashion.

    All this leads me to wonder if the independent members of the group have ‘gone native’. We need strong voices on the group who are prepared to question the status quo and do things in a new way. The Town Council should not be ‘district committee-lite’. Not seen any evidence of such voices, so far.

    Finally a question – who is the other Labour councillor besides Cllr Pocock?

  3. Paul Long says:

    Richard – I’m afraid it is a BCC committee until 1st March when it will be the SC Town Council. Until that point, we are bound by Birmingham’s procedures – sadly. It’s a committee, not a group. I’ve pushed for the minutes to be made available earlier but my hands are tied – if I had a copy and I was allowed to share them I would do gladly. What I and the other community representatives also need to do, in the interests of residents, is to ensure a healthy working relationship with the 7 Conservative councillors and therefore we have to pick our battles carefully. Once we get to 1st March, we WILL do things a Sutton way and not a Birmingham way. I’m very much pushing for less bureaucracy and more doing. I must point out too that we are not making any major decisions. We are ‘steering’ the way forward and it will be up to the elected councillors from May 2016 to make the decisions. The only things that have been agreed so far are an ‘advance’ financial contribution from BCC (to be repaid in March) to cover the cost of employing or contracting an interim town clerk (leaving Sutton Town Council to choose its own permanent one) and costs of room hire, public engagement and essential legal expenses. Most of what we have done has been further research and work on legal policies. We’ve also ensured the interests of Sutton are protected by asking that the interim Town Clerk takes on the role of RFO rather than Birmingham doing this and that we look at the possibility of legal advice from another local council rather than from a ring fenced area of the legal department at Birmingham.

    As far as I can recall, there were no confidential items discussed at the last meeting and so I am free to discuss the outcomes of the meeting, which I have done with Najm. You are welcome to contact me privately for a chat if you want to know more.

    The other councillor is Cllr Claire Spencer – http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/cs/Satellite?c=Page&childpagename=Member-Services%2FPageLayout&cid=1223092734734&pagename=BCC%2FCommon%2FWrapper%2FInlineWrapper

    Although she hasn’t been to any meetings yet as she has only last week joined the committee.

    Regarding community engagement, there will be a number of opportunities for this, the first of which will be the ward meetings in November where the TC will be on every agenda. There will also be specific events organised over the winter/spring to seek opinion and ideas.

    We were advised at the first meeting that if we opened meetings to the public, then it would occur additional costs because we would need to have larger rooms to allow public viewing. We were also advised that a policy committee, which this is, doesn’t have public viewing and so it would be an unusual step to take to do this for this committee and not other committees. We were also advised that the meetings would need to be paused on a regular basis to explain to the public what we are doing. The decision was unanimous by way of nobody disagreeing, but no formal vote was taken. At the time, I saw no reason to disagree, although I appreciate the views some people (only 2 or 3) have expressed. One thing that has been clear to me since the public or no public decision was made was that when the public are present, councillors play to the public and get political trying to score points and so for that reason, I don’t think our decision was that bad because the councillors have been very quiet so far.

  4. Richard says:

    Thanks Paul. I’m afraid I don’t find the explanations as to the need for privacy at all convincing. The fact you accepted them is worrying.

    The agenda for your first meeting is headed ‘Sutton Coldfield Parish Council Steering Group ‘. And the Report of the Community Governance Group, ‘Taking Forward the Proposal for a Sutton Coldfield Parish Council recommends (at 2.5), ‘that a steering group…is established’. That report was agreed by BCC. In addition David Tatlow (Director of legal services at BCC) has stated (email to me) that ‘the Sutton Coldfield Steering Group is a council working group and not a council committee established under the Constitution’. So I think you are a group.

    Incidentally I can’t see any reason why a councillor for Moseley (Claire Spencer) should be helping to decide SC Town Council matters and her attendance is not mandated by the Report above. Again see para 2.5. Something you could challenge perhaps?

    Thanks for the offer of a private chat. I admire your sense of humour.

    • Paul Long says:

      Hi Richard – it’s good to have a sensible debate. Not everyone agrees on everything. I can see that there are arguments for holding the meeting in public and I can also see the other arguments against.

      I’m not sure of the reasons for including a councillor outside of Sutton, apart from the fact that it gives more cross-party representation which can’t be achieved in Sutton. We also suspect that the model used for Sutton may be replicated elsewhere – there’s a rumour that Castle Vale would like to form a parish or town council. Another ‘councillor’ was mandated in the report but no specific name was given. I expected it was going to be Cllr Ward who was on the cross-party working group for the Lib Dems, but my hypothesis failed.

      I see what you are saying about the ‘group’ business. All I can do is report back on what we were told at the last meeting.

      I see the irony of my comment about a private chat – but I’d rather have a proper conversation about it than text based comments.

      Out of interest, what is your ‘take’ on the services and assets we should be looking to take over and any ideas for a vision for Sutton Coldfield? The Sutton Coldfield Independent Residents’ Group (definitely a group and FKA the referendum group) are interested in people joining us, especially if they are interested in standing as independent town councillors as we’d like to encourage this if possible.

  5. Richard says:

    Paul, I think the question in your final paragraph is very premature.

    It is impossible to answer your question about the transfer of services and their related assets without seeing a ‘best value’ analysis – see the Ballot FAQ.

    In any event, I think you should move extremely slowly – and certainly do nothing to commit the future Town Council. Don’t forget that you are only appointees.

  6. albert says:

    Hi Paul
    I believe you are mistakenly thinking you are under attack. This is not the case, we all have the greatest admiration and respect for your perseverance and resolve in your dealings with SCTC and SCPC. You know my thoughts which I have had from the onset. These are that you can not trust BCC or Sutton Conservative councillors , this was confirmed when both of these groups actively campaigned against the setting up of an independent Sutton town council.
    Imagine my pleasure when after the election ballot when the residents voted for a somewhat limited devolvement. I had always been concerned that BCC would try to hijack the operation but could not see how it would happen, it has now become clear. BCC are in control of setting up the Parish council and as such can determine all aspects of its operations. Their first control was to side-line all the founding members of SCTC by appointing seven anti independence conservatives and others groups which we had never heard of to the steering committee. The net result was the eventual voting structure could to be 17/3 against , even an anti independence conservative chair was chosen. When I and other Sutton residents voted for SCTC we did not vote for ” much of the same” i.e An ineffective/duplicated District Council run by the Conservatives and a bureaucratic Labour BCC we mistakenly thought that what we would get is a non-political organisation whose only concerns were for the residents of Sutton Coldfield. I find it quite significant that of the 14 existing steering committee members , you are the only one on here prepared to make your case. Their silence is deafening.

  7. Paul Long says:

    Albert – thanks for your comments – I understand completely where you are coming from. We too were disappointed that we only got 3 seats on the steering group, but we also have to be grateful that we got any. You’re also right that nobody else is commenting on here. There will be a few reasons for this. Firstly not everybody reads Sutton Coldfield Local. Secondly, not everybody sticks their neck out like I do to make comment – which is rather ironic considering Najm accused me of keeping a low profile – clearly he’s not read my letters in the Observer! I don’t think Ken Rushton could be accused of keeping a low profile either.

    Richard – we will not be committing to anything without full cost-benefit analysis – this is something that I asked for in the first meeting. I’ve also pointed out on several occasions (and everyone is unanimously in agreement with me) that we need to take things steadily. We will be looking at plans for 1 year, 3 years, 5 years etc. We will be looking towards a plan that devolves services steadily and not all at once. We will also be looking at taking on assets and services that are either breaking even or income generating. There may be instances where we look at assets or services that are currently liabilities but this would have to be in the interests of residents and on the proviso that we can turn them into smaller liabilities or income generators. The Town Hall is a big example of this where it is currently making a loss due to its inefficient running. There are several options that can be considered but we are not just looking to get everything nor are we looking to get all that we want in year one.

    The reason for asking the question though was to see what residents like yourself would like to see from the Town Council and obviously you don’t have the best-value analysis but it would still be interesting to know what ideas are out there.