Fringe Box



Opinion: Councillor Votes Must Be A Matter of Public Record

Published on: 29 Mar, 2016
Updated on: 31 Mar, 2016

By Martin Giles

Council votes are normally taken by a show of hands, which means that the way individual councillors vote is normally not known or recorded, but things might be changing. Martin Giles considers a scenario that illustrates the current shortcoming..

Who is voting for what?

Who is voting for what?

There is a proposal for houses to be built very near you on a derelict brownfield site and you feel strongly that it should proceed.

You’re well aware of Guildford’s housing shortage, so more houses will be a good thing and, to be honest, the derelict site is probably depressing the value of your home. Your neighbours feel the same way.

You have read that the council’s policy might be to favour green field development but you can’t believe it and there seems to be no evidence, just vague theories that brownfield will be kept for commercial developments which will be more lucrative to the council through business rates.

The council certainly needs every penny it can get as central government, desperate to tackle the deficit, continues its squeeze.

Opinion Logo 2You look up the names of your local councillors and realise that you probably voted for two of them who belong to the party you normally support. You write to all three requesting their support.

They all reply politely; one explains he is not on the Planning Committee but is sympathetic, the other two are on the committee and both are careful not to commit themselves.

So with all this in the background, you decide to watch, for the first time, the council meeting at which the decision will be made via Guildford Borough Council’s web casting service.

You watch the debate, it turns out to be a close run thing. Some councillors seem to be against the proposal because the density of the proposed redevelopment is too low.

You wait with anticipation for the vote, hoping it will go your way. You are particularly keen to see how your ward councillors vote. You are optimistic that they will support your view and you will certainly bear in mind the way they vote at the next election.

At last the vote is taken. It is obviously very close. The council officer on the podium has to ask the councillors several times to keep their hands firmly in the air as he counts them.

You look to see your ward councillors but you are not sure if you will recognise them from the small photos on the council website. Frustratingly, you can’t see all the councillors in shot on the webcast.

The council officer announces the result of the count – the proposal is refused by a single vote. How did your ward councillor’s votes affect the result? You can’t tell – and already the committee are discussing the next application.

The following day you call the council to enquire about how your ward councillor’s voted but you are told that, as it was not a recorded vote, they are unable to help.

You write to your two ward councillors who took part in the vote they both say that they voted in favour of the application but then a couple of days later you bump into a neighbour who went to meeting. She was certain that one of your ward councillors voted to refuse.

Who are you to believe?

A far fetched scenario? Perhaps, but how our councillors vote is not normally recorded, unless councillors themselves request it should be.

Why is this? We can see which way all MPs vote on every division in the House of Commons so why not our councillors in our local council chamber? They are representing us, surely we have every right to know.

The good news is that soon it might be possible. The Guildford Dragon has learned that the newly refurbished council chamber is equipped, as it was before the refurbishment, with a system that allows electronic voting.

The old system was not used as as it was not sufficiently transparent: it did not show how individual councillors voted.  The chairman would only know the total number of votes cast in favour and against.

The new system does, it is understood, provide the detail needed but council officers are still familiarising themselves with its basic operation. A date has not yet been set for its introduction but it will not be until councillors, and officers, are properly trained and feel comfortable using the system. Fair enough but let’s hope it is not too long.

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Responses to Opinion: Councillor Votes Must Be A Matter of Public Record

  1. David Burnett Reply

    March 30, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    I share the frustration, as I have found it difficult to see how councillours have voted at the two planning meetings I have attended recently. The sooner GBC makes recorded votes compulsory for planning meetings, and publishes the records, the better.

  2. Gina Redpath Reply

    March 30, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    I am definitely behind this too.

  3. Gordon Bridger Reply

    March 30, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    In actual fact as recently confirmed, there is nothing to prevent councillors committing themselves prior to a planning decision. If they are aware of planning policies and planning guidelines they can do so if they wish.

    It might be more sensible to wait and see the pros and cons at the Planning Committee – but as Planning England has said councillors can make comments prior to the committee meeting – so long as at the Planning Meeting itself reasons for refusal or approval are based on policies and planning guidelines.

  4. Colin Cross Reply

    April 7, 2016 at 9:48 am

    I requested a recorded vote for last night’s planning meeting to debate the Wisley site.

    I was told by the head of GBC’s Democratic Services that it was not possible as that
    process was only applicable to the main council meetings and not the Planning Committee.

    There are 23 planning committee members at GBC, one for each ward, and never more than one, but they all can be subbed.

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