Fringe Box



The Dragon Says: Democracy Demands Open Government

Published on: 9 Oct, 2018
Updated on: 10 Oct, 2018

On Saturday, the main editorial in The Times entitled “Secret State” highlighted a list of examples where local councils were “circumventing scrutiny and blocking newspaper coverage for no good reason”.

It concluded: “It is unconscionable that a local council can regard knowledge of its deliberations as a privilege to be dispensed to a servile local press, rather than recognising it a duty to be transparent.”

The Times is right, but there are few laurels for our own borough council to rest on despite what they print on each of their order papers and council agendas: “We will be open and accountable.” It used to include “transparent” but that was expecting too much, apparently.

Only a couple of weeks ago, when debating the rationalisation of the of the two Executive Advisory Boards into one, effectively giving backbench councillors even less say in policy-making Cllr Billington, chairing a meeting of the Corporate Governance and Standards Committee, opined that more meetings should exclude the public to enable “blue sky thinking”.

This echoed a view ridiculously put forward by Deputy Leader Matt Furniss in July during a meeting of the Society, Environment, and Council Development Executive Advisory Board.

He felt that there was an increased need for secrecy because, in the single instance cited, a presentation, which had been properly published in advance of a council meeting, had included a proposal for a move to a three-week cycle for the collection of domestic rubbish. The astute Surrey Advertiser reported the proposal because they knew readers would be concerned.

In its online Get Surrey (as it was at the time) an article was headlined: “General waste Guildford bin collections could move to three-weekly, council proposes.” The article continued: “Bin collections could change from fortnightly to every three weeks if councillors back plans proposed in a review of the service.”

Absolutely accurate. Some readers jumped to the conclusion that it was a done deal but that is not Get Surrey’s fault and hardly a reason to make rubbish collection proposals “Top Secret”.

In fact, what secrets should there be in a borough council? Some things are commercially confidential and some are staff in confidence, fair enough, but what else? It’s a borough council not the Ministry of Defence.

When representatives of the council controversially visited Dongying last year to sign the partnership deal, we were told that The Dragon’s publication of an unclassified agenda (and why on earth should it be classified?) had been referred to the police. Really? What was the council thinking? In my view, whoever was responsible was lucky not to face a charge of wasting police time.

To be debated behind closed doors tonight (October 8, 2018) in one of the worst-kept secrets at GBC, is a proposed £81 million investment in student housing at the University of Surrey. Why should that be secret? It is a major investment decision, it should be publicly debated. Any commercially confidential aspects, if there are any at this stage, could be avoided.

So often this council is following the fashion of using secrecy to avoid criticism and embarrassment. When they do, that brings disrepute on all of them and encourages voter suspicion. Worse, it undermines our local democracy which, in however a derelict state it might be in these days, some of us hold dear.

Those councillors who also value democracy and openness, who do not suffer the paranoia that seems to affect those making these silly decisions, must speak up and speak out. The council’s reputation remains at stake. As does local democracy.

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Responses to The Dragon Says: Democracy Demands Open Government

  1. Brian Creese Reply

    October 9, 2018 at 7:33 pm

    An excellent editorial. I agree with every word. Confidentiality seems to be used all the time to avoid people knowing inconvenient truths. The Dragon’s reporting of the disputes and splits in the council over recent weeks has been exemplary. Keep up the good fight.

    Brian Creese is a spokesperson for Guildford Labour.

  2. Jim Allen Reply

    October 9, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    It is often said, in respect of cameras around our streets, “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.” Might I suggest the same principle applies to our council?

    Trying to hide something is a clear and present danger to our community.

  3. Wayne Smith Reply

    October 9, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    Well said, Dragon.

    I haven’t seen the Times article but only last week, SurreyLive ran a story about the Chief Executive of Surrey Heath Council not taking minutes of some meetings so as to circumvent Freedom of Information requests!

    There’s little hope for local democracy when that sort of behaviour is accepted practice or video of a public council debate is edited to remove embarrassing or contentious moments.

    Given the opportunity, Cllr. Furniss would probably love to expunge “The Village” from record. I wonder did that one come from “blue sky thinking”?

  4. Ben Paton Reply

    October 9, 2018 at 9:57 pm

    The Dragon and The Times are dead right.

    In the inimitable words of Terry Thomas, ‘they are an absolute….

    The leadership is more than iffy. Mansbridge/Juneja and now Spooner/Furniss. But the followers who support them?

  5. Jules Cranwell Reply

    October 10, 2018 at 6:53 pm

    Spooner claimed at yesterday’s meeting that “officers and members are doing their level best to be open and transparent”.

    Who is he kidding? This is so patently at odds with the experience of the public, and other councillors.

    Cllr Rooth said, “I want to avoid that Guildford council is a secret state.” Too late my friend. It has been since this leadership took charge. Look how many FoI requests are made to obtain information that should be in the public domain.

    Even then, they obfuscate, stall, and give almost nothing away.

    As Mr Paton says, an absolute shower.

    • John Perkins Reply

      October 11, 2018 at 2:57 pm

      I’m sure Cllr. Spooner and his fellow members really are doing their level best to be open. They’re just not very good at it.

  6. John Hawthorne Reply

    October 10, 2018 at 8:39 pm

    Well said!

    Coming from Merrow I don’t think I’m even allowed to know where one of my Conservative councillors lives.

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