However, compared to local government, Westminster’s doing great. MPs’ every move is monitored by a gossip hungry press, and NGO’s pour over every policy. Every word uttered in the debating chamber is written down and made publicly available in Hansard, and anyone with a digibox can watch BBC Parliament live.
When it comes to local government though, barely anyone has a clue what’s going on. And we won’t lie, the Mule finds it hard to keep up with events at the Town Hall. The MEN seems keener on cats up trees and the X Factor than holding power to account. The ‘meeting minutes’ buried on the council’s website reveal little of how decisions are made. Councillors won’t even respond to our concerned emails about the ID cards trial.
But there’s always ‘The Leader’s Blog’, where Richard Leese throws down information morsels from the high table. He earnestly reassures us that local councillors aren’t like that Westminster lot, but laments how “us politicians in local government tend to get tarred with the same brush”. He recently described himself as a “great supporter of openness and transparency”, and declares he’s “not giving away secrets” when he tells us the details of council policy, since meetings are open to the public.
Open to the public, eh? Maybe finding out for ourselves what’s really going on requires going to meetings. Hearing that the executive were meeting on 11 March, Mule reporters head to the Town Hall. “Where’s the executive meeting?”, we ask the lady on reception. “Erm, I don’t think that’s open to the public” she says, suspiciously. “Oh yes it is”, we reply. “Oh no it isn’t!”
Persistence gets us to the events desk on the next floor, but they’re saying the same thing, and with even more smug satisfaction. One passing member of staff even stops to say “you can’t go in!”. We eventually persuade the events desk to ‘call somebody’ about it. The result? We can go in! Mule – 1, Officialdom – 0. However, the meeting’s finished now. We’re back at all square.
We decide to try again for the council AGM in May. To make sure, we decide to make sure in advance that we can definitely attend. On the council website section listing meetings, nowhere is it mentioned that the meetings are open to the public. Not anywhere. There is no contact email or number provided to make enquiries about the meetings, so we end up ringing the main switchboard. We’re passed from department to department, eventually having to give up and start the process again. Eventually we reach ‘members services’. They email us back a few hours later to confirm that we can attend.
It’s clear when we arrive that the council’s approach to including the public in meetings is working. In a viewing gallery that holds over 100 people, there are only two other members of the public – at the AGM!
As for the meeting itself, it seems that the council’s strategy is to bore anyone who makes it this far into vowing never to return. A new Lord Mayor (Alison Firth) is being appointed, which means long winded speeches from the leader of the Labour Party and the Lib Dem opposition praising the incumbent (Mavis Smitheman) and the newcomer, followed by prayers (the recession must be worse than expected). Then, three quarters of an hour later, we get down to business.
Time for politics, time for debate! Not so, the minutes for previous meetings are approved with tired groans from the dozens of councillors below. And not one submits a single question to the executive.
We persevere. Fingers crossed for the Executive meeting. This time we go up to the front desk with a copy of the agenda and point to the room number on it. Success – first time and no questions asked! We’re told to go up the lift to the third floor and it’ll be just on the left. We’re a little puzzled when we get in the lift. Buttons to floors one, two, four…huh? Impressive stuff, they’re apparently holding ‘open’ meetings in a non-existent part of the building!
After asking two more confused people we find the room (in a different wing of the building) and creep in late. There are no other members of the public. We don’t blame them. It’s hard to stay awake. This seems to be a problem for a few councillors too.
But on with the politics. Most of the agenda is passed with no debate. One person summarises the issue in council jargon. Then there’s a bit of self-congratulation about what great work the councillors have done, how successful academies and PFI have been…it carries on a bit. Someone might ask a question if we’re lucky. The Leader then asks if the item can be approved. Some silent nodding (I think in approval but maybe it was a heavy one the night before) and we move on.
Due to our lateness we missed the ‘declaration of interests’ at the start. Items 13 and 15 are about the proposed ‘Co-operative Complex’, a new commercial centre in the city. There’s a mass exodus. It seems about half of the thirty or so people have an interest in this project. So many the meeting only has just enough to carry on!
Then it all gets a bit exciting. A couple of Lib Dems challenge The Leader. Maybe Manchester doesn’t need a new commercial sector during a recession? Perhaps social housing should be a priority given the 21,000 on the waiting list? They’re disputing his figures. “Don’t interrupt me!” is the response, “If you want to speak, put your hand up”. Yes, he used to be a school teacher. But another does the same, eek! “You just don’t learn do you? The next time you interrupt me you’re out”. End of discussion. No wonder Sir Richard has the nickname ‘Stalin’ at the council!
That’s enough drama for one meeting. Item 20 is a bit odd though. It just says “Exclusion of the public” on the agenda. We’re not allowed to stay for that – it’s not in the ‘public interest’. If we wanted to appeal, we had to do so 48 hours earlier, not that we even know what it was about. Perhaps it was about inclusivity and openness? There was nothing in the minutes. When The Leader had his little tantrum, he said “We’re not like the House of Commons here”. Too right Sir Richard, there’s nobody watching.