Fringe Box



The Dragon Says: When Will Our Councillors “Walk the Walk” On Openness?

Published on: 22 Mar, 2024
Updated on: 23 Mar, 2024

The sale of a strip of land to those wishing to develop a controversial green belt site should not have been delegated to a council officer, however capable.

See also: Council Director’s Decision on Sale of ‘Ransom Strip’ Called in by Councillors

Strong views exist about the development of the sensitive Blackwell Farm site and these should have been allowed to be expressed. That could only have been done if the decision was taken at a public meeting with responsibility for that decision clearly and openly taken by the council leadership.

This particular property sale of a piece of land the council owned on all our behalf is one of the most consequential in recent times. It ranks in importance alongside the sale of GBC-owned land necessary to allow the North Street development.

But that decision, while perhaps not made as public as it should have been, was at least referred to a series of public Executive meetings.

Extracts from a GBC Executive meeting paper from 2021 relating to the sale of GBC-owned North Street development land.

On Tuesday (March 19) at the Overview & Scrutiny Committee meeting, despite a reminder that the committee was supposed to work in a non-partisan way, it followed the normal pattern at GBC and voted on party lines, very narrowly, not to refer the council director’s decision to sell the ransom strip for an undisclosed amount back to the relevant director and allow the sale to proceed.

The committee had six Lib Dems who voted as a block and six opposition members, two of whom had called the director’s decision in. All the opposition members voted against allowing it to proceed without referral back, except one. In a stance that surprised some of the councillors, James Walsh (Lab, Bellfields & Stoke), chair of the committee, voted with the Lib Dems.

As one dissenting councillor said after the meeting in the council chamber at Millmead, “It is strange there was a press release about the sale of Castle Street properties but no equivalent announcement for the Blackwell ransom strip.”

GBC issued a press release to publicise the sale by auction of properties in Quarry and Castle Street. Click here to link to article.

The long debate during the meeting about compliance with GBC procedures missed the point. If the council really means to be open and accountable as it keeps, rather pathetically, telling us it does, it needs to stop keeping information the public are entitled to know under such close wraps.

To use the vernacular, it need to “walk the walk” not just “talk the talk”.

The claim, made by a council officer in the debate, that because, with just five days notice, a statutory advert had been placed in the Surrey Advertiser, and information published on the GBC website, the public had been properly informed was particularly risible.

Surrey Advertiser circulation as reported February 2023

The total circulation of the Surrey Advertiser is now below 3,000. Not just the Guildford edition, if that still exists, but the total. One could publish state secrets in their statutory advertisement column, as one could within GBC’s website, and they would probably remain perfectly secure.

Not that the Surrey Ad is at fault. It doesn’t make the law. No, it is the consequence of a ridiculous, anachronistic and misguided government decision that allows printed media to retain its monopoly on “statutory” advertisements such as planning applications.

Sadly, to compound the problem, the instinct at GBC to keep things under wraps, take decisions behind closed-doors continues. It has happened under all administrations and all parties in power have been complicit to varying degrees. More recently the problem has been exacerbated by this administration’s preference to leave things to overstretched council officers.

We need them to change their ways. Confidentiality and delegation should not be used to avoid public debate or embarrassment, it should be sparingly when absolutely necessary.

See also: Ransom Strip Decision Should Not Have Been Attempted By a Council Officer

Next time a council candidate asks for your vote ask them where they stand on openness. Take note of any commitments they make and complain to them if they default.

What we have is not true democracy and it is certainly not “openness” as Lord Nolan intended when he wrote his principles in 1995.

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Responses to The Dragon Says: When Will Our Councillors “Walk the Walk” On Openness?

  1. Anthony Mallard Reply

    March 23, 2024 at 10:31 am

    I very much regret that whilst I deprecate the culture of secrecy and lack of transparency prevalent in Guildford Borough Council. Something that The Dragon has frequently highlighted. I cannot see this particular leopard changing its spots any time soon. A sad indictment on its willingness to conform to the Nolan Principals and the traditionally accepted definition of democracy.

    However, there are elections on the horizon, PCC and general. Voters may wish to express their displeasure to any potential candidates or canvassers that may call at their homes and later through the ballot box.

    Should they not do so, those who succeed in being elected may well assume that voters are content with the current culture of opacity and obfuscation currently prevalent.

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