Sounding Off … an occasional commentary
JONATHAN WILLS, in a contribution entitled The Secret Life of Shetland Islands Council (aged 40½), bemoans the meeting structure of the local authority in its present form.
It appears that the main measure of whether councillors are attending to their duties these days is how many meetings they attend.
There are many official council meetings and many more that, in my opinion, ought to be official but are not.
These are the infamous “seminars”, “forums” and “workshops”. They are held in council premises, staffed by council officials and, given that all councillors are invited to attend them, are council meetings in all but name.
Like the “pre-meetings” which immediately precede almost all meetings of the SIC and its committees, no public notice is given, the public and the news media are not admitted, no minutes are kept and no record of the meetings published.
When “Slim Jim” Irvine was a councillor he used to rage about this sort of thing. The longer I serve in the town hall the more I agree with him.
It is true that no formal decisions are or can be taken at these secret sessions but what in fact happens is that a consensus is reached and when the business in question does come to a public, official meeting, most of the members sit silently and take little part in questions or debate, because they’ve heard it all before, in private.
As any local journalist will tell you, that is why council meetings these days are so utterly, deadly boring. It is also why those in charge greatly fear the public reaction if these displays of procedural narcolepsy were ever to be broadcast live on the interwebby thing.
This is not democracy as I was brought up to understand it, but rather a carefully managed and massaged charade where senior officials wield immense power through their control of information (and their stultifying use of bureaucratic jargon, which is used to grind down even the most jagged-edged councillors and reduce them to somnolent despair).
No doubt some members do find this process soothing and reassuring, and feel themselves to be part of a mighty and omniscient team.
Unfortunately, only retired persons or those few office-bearers on (admittedly small) full-time council allowances, can possibly afford the time to attend all of the many meetings where officials let us into their secrets (or some of them).
If you have a full-time job outside the council or, worse, are self-employed, your record of attendance is bound to be less perfect than that of the superannuated members.
The voters of Lerwick South ward knew I had other work when they twice elected me to the council.
When these other commitments allow me to attend the full council, I often find myself asking questions and debating points that most others in the room have already heard in private.
At the council meeting on 30th June, for example, I made the following contributions:
1. Complimented the Scottish Youth Parliament delegates on their presentation about youth poverty in Shetland and made a practical suggestion as to how the council might assist their campaign;
2. Suggested a correction to a minute of an earlier meeting, to make it plain that my concerns about the uncertainty surrounding the proposed closure of Mid Yell and Symbister secondary school departments related to the pupils and parents, as well as the school staff;
3. Asked how the council squared its new “risk management strategy” with the roads section’s policy that reflective bollards could not be placed at the junctions of unadopted roads and the A970 unless and until there had been an accident;
4. Asked for reassurance that the council’s investment managers really were making sure our investments were in line with United Nations principles on socially and environmentally responsible investment, and that they really did submit reports on their interventions at companies’ annual general meetings to ensure compliance with these principles;
5. Asked how investments in tobacco and alcohol companies could be reconciled with these ethical investment principles;
6. Asked detailed questions about the legal status and practical effects of the new “supplementary guidance” from the planning section on onshore wind turbines, making the point that it appeared to sterilise much of Shetland for any further community-owned developments of this kind, which appeared not to sit easily with the council’s stated policy to encourage renewable energy and the laying of a mains cable from here to the National Grid;
7. I also asked that the agenda item relating to the urgent and unavoidable repairs to the Lerwick Town Hall stained glass windows be taken in public, as there was no valid commercial reason for dealing with it in private and the secrecy would only add to the council’s embarrassment over the problem.
I had spent a lot of time preparing for the meeting, including reading over 200 pages of background papers. Given that my seasonal work commitments prevented me from attending meetings of the committees reporting to this session of the full council, I thought I had done my best to participate in its deliberations. For all the reaction I got, I might as well have stayed away.
We have now reached a stage of democratic decay where a determination to ask awkward questions and debate controversial subjects, in public and on behalf of the public, seems to be regarded as rather embarrassing, slightly impolite and probably unnecessary. If you do it in the media, the offence is even worse.
This decay has deepened since the creation last year of an informal majority group of members, determined to avoid any more school closures in case they became unpopular and got thrown out at the May 2017 elections.
This group now effectively controls the council although I do not know, and cannot be bothered to find out, whether it still meets in the Islesburgh café for Thés Pensants.
All of which leads me to suggest, as I did once again at the SIC meeting on 30th June, that the council could greatly simplify and speed up its operations, and save a lot of money, if there were just one big council meeting once a month to deal with all the committee business, rather than the swarms of committees, working groups, seminars, forums and workshops that currently litter the SIC calendar (and whose dates are constantly being changed, adding to the scheduling confusion of those who are not yet retired).
Such a meeting might well go on for a day or two and some members might have to stay overnight in town, but even with their accommodation allowances the overall cost would, or should, be lower, if only because of fewer journeys being claimed for.
We would still need elected office bearers to take care of specific areas of business (such as education, development, transport, etc.) and they would still be entitled to additional allowances to compensate them for the extra time and effort they must spend on their duties in order to make effective and useful reports to the full council.
With only 22 members, the council is of a reasonable size to function as a single committee meeting, as long as the chairman or chairwoman understands and implements correct procedure.
Decisions would be faster, staff time saved and public confidence in the organisation greatly strengthened. But I grow tired of suggesting this to a row of blank faces.
If there were valid reasons (other than the occasional embarrassment of the inefficient or incompetent) for the full council to discuss an item of business in private, then the convener could make a resolution to that effect and put it to the vote, as he can do already.
With no seminars – and only those statutory sub-committees like planning that we cannot avoid having – the questions and debates could take place in public again, as they were intended to do when Parliament passed the Local Government (Scotland) Act.
This will never happen, I fear, because it threatens too many entrenched interests. But in the meantime they could at least have the decency to admit that the subject matter of most seminars and other private meetings can and should be discussed in public.