Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Time to end this Vicar of Dibley farce

Many of you will remember the silly parish council meetings in The Vicar of Dibley. That was a sitcom, but there was nothing funny about last week's Barnet Council Hendon Residents' Forum, which resembled nothing so much as one of those parish council meetings. As the Hendon Times has reported, I was at the meeting, and said precisely what I thought about how it was run. The forty local people who had attended were there to raise issues that matter to them - credit to them for turning out. But the format of the meeting meant that precious little was achieved. Councillors and officers sit behind a table while we all plough through the questions that have been submitted in advance, with people shouting each other down, spurious points of order, loud music seeping in from next door - not in any way businesslike. You can't blame most residents for not coming to a meeting like this one.

At Westminster City Council's residents' forums, hundreds of people attend, and there are microphones, so we can all hear. Before the meeting, there are surgeries at which people can talk privately to officers from a range of departments. Then, the meeting proper breaks into small groups, each of which adopts a particular topic that has been advertised in advance. The evening is split up so that people can rotate between two or three small groups (each on a different topic) in the space of one meeting. Each group will be chaired by a volunteer facilitator, who will report back at the end of evening to the full meeting, so that everyone can hear what was discussed by each group. Then, at the end, there are open questions from the floor (which don't have to be submitted in advance!) about anything that anyone wants to raise. All of the area's local councillors attend and join in.

I used to attend these forums when I worked for Thames Water. Local people would be told beforehand that one of the small groups would be discussing Thames Water's planned works in the local area. We'd have a proper discussion about it with a facilitator, so that I could explain what the company would be doing, people could ask questions and points could be noted - and yes, people could sometimes complain vigorously about things they didn't like! It was professional, dignified and constructive, often leading to problems actually being solved. There were even light refreshments, acknowledging the fact that most people will be coming to these meetings from work and will not have eaten dinner. And, yes, I KNOW that people will now say that this would cost money and that the council taxpayer would pay. But the council taxpayer's already paying for the current awful meetings, so if we're going to do this at all, can we please do it properly? There is hope - two bright young people came up to me at the end and said that they are working for Barnet Council on finding ways to improve the meetings, and they took a note of my views on this. So perhaps something will change. But it won't be a moment too soon!

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