I am sometimes asked what Liberal Democrats stand for. We don’t get the media coverage the other two parties receive, so you might be forgiven for not knowing the answer to this question. I could say “we oppose Brexit” and that would be true, but fundamentally I think the thing which Lib Dems most strongly advocate is personal freedom: and not just freedom to do things but also freedom from things such as poverty, ignorance and enforced conformity. That’s why we put a big emphasis on education, well funded health care and strong social service provision.
But, we also believe strongly in something else: “empowerment”. To be truly free, it’s vital that people have a meaningful say in decisions which affect their everyday lives: whether that’s where they live or in the places where they work. So we support such concepts as industrial democracy, employee reps on the boards of companies and employee share ownership but also we recognise the key role of trade unions in ensuring employee interests are well protected in the work place.
More locally, Lib Dem councillors circulate regular Focus newsletters to keep local people informed. They carry out house to house surveys to find out the views of local people. And they champion the views and interests of the people they represent at meetings in the “corridors of power” in the Town Hall.
But, how you may ask, does our Tory controlled council perform in terms of encouraging public participation in decision making. It is at best a mixed picture.
Let’s start with the positive. In 2009, I proposed a motion at a Full Council meeting saying we should broadcast council meetings on the internet. Our Tory leaders said it would be too expensive and in any case no-one would be interested. But thanks to the efforts of Cllr David Seaton and others they had a change of heart, and since July Full Council meetings and some committees have been broadcast live on the Council’s Facebook page. It actually costs around £2,000 a year but the public response has been amazing. The first meeting was watched by around 3,000 (either live or recorded) and the next (a scrutiny hearing about Rhubarb Bridge) by nearly 5,000. Full Council in particular can get a bit heated, to some extent it’s a piece of theatre but it’s also about holding decision makers to account: cabinet members who are spending tens of millions of public funds each year. So it is important, and it’s not surprising that people are interested.
I mentioned Rhubarb Bridge. Here we have an example of council decision making at its worst. Plans to remove and replace the current bridge have been talked about for years. My repeated message to council officers was: “Before you do anything consult local people on a full range of options.” What happened? They decided what they were going to do, arranged a consultation on one option only (putting in pedestrian crossings), signed a decision notice awarding the contract on the day the consultation meeting was happening... and then expressed surprise when there was a massive public outcry and a 5,000 signature petition was submitted opposing the proposals.
Things could only get better! And they did to some extent. We had a debate at Full Council in October, the decision has been put on hold and a cross party working group is being set up to examine all the options. So we have made progress. But what a shambolic example of decision making it has been.
If Lib Dems get into a position of power in the Council next year, we will do better than this. We will set up decision making area committees to make local decisions truly locally, we will introduce a more open and transparent committee system of decision making across the council, and we will open up meetings to public engagement and participation. All this can be done at very little cost, and the benefits in re-engaging local people with the democratic process could be immense.