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The Dragon Says: Readers Have A Right To Comment, The Dragon Is Right To Scrutinise

Published on: 24 Mar, 2016
Updated on: 29 Mar, 2016

Dragon Says 470Who would be a council leader? The pay is modest, the responsibilities and time demands heavy and the likelihood of popularity, in current times at least, almost negligible.

At the moment they are caught between a government that is imposing ever increasing pressure on council budgets, without relieving them of any responsibilities, and, at the same time, demanding Local Plans with high housing targets, unpopular with many, perhaps most, voters.

Who could blame these leaders if they feel that the world is against them? And should we be surprised if they get angry with the messengers of discontent, including the local media.

Opinion Logo 2The leader of our borough council, Cllr Paul Spooner, has communicated to us on several occasions that he feels he and his policies have been unfairly treated in The Guildford Dragon NEWS. Has he got a point? Certainly his feelings were shared by his predecessor, Stephen Mansbridge.

Guildford Borough Council does many things very well. Financially, through conscientious, and often shrewd, management our borough is in a much better fiscal state than most.

Our environmental services, by and large, perform very well, getting close to achieving very challenging re-cycling targets. Our parks and gardens remain a jewel in Guildford’s crown as a town, they are often beautiful and sometimes stunning.

None of these good things, the list could continue, happen by accident but we too easily take them for granted in a world where many people, who would laugh at some of our trivial concerns, simply struggle to exist.

But, and it is a big but, it is absolutely right for those who govern us to be subject to constant scrutiny and it is an important part of the role of all self-respecting news publications. Whether it seems unfair or not, the scrutiny naturally focuses on perceived failures and controversy. And if we want things to improve it is right that it does.

In Guildford, where one party has such a dominant position in the council, scrutiny is especially important. Councillors themselves have admitted that their own scrutiny processes have not been working well: they are trying to improve them. Stephen Mansbridge, during his last full council meeting before he resigned, boasted that he had never felt challenged by a question from another councillor.

Much of Cllr Spooner’s disquiet comes from reader comments that The Dragon publishes. Many are critical of the council, it is true.

But we cannot dictate the nature of comments we receive; we do strive for balance and any comment in favour of the council is more likely to be published than one that is critical.

It is unfortunate that, time and time again, following publication of a story of a positive nature few readers reply with words of agreement.

Take for example the report we published on March 19 about the Innovate Guildford Science & Arts Festival at G Live to which 5,000 people flocked. The report was submitted by the council and the idea for the event came from the Mayor of Guildford, Cllr Nikki Nelson-Smith (Con, Christchurch), as part of her theme ‘Inspiring Guildford’s Future Innovators’. No one has yet to leave a reply of any kind in our comments box.

Likewise, a story published in February reporting that the mayor’s charity ball had raised £13,000 to help young innovators, has had no-one replying with any sort of praise, or words of encouragement.

Then there was a happy story about Guildford freeman Bill Bellerby celebrating his 99th birthday at a party in his honour, which Anne Milton MP attended. But no replies from people wishing him well.

We did, however, receive, and then reject, a negative comment to another story, sent at about the same time, that went on about Anne Milton getting a lot of publicity lately.

Through moderation we do delete comments we feel are inappropriate and tone down others to make them less personal, vitriolic and repetitive. We wish some of our readers would take more notice of our published letters and comments policy.

The moderation has to be done carefully but we won’t act as censors of genuinely held views. No doubt we will make errors of judgement, on occasion, and no doubt some will be dissatisfied.

One of our main objectives when we started The Dragon was to encourage engagement with local politics. Sadly, the level remains very poor. If you are reading this you are almost certainly in a minority of people that are already interested, but most can’t even be bothered to vote in local elections, let alone take an active interest.

As you probably know from your own experience, talking to your friends and acquaintances, many can’t even name their own councillors and remain unaware of the current political debates and issues affecting our borough. They are only likely to sit up, often too late, when a planning issue, affecting them personally, comes to their attention.

Our political culture in England is to focus much more on national and international affairs than what is happening on our own doorstep.

Important though the macro political issues are, we believe the balance is wrong. What happens at a micro level in Guildford is important too and deserves our attention.

The Dragon, independent and apolitical, is proud that it has provided a platform for more debate on local politics. It is proud that it gives more people a chance to have their say and it is proud to maintain its scrutiny of those who govern us.

It is hoped that this will lead to a greater involvement with our local politics from people across the whole political spectrum and we hope that it will encourage our local politicians to remain very mindful of properly expressed views, however inconvenient they might be.

Politicians, all politicians, are elected to represent us and if it is felt they are not doing so the criticism is likely to increase.


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Responses to The Dragon Says: Readers Have A Right To Comment, The Dragon Is Right To Scrutinise

  1. Bernard Parke Reply

    March 26, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    A senior GBC local government officer once said the best you can expect from the public is, no comment. He was a professional who had little choice but to follow his chosen vocation.

    However, anyone seeking election as a councillor has a choice, they do not have to put themselves in the firing line.

    One is reminded of the comment made by the American President, Harry Truman: “If you can not stand the heat get out of the kitchen.”

  2. Ben Paton Reply

    March 26, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    John Stuart Mill correctly pointed out the dangers of the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

    Often the only resource available to the minority is the ability to appeal to public opinion. When access to public opinion is monopolised by the majority and by conventional wisdom then even that resource is removed.

    Mr Spooner has a whopping majority. He does not need to take much notice of opinion outside his own party because he has the votes to deliver the policies he prefers.

    But having the votes does not make him right or relieve him of a moral responsibility to consider the minority and to follow due process. The size of the Conservative majority has as much, if not more, to do with the rise of the Scottish National Party and the effect this had on the General Election as it has to do with any of Mr Spooner’s policies.

    The electorate has not given him a mandate to ride roughshod over local opinion, to restrict access to information or to stifle debate.

  3. John Cooke Reply

    March 26, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    I’m not a Guildford resident but I work in the borough and, living in Woking, what happens in Guildford is important to me.

    I think The Dragon does an excellent job covering local stories and, perhaps more importantly, uncovering and reporting some of the more surprising aspects of local politics.

    Readers’ contributions and comments tend to be intelligent and well thought out, a huge difference from those on other ‘on-line’ local papers. Guildford councillors would do well to take notice of the views of the electorate.

    Please continue as normal.

  4. Stuart Barnes Reply

    March 27, 2016 at 10:13 am

    I think that it is a pity that local politics all over England (I am not able to comment on other parts of GB) are controlled by the same parties as those in Westminster.

    When I was young (a long time ago!) I seem to remember local parties called things like “Ratepayers”. If local parties follow the lines of their big brothers then they are not likely to be popular. As an example the dispute over the green belt comes to mind.

    We need local politics to be more local, in my opinion.

  5. Sue Warner Reply

    March 27, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    I’m not a highly politically motivated person but as an incomer to this area, I found a great class divide and I feel that my opinion, because I am not part of the monied section of Surrey society, is ignored.

    It appears to me that councillors have their own agenda and are not particularly bothered about the general populous.

    For example: I was quite disgusted, when voting in a hall next door to the flats where I lived, when a local councillor asked where my address was – at the time they had only been built 15 years but surely he should have known the area he was campaigning for?

    Fortunately I wasn’t voting for him anyway.

  6. Stephen Mansbridge Reply

    March 27, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    I think that The Dragon believes that it has more reach than it does. I note the softened comments from when I stepped down from being leader, where it could barely acknowledge any success, yet the current Corporate Plan lists sixty or more achievements from that time.

    The Conservative party won more seats at the last election than before because I focussed effort on North Guildford, an area which has been largely ignored and has been under invested in.

    Mr Paton’s comments about the influence of the Scottish vote are extraordinary, are incorrect and his cynicism comes from his own loss at a by-election by a country mile.

    Sue Warner makes the real point, local politics is about what is best for people and it is best served by those who know people and who are prepared to represent in a fervent, mature and balanced way.

  7. John Robson Reply

    March 28, 2016 at 9:36 am

    If The Dragon has little reach there should be nothing to worry about.

    Last time I checked it was a free country. Politicians should have nothing to fear from public scrutiny and it goes with the territory. If they fear scrutiny they shouldn’t be seeking office.

    Problem with Guildford is that it has been a one party “state” for too long. In any given scenario the lack of a credible alternative is unhealthy, that’s the only reason they found themselves back in No.10 and beyond.

    It’s apparent to me the Conservatives believe that once they’ve received the tick on the ballot form they are beyond reproach from the general public. They believe it’s their “trajectory” or no trajectory, you can see that as soon as you step into the council chamber and dare to express an alternative opinion.

    In the last 12 months or so The Dragon has done a fine job in holding Guildford Borough Council to account, I hope they continue to do so.

  8. Gordon Bridger Reply

    March 30, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    We are extremely fortunate in having such a highly professional e publication in Guildford as The Dragon. I doubt whether there is any other of such quality in the country.

    I hope it is sustainable. One wonders whether there would not be some way, via a trust perhaps, to ensure its continuance?

    I think it is a pity that local politics in Britain is based mainly on national political parties. The real differences are between those in favour of development and those against it.

    Central Government, the financially most centralised in Europe, according to this week’s Economist, lays down a dictats on increases of council expenditure which one would expect of a Soviet system.

    The percentage increase allowed in council tax is now some four per cent. This means that in Guildford we are not allowed much more than a £6 increase per year, on the average tax. We are, according to surveys, the best off community in Britain (London apart) and we are not allowed to spend more than £6. What a way to run a country.

    I am rambling – great job chaps keep it up – your local history, nature and other columns are also great.

    Thank you and other readers for your kind and encouraging comments. Ed

  9. Jules Cranwell Reply

    March 30, 2016 at 9:10 pm

    Given the risible lack of openness and transparency from GBC, we need The Dragon to shine a light into the darker corners of local government.

    Long may it keep it up.

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