York council: pantomime or democracy?

22 Jul 2013 @ 10.36 am
| Opinion
The York council chamber at Guildhall. Photograph: Allan Harris
The York council chamber at Guildhall. Photograph: Allan Harris

andy-dagorne-headshotIssues like ring road congestion and the ‘bedroom tax’ ignored, and no votes on a 1,000-signature petition? Things must change at our council meetings, argues Cllr Andy D’Agorne

Last year York celebrated 800 years of local democracy. City of York Council is custodian of this heritage as well as the built fabric that so many visitors come to experience. The sovereign meeting is full council, chaired by the current Lord Mayor presiding over the other 46 councillors and senior officers in attendance.

This meeting should be at the heart of our democratic process with key issues decided in a public arena where the electorate can witness democracy in action.

Instead it feels more like political pantomime.

As yet, despite agreement in principle we have yet to provide webcasting to open the proceedings up to wider public scrutiny. Arguments that faced MPs more than 20 years ago are only just being rehearsed in York!

Before the cameras are let in however it would make sense for us to achieve a more sensible balance in the limited use of time.

The July meeting illustrates the point well. Meetings must now finish at 10pm, three and a half hours after we started (fine) but motions now come at the end of the agenda. This meant that despite my unsuccessful attempt to move the vote more quickly on the previous item, the guillotine procedure was applied to all four motions and three Green amendments.

Effectively this meant that motions on congestion on the Outer Ring Road, consultation on the Local Plan, the ‘bedroom tax’ and Green Jobs were not even proposed and seconded but simply voted on without debate according to the party lines of the assembled councillors. That is not democracy!

A petition of more than a 1,000 signatures generates a half hour debate, yet no provision for a vote on the issue! This meant time was wasted arguing whether or not to “suspend standing orders” to allow for a vote to conclude the discussion on daytime closure of Lendal Bridge to private vehicles.

So the 1,200 signatories were spared the opportunity to watch online and their representatives denied a vote on the issue.

Recent innovation in the form of electronic voting is still viewed with some suspicion. At the budget council meeting this year we had to use a show of hands to be sure it was working properly. The new Lord Mayor initially suggested we continue this practice, but as the meeting went on we just used the buttons, with the numbers for and against appearing on screens.

One would expect with webcasting that the system would include a display of councillors’ names together with ticks or crosses to show us and the public how each councillor voted on an item.

We need more time discipline, less time allowed for cabinet members to speak in support of a published written paper and more time reserved for individuals or opposition members to challenge, question and debate.

Motions could be less restricted, then prioritised by a secret ballot of all councillors rather than rationed according to the political make up of the council. Conduct whilst inevitably adversarial should retain respect for the individual and the opposite point of view.

Other councils manage it, after 800 years surely we can do better!

  • Footnote: York council group leaders met after this article was published to discuss ways to improve matters. Proposals will be coming forward by September on changes to the procedure in full council
  • Councillor Andy D’Agorne is leader of the Green Group on City of York Council