How transparent will the new councils be? The story of Belfast and Lisburn & Castlereagh …

LCCC schedule of meetingsThe eleven new councils move from shadow status to the real thing on 1 April. The long-debated Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 sets up the framework on which the new councils work.

A new era of openness and transparency has been promised … well, a new era that is more open and more transparent has been promised, although it would be difficult to characterise the new councils as being councils designed for modernity

In this post I’m using Belfast City Council (usually an exemplar in terms of transparency) and Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council (the amalgamation of two more opaque councils) as examples. Let me know in the comments underneath whether your new council is better or worse.

Section 42(6) of the requires public notice of a council meeting (time and place) to be posted in the offices of the council fives days before the meeting (or at the time if it is convened at shorter notice). Section 43(1) requires that the agenda and copies of reports (other than those likely to be dealt with in closed session) be open to inspection at the offices of the council. [Perhaps this only applies from the 1 April? But it’s hardly within the spirit for it not to apply to the first meetings in early April.]

The Assembly’s deliberations and successful amendments did not extend to requiring that this notice be placed on a council’s website!

Belfast City Council has its first meeting scheduled for 6pm and has the agenda and associated reports available on its website.

The schedule of (shadow) meetings on Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council website finishes at the end of March and have not been updated to inform the public of any meetings in April. You’ll notice that while there were dates for January to March, there were no times of the meetings so you’d have to be in the know or phone up to find out in order to attend. [Update – tonight as part of preparations for tomorrow’s LCCC council launch the website has been updated: the new Schedule of Meetings page shows two council committees meeting in April, but no meetings of council.]

LCCC new Schedule of Meetings pageNeither emailing nor walking in to the council offices to ask provided categorical answers.

Having emailed Lisburn & Castlereagh Council at the beginning of the week and not yet received the information, I stopped off at the council offices at the Lagan Valley Island Centre and walked into reception to ask for details of any council meetings tomorrow. I imagine that many council offices are in a similar state of chaos, with signage being changed and last minute planning for outgoing mayors to take down flags tonight and incoming mayors raising them in the morning.

After some phone calls and a ten minute wait, I was told about an inaugural session on Wednesday at 11am and it sounds like the councillors may meet in the chamber upstairs. There was also mention of two committee meetings on Wednesday evening at 5.30pm and 7pm (though those seemed to refer to old committees that no longer exist). There was surprise when I asked for agendas for the meetings, and while my email address details was taken, nothing has reached my inbox (though that doesn’t prove that nothing was sent). Update – Wednesday afternoon – agenda for 5.30pm Environmental Services Committee and 7pm Development Committee arrived.

Sadly in the five and a half years that I’ve been ranting online about local government transparency only marginal improvements have been made. (One victory has been that Castlereagh Borough Council eventually started to regularly publish their minutes online. First time round it took an FOI to get hold of minutes. Let’s hope Lisburn & Castlereagh combined keep it up.)

Assuming as a member of the public you find out when a meeting of the full council is being held and turn up, it will be open to the public, except for specific pieces of business when the public and press can be excluded before being readmitted and any decisions made while “in committee” noted without further discussion.

Section 42(8) says that “a council shall permit during proceedings which are open to the public the use of social media by councillors, members of the public or journalists, to the extent that its use does not disrupt proceedings”.

Belfast City Council’s standing orders 9(c) state that:

The use of mobile phones or recording devices of any kind will be strictly prohibited.

So any social media reporting will need to use a device that is not a mobile!

I can’t find Lisburn & Castlereagh’s new standing orders are not online but I expect to be tweeting – though not photographing or recording which are not permitted – at 11am tomorrow.

Section 44(1), 44(3), 45(1) and 45(6) require councils to place minutes (once approved) along with the agenda and related reports on the council website (as well as being available for inspection by the public in council offices for six years).

LCCC MinutesWhile this would not necessarily apply to the business of the Shadow Councils before 1 April, I note that while Belfast has everything online, the last minutes available on Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council’s webpage are for November or December for its shadow council and committees. (Normally minutes run a month or two behind given the need to approve committee minutes at the next full council etc.)

[Update – tonight the council website has been revamped and under the Minutes webpage while additional Planning Committee minutes have been added, the Governance & Audio committee minutes are missing.]

Section 47(1) somewhat controversially mandates that “as far as is reasonably practicable, a council must make an audio recording of so much of any meeting of the council as is open to the public and the record must be available to the public at the offices of the council [for 6 years] … and published on the council website [for 2 years]”.

While there was begrudging support for this amendment when the legislation passed through the Assembly, a majority of MLAs did not agree to extending this transparency to committee/sub-committee meetings. (Though the equipment required to get a good recording from a smaller committee meeting would fit in a lunchbox.) I note that Councillor Alex Redpath (UUP) has been pushing Lisburn & Castlereagh to extend recording to committee meetings, though the battle does not yet seem to be won.

And it all falls short of the English rules which allow the public to film and record council meetings!

Transparency and accountability should really be about having the right attitude and letting the actions follow from that. Over the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve found Belfast City Council to be very open with information. I hope that Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council surprises me by turning over a new leaf.

But the difficulty in finding out about new council meetings in Lisburn & Castlereagh in April shows (a) the chaos of merging together different councils into new bodies – and I wish stretched and tired council staff well as they transition systems, websites and processes; and (b) the fact that being motivated to meet simple legal obligations in low-maintenance, sustainable ways [Ed – you mean like leaving a folder of meetings and agendas at the front desk and listing them on the website?] and encouraging the public to engage with their local government processes still needs to be built into the new councils’ DNA.

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