Day 1 in Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council: already a leap forward in transparency #lccclive

Lisburn Castlereagh council chamberSomething wasn’t quite right when I sat down in the council chamber in Lagan Valley Island Centre this morning. In fact, plural: somethings plural weren’t right.

The first change was that the laminated cards saying no mobile phones or electronic equipment were no longer sitting on top of every chair in the public gallery. It was okay to take photographs before the council session began but strictly no photos, videos or audio recording once the council was in session. But there was no problem with using social media (minus live photography) to report on proceedings.

The second change was the configuration of the circular council chamber. The ‘top table’ occupied by the Mayor, deputy, chief executive and council officers has been rotated by about 60 degrees anticlockwise. And an inner arc of seating has been added into the centre to accommodate the extra councillors in the expanded merged council. The DUP have also moved seats, so familiar faces are sitting in the ‘wrong’ place.

Lisburn Castlereagh FlagAs the photo shows, if you sit in the right seat, you get a great reflection of the Union flag fluttering behind you outside the council chamber. [Ed – isn’t there an app for that?!]

But probably the biggest change is the tone and mood. Granted, it was the opening session and there were many guests, relatives and friends of councillors present. But there was no booing when Alliance councillors spoke. Has allowing ratepayers and journalists to listen back to council meetings online forever stopped the days of schoolboy behaviour?

Relations between Castlereagh and Lisburn were fraught 4 or 5 years ago in the days of the voluntary transition committee. Instead, today there was bonhomie, gracious words and a complete lack of snarky comments and point-scoring.

One councillor explained that the problem had been disruptive councillors who were not going to be part of the transitioned council, and that once the shadow council had been elected last May, working relationships vastly improved and everyone pulled together. Lisburn & Castlereagh is also a predominantly unionist council, with non-unionist parties in the no Sinn Féin councillors elected.

When the new Belfast Lord Mayor Arder Carson was still on Lisburn council in 2013 he commented: “Lisburn is still firmly stuck in the dark ages as a fiefdom for the DUP and bigotry” and later added “Lisburn is a unionist council for unionist people and a city of political discrimination”.

Lisburn Castlereagh robes in a heapIt’s just possible that Lisburn & Castlereagh are on the turn and better relations will continue. In an age of shrinking budgets and a heavier responsibility for councillors to direct spending wisely, cool heads and a collegiate approach would be welcomed.

The DUP’s Alderman Tinsley was praised by every party for his leadership during the transition, including by Alliance’s Geraldine Rice who quipped that she was “coming from the other side” … from Castlereagh! Alliance’s Stephen Martin, deputy presiding officer, was thanked too.

By the end of day one, Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council had the new website fully up and running, had listed the schedule of full council and committee meetings until July online (with times) and coped with a couple of bloggers turning up at the inaugural council meeting and one of the evening committee meetings (for which I’d been emailed the agenda) to test out the transparency and ability to report. It was great to see Jason Murdock from Off The Record in the building. I’ve started to tag tweets from LCCC events with the #lccclive hashtag to make them easy to find. Feel free to join in if you’re down at the council.

Improvements will no doubt be made over the coming weeks and I hope that it’ll become much easier for any member of the public to find out about upcoming meetings, see the agenda in advance, and be given access to a copy of the agenda and associated reports when they attend meetings (as the Local Government Act 2014 specifies).

But already it feels like a huge leap forward from the previous councils in Lisburn and Castlereagh. Long may it continue to improve.

Lisburn & Castlereagh DEAs look like a hen?Lastly, is it just me or do the new Lisburn & Castlereagh Council DEAs look like a hen? [Ed – With Castlereagh as the head and eggs dropping out of Downshire West … yeah!]

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Some more detail …

The presiding officer Alderman James Tinsley chaired the first section of the meeting and his opening comments reminded councillors that the meeting “was being recorded as of legislation”!

While the audio from this morning is already online, Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council have disabled embedding so I can’t add the audio player directly into this page. So you’ll have to browse to their SoundCloud page in order to listen to it. Perhaps in time, council will see a benefit to their first hand record of events sitting alongside reports of business.

Lisburn Castlereagh red robesThe councillors, mostly dressed in their red robes, stood up for the prayer from the incoming mayor’s chaplain. The chair was handed over to the incoming Mayor Thomas Beckett. The city’s first citizen recalled BBC’s Mervyn Jess telling him at May 2014’s count that he was the first new councillor to be elected across Northern Ireland to the eleven super-councils. His chosen charity for the year is the Mary Peter’s Trust, from which freeman of the city, sportswoman, and now fellow DUP councillor, Janet Grey received a small grant at the start of her career. The UUP’s Councillor Alex Redpath was given the deputy mayor’s chain of office and noted that Lisburn & Castlereagh was probably the only council across the UK where both mayor and deputy mayor support Wolverhampton Wanderers …

And in less than an hour the inaugural session was over, the councillors went outside to plant trees and hoist the LCCC flag, and went for lunch.

It was back to business this evening with two committee meetings: Environmental Services at 5.30pm (which covered issues as varied as animal welfare, rivers, bees, dog fouling refuse collection and signage) and the Development Committee at 7pm.

The first hour of Development Committee was taken up with a Belfast Regional Tourism Partnership presentation by a representative from Visit Belfast. On top of the normal £20k of funding to promote Lisburn attractions on the capital city’s tourism portal, an additional £10k was being sough to develop a City Plus portal that would drive visitors beyond the boundaries of Belfast and into Lisburn, Castlereagh, North Down and even Antrim.

Apparently “we’ve got the wrong type of people in our hotels” and need fewer domestic tourists and more higher-spenders who travel long distances or come on business. The World Police & Fire Games hit a “sweet spot” with visitors staying ten days and spending more than those at the Giro or MTV Awards.

Alderman Dillon asked a killer questions to assess the value for money of the proposed spending. As well as querying the impact of “the bottom falling out of the Euro” and humorously wondering if the council could pay Visit Belfast in Euros, he asked:

Of the 63 cruise ships that come into Belfast, how many passengers visit Lisburn?

Developments expected from Historic Royal Palaces seem key to encouraging cruise ship passengers to travel to Hillsborough Castle. Visit Belfast are also negotiating to put their reps onboard cruise ships when they leave Dublin in order to run evening lectures promoting destinations in Belfast and beyond the next day. There was reluctance to spend more money without targeted outcomes. Was their own marketing better than Visit Belfast? What about “digital tourists” looking up websites and likely to navigate to Visit Belfast before Lisburn & Castlereagh?

Finally, a wise intervention from Councillor Jenny Palmer speedily brought the hour-long discussion to a close, convincing the committee of councillors towards a consensus to spend the money with conditions attached.

Other piece of business flowed faster, though it was interesting to note that it was mostly the more experience councillors who were piping up to question spending.

When Councillor Tim Mitchell asked for a progress report on the public realm works, the chair swiftly moved the meeting “in committee” and I had to leave the room. It’s only the first day of the new council, but in future it would be preferable if the legislation was followed and exclusion was “by resolution” [Section 42(4)] and “state the description, in terms of Schedule 6, of the exempt information giving rise to the exclusion of the public” [Section 42(5)].

If good habits aren’t picked up quickly the public and press may suspect that embarrassing delays to the troublesome and overrunning Bow Street improvements are being discussed in private rather than anything that matches the Schedule 6 exemptions!

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